Jose Vallenilla isn’t your average restaurant owner. A celebrity radio host who reaches over 20,000,000 followers through his show “El Circo de la Mega” and across his social media channels, ‘Funky Joe’ is revolutionizing Puerto Rican cuisine by making ordinary food ‘extraordinary.’ Read on to learn how being diagnosed with Lymphoma Non Hodgkins set Jose on a path to entrepreneurship, why his menu is developing a celebrity following on the island, and how he is winning over diners one Impossible™ Pastel at a time.
Impossible Foods: Tell us about your journey to becoming plant-based.
Jose Vallenilla: Well, I started by marrying a vegan! When my wife Emery would cook meat for me, she looked like an astronaut because she would wear so much protective equipment -- that’s how disgusted she was. I guess love really makes you crazy because she’s been cooking for me for 40 years.
When I was diagnosed with brain cancer, I didn’t think about changing my diet because my doctors just told me to digest calories -- they never mentioned what type of food I should be eating or avoiding. Then in 2018, I got a contract to do a TV show here in Puerto Rico, and I noticed something was wrong with my brain, information just wasn’t clicking in my head. I’ve been working as a radio announcer for 40 years and that has always been very easy for me, but speaking directly to the camera became a huge challenge. Things got so bad that I had to cancel the contract.
That moment was a big reality check for me, and one of the main reasons I decided to switch to a plant-based diet. One month later, my life completely changed. I can’t say I’m 100% recovered from my cancer, but I'm definitely a lot healthier. My thinking is clearer, I feel lighter, I have more energy and I’m happier. I’ve been documenting my journey on social media (opens in a new tab)and using my story to inspire others.
IF: You’re a famous radio announcer in Puerto Rico, but you also own a successful restaurant. How did that happen?
JV: I had wanted to start a family business for a long time, and when I went vegan, I experienced such a radical change in my life that I wanted to share it with my relatives. I invited about 10 of them with me to the Eat Drink Vegan Festival(opens in a new tab) in California because I thought that being surrounded by so much delicious food would have an impact on them.
When I saw the huge lines at Monty’s Good Burger(opens in a new tab) and Slutty Vegan(opens in a new tab), something clicked for me. I’m a marketer, and I knew at that moment if I was going to open a restaurant, I had to sell what they were selling. That led me to Impossible Foods -- once I tried the Impossible™ Burger, I decided I was going to be the first to bring it to Puerto Rico.
As soon as I came back, I developed a business plan and I came up with a concept that didn’t cater to vegans because carnivores are the biggest market sector that exists. I knew if I wanted to get more people in the restaurant, I needed to create food and messaging that would appeal to everyone, so I came up with the slogan ‘EXTRAORDINARIA Comida Ordinaria’ #engañamoscarnivoros (EXTRAORDINARY Ordinary Food #wefoolcarnivores).
I love working with Impossible™ products -- we have the same mission of making plant-based food accessible for everyone. Carnivores represent the vast majority of the market and getting them to eat more meat made from plants is exciting.
Maui’s Great Impossible™ Burger and fries
IF: How are customers reacting?
JV: People LOVE our food - they go crazy over it. 90% of our customers are carnivores, so it was important to me to create food that they already like, but even better! We make everything from hamburgers and spaghetti to Puerto Rican classics like empanadillas, alcapurrias, rellenos de papas, taquitos and picadillo de carne. Our food is so popular, we even get famous urban and reggaeton artists eating here on a regular basis!
Puerto Rico is a launchpad for other Latin American countries, and I’m hoping that by creating plant-based versions of classic dishes we know and love, I can help scale this movement internationally.
IF: What inspired you to add traditional Puerto Rican dishes to the menu?
JV: A larger chain debuted an Impossible™ Burger in Puerto Rico around Christmas 2019 right when I was going to start promoting my restaurant. I went into crisis mode because I knew I couldn’t compete and was thinking about what to do next. As it turns out, Christmas is the high season for pasteles (a Puerto Rican hand pie) and one night, my brother Oscar texted me saying, 'Joe, it’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you use the Impossible™ meat in pasteles instead?’
The very next day, I became an expert in pasteles production! People loved the Impossible™ Pasteles so much that I ended up selling thousands here in Puerto Rico and in Orlando, Florida.
IF: How can plant-based menu items compete in a meat- heavy culture like Puerto Rico?
JV: The first step is to get people to try your food. After they try it and like it, they’ll be much more open to trying other plant-based options. The other hurdle is making it easy for them to see that plant-based alternatives can be just as good as their animal counterparts, but that comes down to how they are marketed. Plant-based alternatives should be next to the animal counterparts at retail and on menus, not separate, because no one is going to buy a product if it’s not ‘normal’ or accessible to them. In my mind, it’s a simple equation. I don’t need to be super creative, I just need to build the classics and make them taste incredible. I sell ordinary Puerto Rican food, it just happens to be plant-based.
The first step is to get people to try your food. After they try it and like it, then they’ll be much more open to trying other plant-based options. I sell ordinary Puerto Rican food, it just happens to be plant-based.
IF: What advice would you give to LatinX chefs / restaurant owners who are thinking about adding plant-based items to the menu?
JV: I’m fortunate to have had a very successful radio career, but my days are so different now because when I leave my show and go to my restaurant, I get to make an impact. I have fun and do a lot of good for my customers and the planet -- that gives my work purpose.
Yes, people are segmented nowadays, but that means that food needs to become more inclusive. The more we learn about meat production and what it is doing to our environment, our health, and our mentality, the more people will be inspired to make a change, and if you can create delicious food that makes them happy, that’s where things get really exciting.