Carlos Jiménez Cárdenas, along with his wife, Montserrat Ayala, founded one of the South Bay’s most striking new ventures: Vitamina Juices & Blends. “We stumbled upon SoFa Market by accident after going to a play at MACLA,” he recalls. Though Vitamina has been open less than two years, the pair have built a colorful reputation anchored by their passion for freshness—fresh fruit, fresh juices, fresh ingredients, and perhaps most importantly, fresh ideas.
“Back then, SoFA Market was mostly empty, yet we immediately saw that it’d be a great location,” says Cárdenas. “We love that the market’s owners and employees are mostly people of color. The current political discourse often focuses on immigrants as a problem, as being undesirable. But the diverse community adds so much flavor and life to San Jose—downtown in general, the SoFa district in particular.” With Vitamina, the couple are adding to that flavor and playing a role in the local economy, also.
The reception has been enormously positive, in part perhaps because downtown has never seen a concept as familiar, yet so deliberately different, as Vitamina’s. “We are venturing into a type of food that has not yet fully taken off in Silicon Valley,” Cárdenas explains. “You go to LA, New York, San Francisco, or other cities, and people are used to businesses like ours. So we are, in a way, part of the founding wave of local businesses trying to establish this concept here.”
It’s incredibly brave and forward-thinking to venture into business, especially when the concept hasn’t completely taken shape in the area in which the business will operate. It’s even more courageous to embark on something without ever having a hand in it before. While most restaurants pick a comfortable concept or expand on an existing one, Vitamina’s owners had nothing to build on, no previous training, no experience. Yet the duo has shown that passion, smarts, and drive can more than compensate for the lack of background.
“Everything has been new to us,” says Cárdenas, laughing. “Our business has been growing slowly from an idea that sprang from a conversation at our home, to our time in the farmers’ market, to having our first storefront in SoFa Market.” But while Cárdenas’ natural business acumen has proved invaluable, Vitamina’s success is not built on vision and merit alone. Paramount, also, has been the assistance of others and the support of the community. “Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone,” Cárdenas acknowledges. “It takes having a vision and having the courage and determination to see it through. Also, it is important to find support, mentors, and other people who can help you along the way. We would be lying if we said we did it all on our own. So talk about your dream, get excited, share that enthusiasm, and people will be touched and find ways to support you.”
Of course, in addition to dreaming big and going in wide-eyed, having an incredibly rich ethnic background decidedly helps. At the heart of Vitamina are palates shaped by an immensely fruitful upbringing, pun intended. Vitamina isn’t simply a juice bar—its entire core is underscored by Mexican heritage and a cuisine that is varied and complex. “Everything we do has a Mexican twist to it,” Cárdenas says with a smile. “From using cactus, lime, and chile to pitayas, amaranth, and chia—all those ingredients are integral elements of a plethora of Mexican dishes. We are innovating, and even partnered with a local vendor to offer vegan conchas, which is a type of pan dulce.”
In their native Mexico, Cárdenas and Ayala were raised surrounded by food that emphasized fresh fruit, juices, and natural ingredients. In San Jose, the couple didn’t find a wide variety of options for people wanting to eat healthy, with no natural juices readily available. “We saw an opportunity,” says Cárdenas, “and decided to jump in. It has not been easy, but the experience has been quite rewarding.” The result has been exquisite toasts, small plates, salads, and juices made without compromising ideals or ingredients.
Their juice bar blossomed into a full-fledged business, with local support that emerged organically in the process, but this outcome wasn’t guaranteed. “Fear can paralyze you and prevent you from pursuing your goals,” warns Cárdenas. “Once you get past that, it gets easier. Montserrat immigrated from Mexico a few years ago and is a psychologist by training. I’m an educator. The language barrier was a challenge, but we never ever thought we’d be doing this!”
Written by David Ma
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 9.4 “Perform”