Right before the pandemic hit, Cecilia Armenta went to her pantry, pulled together ingredients for vegan empanadas, and — in a let’s-see-what-happens moment — made a big batch.
“I’m trying to see if it’s something people want,” she said. “And if they don’t want it, well, I guess we’re going to eat empanadas all week.”
Armenta sold out in 20 minutes. People asked for more. After a few weeks, it was clear she had more than a side hustle on her hands.
She worked pop-ups, took orders and delivered them personally. “I would just go to parking lots at the hospitals, because I knew the nurses were working all night,” she said. If someone expressed doubt that a vegan empanada was any good, Armenta just urged them to taste them.
“About eight months later, it just blew up,” she said. “So we started looking for a storefront.”
After finding a space on the 3300 block of State Street, it took another seven months to open after the building was vandalized. The refrigerator had parts stripped at one point, and due to pandemic-related supply chain issues, it took weeks to get replacements. But Armenta kept pushing forward, and Yumz! Vegan Bakery & Cafe opened last October.
Armenta, who grew up in South Jordan, was inspired to go vegan after her mom, Leonor Olivieri, switched to a plant-based diet seven years ago to deal with her diabetes. Armenta is a two-time cancer survivor, and she credits her vegan diet for keeping her healthy. It was also a great way to help her daughter, who suffers from food allergies, she said.
But Armenta missed the food she grew up with — her mom is from Puerto Rico, and her father is from Mexico. The Salt Lake Valley has plenty of vegan food options, but it definitely lacks for Latin vegan food, and she and Olivieri found themselves eating a lot of sandwiches, mac-and-cheese and stir-fry.
Armenta started her own informal test kitchen to figure out how to make vegan versions of traditional, meaty dishes like birria — lamb or beef marinated with peppers and spices.
“One of the biggest challenges is the meat substitution,” she said. “A lot of vegan meat is made with soy, and a lot of people are allergic to it. So what can I change, if it’s not soy? How can I make it taste like it’s not just a vegetable? That was hard, but we were able to do it.”
Yumz’s top seller is their birria tacos, made with jackfruit. “Even meat-eaters are like, ‘What kind of meat did you use?’ We treat it like it was meat, so with the marination process, we don’t cut corners. It’s like six hours.” (Olivieri now works with Armenta to adapt recipes, and is also on hand at Yumz as needed.)
Also popular are the chile verde, chimichangas, fajitas, beefless empanada and the loaded gordita tacos. Armenta just added chilaquiles — a traditional Mexican breakfast dish — to the menu, which can be made with different proteins, and are served with Yumz’s house red salsa.
“The name is bakery and cafe, right?” Armenta said. “Initially, I thought it would be mainly a bakery, with food. But I guess the Salt Lake area was lacking in what we were doing, and it grew so much, the food has taken over the bakery. People come in and say, ‘Oh, you’re a bakery too?’”
Any traditional Latin bakery sells tres leches cake, Armenta said, so she wanted to make sure she had an excellent one. Now, a lot of her customers tell her it’s the best they’ve had in Utah, even though there’s no “leche” involved. It only took her a day to develop that recipe, though “I had a huge bellyache, because I tried so many recipes,” she said. She also makes custom cakes, including wedding cakes — and, as any vegan planning nuptials can tell you, a vegan wedding cake isn’t easy to find.
Yumz also sells Napoleons, turnovers, and giant loaded cookies that are made almost entirely of veggies. It’s also one of the only places in town selling vegan horchata. Armenta makes the traditional flavor, among others, all in-house.
“I’m very, very picky,” Armenta said. “I know how I want things to taste. I know how I want things to look. If I’m going to eat a carnita, it needs to taste, look and smell like a carnita. A lot of plant-based things out there, it’s like, ‘Well, this is your version of that,’ and that’s it. And you’re like, ‘Wait! It doesn’t taste anything like it, I feel like I’m eating rubber!’”
Armenta also makes sure Yumz is a fun hang-out place, and super family-friendly. On March 19, they hosted an all-day ‘80s throwback party, where the staff dressed in neon colors, popped-collar golf shirts and Ray-Ban style sunglasses and ‘80s movies and music played all day. Customers dressed up in ‘80s attire got a discount.
Armenta said they have a little karaoke machine they’re about to fire up, and soon they’ll add live music and dancing, as well as a stage, where people can perform open poetry, or play music.
She has even bigger plans in the work for the food.
“When I realized Yumz was going to be a thing, my goal was to have different franchises,” she said. “So that’s something we are currently working on. I mean, after five months of being here, we sell out every day. We don’t fit here anymore, right? We already need to look at expanding. So that’s a huge part of what we’re doing.”
She’s also hoping someday to earn a space in local and national grocery store freezer aisles, with — what else? — the vegan empanada that started it all.
Yumz! Bakery and Cafe • 3490 S. State St., South Salt Lake, 801-590-8092, instagram.com/yumzz_z. Open Tuesday-Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
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