Arlene Luna

We are more than just the place to come and get coffee, it really is a place where people come together.

Chicago, IL

Immigrant, Latina, Chef, Entrepreneur

One of the things that I want to achieve is to give bonuses to my staff. That to me means that I have made it. Sometimes I see businesses that open and they spend all their money on t-shirts and hats and this and that. Yeah, that would be cool, but what’s cooler for me is to be able to keep the staff happy and keep us going. Maybe one day success will mean that we’ll be able to buy the bags with the fancy logo on it. But to me, that is not what it’s about. When I see success, I don’t necessarily think Moonwalker three and four, but rather taking care of my people and giving back to my neighborhood. Any time that I’m able to do that, I really do feel like wow, this is a big deal. 

Moonwalker is a big deal in my life. It’s my baby. Every little detail about it was happening in my brain and body.  It is a big part of who I am. Everything from the food to the décor. I’m very proud of it. I’m especially proud when people sit there and have a good time and they tell us how they enjoyed everything.

Arlene is not my real name; it’s Arlen. But when we moved to this country, my parents were told that Arlen is a male’s name, so they added the “e” at the end. When you grow up being called Arlen and then you go to school and they start calling you Arlene, you start thinking, who I am?

I was born in Mexico City, and at the age of three, we moved to Chicago. My father moved here previously, and then my mother and I came. Then six months later, my brother and sister came with my grandparents. I’ve been a Chicagoan all my life because it’s all I remember.

My mother’s side of the family is from Guerrero, Mexico. They’re very coastal and that’s something that they’re very proud of. My dad’s parents had a lot of European influence. Through them, I learned a lot about Mexican food and how the Spaniards influenced some of the Mexican dishes.

I have a lot of “cousins,” but we’re not blood related. I find that a lot of people don’t understand this unless they migrated. People who come from the same areas become family. When we were notified that they were coming to Chicago, we were a base for them. You come with nothing. You hope that the people that are here that may know your family are there to help. I know right now there’s a whole thing with immigration happening, and a lot of these people don’t have that. It was very different for us because my dad’s brother had already lived here, and he already had a community of people who were waiting for us. Then we did the same thing for other people.

We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but as kids we never realized that. We were the first family in our neighborhood to have Atari and a VHS. We had bikes and toys, but we didn’t have a house. We lived in an apartment and my parents really wanted a home for us, so they worked extremely hard to save money to buy one.

When my father first came to this country, he started off as a busboy at the Marriott on Michigan Avenue. When he tried to unionize, he got fired. One of my neighbors told my father that he should start driving a cab, and he eventually owned a small cab company.

My mom stayed home with us for a few years at first. Then once we were all in school, she got a job at a dry cleaner for a Korean family. Her bosses really loved her and our family, they wanted her to take over the business. But my mom wanted to go back to school to finish her undergraduate degree. Both of my parents went to the University of Mexico, but they did not finish because they started a family and decided to move to the United States. Almost immediately after graduating, my mom started working for Mira Couture, a famous designer here in Chicago, and has been her right hand person ever since.

My parents are more Chicagoans than anything, more American than anything because they’ve lived here longer than they did in Mexico. This is their home. They don’t see it any other way.

I started out very young helping my mom in the kitchen. I was an odd kid. While my brother and sister would ask for toys or candy, I would ask for Good Housekeeping or these little recipe books they had at the store checkout lines. A lot of it was American food. My mom also started cooking a lot of American food because she thought, “well, we have to integrate.” While we cooked, she would tell us stories about where she grew up and the things that they did as children, like helping my grandmother sell food at the markets.

I wanted to go to culinary school, but my father felt a professional kitchen was mostly run by men. He’s not wrong. I did eventually go to culinary school at the Cooking Hospitality Institute of Chicago, or CHIC. It was a two year program. I did really well. I did see that the men there were definitely stronger, a lot of them were a lot taller. I’m very petite, but my instructors and some of my peers called on me to come and join the strong team. This sounds really cocky, but I remember looking at other women in my class and thinking you’re not fast enough or you’re not strong enough. Is this really something you want to do? I would ask myself the same thing: is this really something I want to do? Do I always want to feel I’m trying to work harder because I need to be as strong and as fast as the guys? I’m barely five feet tall, and it’s hard when professional kitchens are not set up to be short or small. But it was a good experience.

Because I’m bilingual, a lot of times I did get better positions in the kitchens, and some people didn’t like that. I was making more money than a lot of people that were there a few years longer than I was. But I could communicate what the management wanted to everyone in the kitchen. A lot of times my own people did not appreciate that. They felt I was getting treated differently. But being bilingual and having to translate everything all day long is not easy.

