Mexican-style grilled chicken and civil rights are joining forces in Southern California thanks to transgender restauranteur and activist Michaela Mendelsohn, who owns six Pollo Loco locations throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Since transitioning in 2005, Mendelsohn has used her entrepreneurial platform and close ties with the California Restaurant Association to raise awareness around transgender workplace discrimination, which has transgender unemployment at close to double the national average.
But more importantly, Mendelsohn is actively leading efforts to shake up the stigma around transgender employees and incentivize employment opportunities with the California Transgender Workplace Project. The initiative is the outgrowth of a longstanding collaboration between Mendelsohn and local organizations like the TransLatin@ Coalition and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which have helped Mendelsohn staff her restaurants with trans people since 2012.
Currently, up to 10% of Mendelsohn’s employees are transgender, and she goes out of her way to foster a safe work environment where they can freely express their identities and count on Pollo Loco’s protection from discrimination. For Delaney Martinez, it’s the small things that count: “I feel like it’s a supportive atmosphere,” she told Southern California Public Radio. “I’m able to have my name tag as I wish, and I just feel more comfortable,”
Mendelsohn eventually took the collaboration statewide with the help of allies in the California Restaurant Association and secured a grant from the California Workplace Development Board to cover the first 60 hours of employee wages associated with the program. Restaurants interested in participating are given a crash course in how to support trans employees’ specific needs and are connected with a workforce eager for employment.
Mendelsohn opened her first Pollo Loco back in 1988 and eventually expanded to six locations. In 2005, the restauranteur took an extended leave of absence to transition, but she didn’t grasp the magnitude of the trans community’s workplace vulnerability until several years later, when she hired her first trans employee. Now her mix of entrepreneurism and activism is a logical outgrowth of her own experience, or as she puts it: “I’m a trans owner supporting trans people.”