Sarah Hernandez didn’t see herself going to college. The 16-year-old wanted to start a business instead, and choosing what kind of business was easy. “I knew there was one thing I was good at: making barbacoa,” she says. The now-19-year-old is the CEO of her restaurant, Sarah’s Barbacoa, which opened in San Antonio in March 2019. Her family, whom Sarah considers the foundation of her business, has been by her side from the beginning, especially her older sister, Rebecca Hernandez, 23, who acts as CFO.
Rebecca’s contributions are essential to Sarah’s Barbacoa, from helping to prepare the namesake dish to running the numbers. The work starts every Tuesday, when Sarah and Rebecca shop for food. The main ingredient they use is lean beef cheek, which, when plated, glimmers with red highlights and caramelized threads of meat. The finished product is rich, earthy, warm with dark spices, and, at times, tinged with sweetness. The dish is not greasy, nor is it overly fatty. If there is anything off about the barbacoa, it’s that the beef lacks the brush of smokiness traditionally bestowed by cooking it in a brick-lined, mesquite-fired pozo, or underground pit.
Even so, the process takes time and patience—the sisters monitor the beef every hour for thirteen hours. “It’s like watching a child,” Rebecca says. It’s a big kid, though. The Hernandezes cook 150 pounds of barbacoa in a large steam kettle overnight on Friday and Saturday to serve during the weekend. (Sarah’s Barbacoa is only open on Saturday and Sunday.) Toward the end of the cook, they add spices and other secret ingredients to amplify the beef’s natural flavors. “We can’t really share much detail on that,” Sarah says. “But a lot of love and care goes into the food.” The attention works. Three hundred pounds of the signature dish—along with more than 200 two-liter bottles of Big Red—sell out both days.
The barbacoa tacos—served in flour or corn tortillas—are comforting options, but my favorite dish is the grilled cheese. The sandwich is a beacon of delight. It has all the elements of the excellent barbacoa, melted with salty American cheese in a crispy, pressed, oblong telera roll. It’s one of the best Mexican grilled cheeses in Texas, and it began as an experimental snack ahead of the restaurant’s opening. The Hernandezes’ father, Mike, was making his usual late-night grilled-cheese munchie just as a test batch of barbacoa was finishing.
“He was like, ‘You know what? Let’s put two and two together,’ ” Rebecca recalls. “I remember the first bite. We were in love.” The trio stood looking at on anther, mouths open at the delicious accident. “We were like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is it. This is that thing we need to add to the menu.’ ” The idea of the sandwich is often a peculiar one to patrons, but once they try it, they inevitably return for more.
But how does a sixteen-year-old get a business up and running successfully? With family, of course. After all, barbacoa is all about family. The Hernandezes and their extended relatives from across San Antonio would gather at the family’s West Side home for the traditional barbacoa Sunday. Growing up, the sisters always looked forward to Sundays, Rebecca says. The gatherings allowed them to bond with their family while rejuvenating. “It was always like a reset of the week for us,” Rebecca says. The girls chatted about the previous week’s events and what excited them about the coming week—and about, of course, food.
When Sarah first mentioned her desire to open a business, her family was fully supportive. “My dad, me, and my mom were like, ‘Okay, let’s figure it out. Let’s do it,’ ” Rebecca recounts, going on to express the pride she and her parents had in Sarah’s drive—even if they weren’t sure how they’d establish a shop for her. “We were like, ‘We don’t know how it’s going to work,’ but we made it work.” The business occasionally takes assistance from the sisters’ parents, aunts, grandmother, and cousins.
While the foundation for Sarah’s Barbacoa had been strengthening over the years, the timeline from business plan to opening date was a short one. Sarah pitched the concept on New Year’s Day, 2019. Two weeks later, Mike called Rebecca while she was in class at the University of Texas at San Antonio (where she continues to study infectious diseases while fulfilling her duties at Sarah’s Barbacoa). He was very excited about finding what he called the perfect building. Permits and certificates were approved by the end of February. “It’s crazy to think about how quickly we did everything,” Rebecca says.
The sisters admit that operating Sarah’s Barbacoa remains a learning experience, especially when it comes to customers not always taking them seriously as entrepreneurs. The young ladies acknowledge that their heights—Rebecca is four-eleven and Sarah is four-eight—coupled with their youthful looks give some customers pause. “They come up to me and ask, ‘Are you sitting down? No way you’re standing up,’ ” Rebecca says with a laugh. These patrons are in disbelief that Hernandezes can do so much. They’ll ask Sarah or Rebecca who the owner is, and the women have to explain that Sarah is indeed the boss.
Even employees and customers at restaurant-supply stores doubt them. The sisters are stared at a lot while hauling sixty or seventy pounds of meat to the car. “Of course we have to do it together,” Rebecca says. “It’s really heavy, but we can do it.”
The idea of family drives the women. “In my heart, [barbacoa is] a food to talk around and have a good time,” Sarah says, which explains why the restaurant only serves its food to go. Barbacoa is for coming together at a familiar table. It’s for dancing and chisme (gossip). It’s for stories. It’s for laughing. It’s is for sharing. That, Rebecca insists, is why the restaurant is successful. “We’re focused on bringing families and friends and loved ones closer together through the power of comfort Mexican food.”