One of the very first restaurants that I wanted to work in was downtown Chicago. I remember dressing up in a skirt and a little jacket. I went in with my bag and my knives, with my hair pulled back and my red lipstick. I walked in and the guy who greeted me was this big, Greek guy. He said, “What do you want to work in the kitchen for? You should be a hostess.” Then he refused to interview me. He refused to get me in the kitchen. He said, “No you’re too pretty to be in the kitchen. You don’t want to work with these big guys.” I remember looking at them and the way they were looking at me and I thought, oh my god, was my dad right? Is this what it’s going to be like in every kitchen? So that was the first and last time that I ever dressed up for an interview. Every interview after that, I wore my chef clothes, my chef pants, my chef shoes. I don’t do makeup.

I had some really bad kitchen experiences. One particular kitchen, it was my first day and I had to boil an enormous, heavy pot of pasta, but nobody would help me. They stood there with their arms crossed, watching me. They wanted me to feel so bad about it that I would not come back. But I did stick around and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was that when people act that way, it’s because of their own insecurities. It had nothing to do with me. I was there to learn. I never came in saying, hey, I know everything. But I was treated really poorly.

Any woman chef has been through at least that type of environment or where it’s constantly very sexual. I had a kitchen like that too, where they were always talking about women’s bodies. Then they would look over and say to me, “You know what I mean?” One incident in the kitchen, we were making pasta and one of the chefs said to me, “I want you to feel the pasta, and I want it to feel like your silk panties.” I remember thinking, what the fuck?! The last thing we should ever discuss is my underwear. A lot of times I’d have to remind myself, I’m doing this because I want to learn. This is supposedly a really good chef and somebody that can teach me. But this is the stuff I have to put up with.

I know that it’s gotten better. People are a lot more aware and trying not to have that atmosphere in a kitchen. But this did exist. It was bad. It was really, really bad. Then you also have kitchens that have younger cooks, there’s a lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, marriages are falling apart. The Food Network makes it all seem so bright and so easy. But it’s not.

I left Chicago for 16 years and moved to California. There, I worked for different private country clubs, I opened up a couple of fine dining restaurants with groups that I was with, and then I just bounced around. Because of some of these jobs, I met a lot of very wealthy people who offered me a lot of money to cater these private parties at their homes. I was young and I just wanted to work and make money. That became very lucrative, so one day I made the decision that I would leave my restaurant job and do my own thing. I was able to see a lot of California because of that. Then in 2020 when the world changed, I lost my job. I came to see my parents and it was the first time in so long that I didn’t have that feeling like, I’ve got to go back to California. I should move back to be closer to my parents because they’re aging.

I had some money. I thought maybe I’ll open a plant store. Maybe I’ll make greeting cards. I didn’t know what I was going to do. My sister owns a loft in Avondale so at least we’d have a place to live. We’ll figure something out once we get there. But just before moving, my sister calls me and says, “the restaurant on the corner is vacant and they’re looking for someone. I told the owner about you, and he says you should fly out and check it out.” It was an old taqueria with bright colors on the walls. I walked in and immediately thought about a coffee shop/cafe. I was very spoiled in L.A. where I would walk to the corner, and it was restaurants and bars and shopping and antiques. I never had to leave my neighborhood. Avondale is starting to change, but because we know this neighborhood well, I knew that there wasn’t a coffee shop nearby. The kitchen’s already in there, so we could definitely do breakfast. Then the wheels started turning.

One of the reasons I wanted to have the breakfast food, the coffee, things that were made fresh, is because in this neighborhood, right across the street from us, there’s a McDonald’s. Then 300ft in the other direction there’s a Wendy’s. Then around the corner, there’s a fry place where they do wings and pizza. It’s all that fast food that isn’t good for you. It’s very processed. I wanted a place where people could come and get smoothies and really good, clean chicken and local sausage and local ham and really great bacon. I wanted to use fresh eggs. It was important to bring in some fresh produce and try to use local ingredients. I want people to come in and tell the difference between going to McDonald’s and coming here.

When my brother found out that I was going to take over the restaurant on the corner and that I lived next door, he said, “Oh, you’re going to moonwalk to work! Why don’t you call the cafe Moonwalker?” I loved that because it just made sense. Plus, our last name is Luna, which means moon in Spanish, we use that term all the time.

When we first opened, I was the cook and my boyfriend, Jack, was the barista. It was just the two of us for a long time, then Max came into the picture and was the cook. I do a lot of the customer service. I do all of our social media. I still prep food, but I spend very little time now in front of the stove or the grill. It’s still a big part of me though. Everything that goes in and out is still a reflection of what I want.

We also started making our own syrups when a local vendor went out of business. The more I’m able to walk away from Moonwalker and let it run itself with the help of Jack and the team, I’d love to start making a line of syrups. Maybe one day you’ll see Moon Girl Syrups somewhere.

I’ve always loved doing things like where you go into a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club and do food demonstrations or take the kids to the gardens and talk about the foods that they grow. I’ve always loved being part of different women’s organizations. This year, I really want to commit to joining at least two. I am part of Let’s Talk Womxn, and I really want to see where I can go with that. But I also want to be part of the Latino community in my area. Really getting more involved with my community is something that I want to do, not just with Moonwalker, but myself.

Whenever I tell people about the cafe, they say, “Wow, you didn’t just come home. You came back to your neighborhood.” Directly across the street from Moonwalker used to be my high school – Madonna High School for Girls. I had been inside of what is now Moonwalker 30+ years ago when I was a freshman at Madonna. It used to be a pizza place where we would buy single cigarettes from the cooks…because that’s what you did when you were a freshman.

I think that one of our advantages is that we also live in the neighborhood. When we go out for a walk, we’ll see Bryan and John and Ashley. We’re always waving hello to people. There are people that have lived in my apartment building for ten years and they tell me, “We didn’t talk to anybody until we started going to Moonwalker. Now we know our neighbors and people in other parts of the neighborhood too.” That’s how I grew up – my mom was one of those people who made sure we always knew our neighbors.

People say that the word “community” describes me all the time. It’s really nice to have that sense of we know people and we’re more than just a coffee shop. People come in and share their stories with us. This woman used to come in and she was very quiet. As we got to know her, she told us, “I love coming into Moonwalker because I feel safe. I have a lot of anxiety and I don’t do well around a lot of people. But everyone here is so nice.” Now I’ll look over and there are people sitting at her table and they’re all talking. To see her grow like that, it’s been really a positive feeling. We are more than just the place to come and get coffee, it really is a place where people come together.

Our customers are the people that we laugh with, we cry with, we pop champagne with. We have a great group of people that really want us to succeed. I wanted to get a patio outside of our place but we had difficulty with our alderman in this area. He’s not very supportive. Our customers were so bummed out that they actually called the alderman’s office and had some choice words for him. One of our neighbors created an app that we now use at the restaurant. That was a very big deal for me. The fact that someone was starting out and bringing in his closest friends to help create something, I wanted to be part of that. I think that we’ve gotten this following because it’s a place where you can tell that we’re all having fun. Sometimes it almost feels weird that it’s a job because we have so much fun.

I think that Covid taught a lot of people that our industry is made up of a lot of people who love what they do. Covid helped businesses such as mine because there is no more script of this is what a business looks like. I want to be the place that always has everything in stock, so when we don’t, I feel that’s a big weakness. But I mean, we do our best and I think our best is really good.

I struggled a lot with my health the first two years. I started menopause very early, which came with a lot of uncomfortable feelings. I’m going through all of these physical and mental changes, all while trying to open Moonwalker. A lot of these changes you do not have control over. A lot of doctors think menopause is just hot flashes and weight gain. There’s so much more to it. Menopause is very different for each woman. One woman can feel something, another one doesn’t.

It wasn’t until this past summer that I started to feel well. There was also the move from sunny California to gray Chicago. Vitamin D is down, depression, to trying to open, and also trying to be positive and have people come in. It was a lot. And mentally, it was a struggle. The first two years were just hard. Very little sleep. You worry about money. You worry every single day.

Even though in late fall, we did start taking actual days off, they’re still not really days off, you know? We usually have one or two errands to run, or you can find me at Moonwalker delivering our Sysco order. That’s the biggest sacrifice.

When I opened Moonwalker, I had a small amount of money and I didn’t get any loans. We have one credit card for Moonwalker and it’s a very small credit. We’re trying to increase that, but it takes a long time for the bank to go, “Oh, yeah. We trust you. We’re going to give you another ten or twelve thousand.” That’s definitely the number one barrier for our growth. I would tell somebody if they were thinking of opening, they need X amount of money just to start up and then X amount of money to keep everything flowing. For a long time we were just getting by, but it’s really hard to see a profit, especially the first few years.

Any woman is always constantly thinking about the things that need to get done. That’s not just at work, but also at home with the kids, with pets, whatever. Even with Moonwalker, and even with having Jack around, I still feel that 90% of everything is in my brain and I have to get it done or I have to voice it so that somebody else can do it. Jack, who is sometimes way too chill for me, will say stuff like, “It’s fine. It’ll get done.” But that’s just one of 300 things that I have on my mind that have to get done. And I’d like for it to get done now so that I can move on. This is when spouses strangle their other spouse.

It wasn’t until last summer that I realized I was going in a really bad direction. I was not feeling healthy. I put on a lot of weight and it was all the things at once. I had to say, hey, I really need to focus on me and the person that I know that I am. I have to start taking care of myself. I’m 48. A lot of times, and this was what made me afraid, women my age will start having strokes. So I need to really change things. I had to start walking again. I had to start riding a bike again. I had to start doing yoga and stretches and take time for myself. Really having to take that responsibility and knowing that no matter how much people love you, you need to stop and take care of yourself. I feel so much better now. I don’t feel those pains in my body. I don’t feel any of those things that I was struggling with.