Anna Bran-Leis starts a second act and finds culinary and personal success

This is the next story in a series about the women entrepreneurs and business owners along Upshur Street in Petworth. Join us as we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th with a special community event free for the whole family.

Perseverance and hard work are part and parcel for Anna Bran-Leis, the owner of Taqueria del Barrio at 821 Upshur Street. I would easily describe Anna as fierce and driven. If she has doubts on things, she doesn’t share them — only her determination. That’s paid off for her, as she grabbed the metaphorical rudder of her life and gave it a 90 degrees hard to starboard turn and sailed to culinary success.

Not sure where the sea-faring metaphors are coming from, as I describe a woman born in Cuilapa, Guatemala, raised in Silver Spring, and who’s spent her whole life in the DC area. Maybe because Anna has that sea captain aura about her. And like a captain, she’s been at the helm of her DC Empanadas food truck company and then the Taqueria del Barrio restaurant, steering them successfully, as she’s about to open a new bar on Upshur Street, Dos Mami’s, partnering with Himitsu owner Carlie Steiner.

It hasn’t been an easy ride to get to where she’s now. Married with two children, ten years ago Anna was co-running a non-profit, and wasn’t happy. “I had a cushy office job, benefits, normal working hours, saw my kids every day,” she said, “And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It made me reevaluate everything very quickly. I realized I hated my job.”

In 2009, Anna left her office to walk around Franklin park, and saw two food trucks parked along the curb. She stood there, staring at the trucks and at the lines of people. She called her husband Sean and said, “You know what? We’re going to do a food truck.”

She started planning, even though she says she was clueless about what starting a food truck entailed. She went back to childhood memories of an old woman who sold empanadas in the park in Cuilapa, when she would visit her grandmother. She knew she could do the same, and make something for anybody. DC Empanadas food truck was born in January 2010. A line formed the very first day, “And people kept coming. Every day we opened the window, people kept coming.”

The DC Empanadas food truck (courtesy DC Empanadas)

They learned the hard way of what works, and what doesn’t. Their on-the-job learning brought them to success, and they opened a food stand at Union Market in 2013. They kept moving forward.

The whole time she was building this new company, Anna was going through a difficult cancer treatment process. After various procedures, chemotherapy and numerous surgeries, she was told there were no more options. Then, they were put on an experimental drug trial.

“And here I am,” she said with a wistful smile. “I’m tenacious. And I’m a mom, my kids needed me. At the end of the day, that was my driving force. That, and work, actually. The fact that I really loved what I did and got to go and do something that I loved every day was super amazing. It’s what kept me going.”

Anna found herself in remission and looking for what’s next. One of her closest friends, Jamie Leeds, who owns the successful string of Hank’s restaurants (including the now closed Hank’s Cocktail Bar), brought Anna over to Upshur to look at the empty Domku restaurant space in late 2016, under the pretense that Jamie was going to open a new restaurant and wanted Anna’s opinion.

“I walked in and told her I loved the space, and she said to me, ‘Great, you’re going to open a restaurant.’ I said, no I’m not! That’s crazy!”

Taqueria Del Barrio opened in March 2017.

One of the many wall murals inside Taqueria del Barrio at 821 Upshur Street NW.

The name literally means the taqueria of the neighborhood. “I want a place that people can come with their kids, where everyone feels comfortable and welcome,” she said.

“And here we are, loving life in Petworth. We love being a part of the neighborhood and the community. This is really my second home,” Anna said, laughing. “I spend more time here than I do at my own residence.”

The Taqueria is doing well. Some days are better than others. “Even after two years, I still can’t figure out why some days are slammed, and others are slower. But it works.”

A full house in Taqueria del Barrio.

Nothing is ever easy, of course. The facility she uses to prep food for DC Empanada was completely destroyed in a massive fire in February of this year. Luckily, no one was injured. They’re cooking out of a new space for the time being, and waiting for warmer weather to re-open the food truck.

“There are so many challenges to being a woman in the culinary industry,” Anna said. “You don’t know how many times we go to events and set up tasting stations — and my sous chef is a guy — and they come up and say, ‘Hey chef,’ talking to him. You’re automatically, as a woman, not given the same respect and the same recognition.”

“We have to work twice as hard as any man to get the recognition. As a woman, I guess, we’re expected to do so much more through the course of the day. I’m expected to run my business, run my house, take care of my kids and still have a smile and be pleasant. With men, you don’t expect the same from a guy.”

Anna appreciates where she is now and what the future holds. She believes in helping others, like younger female entrepreneurs. “You have to reach back,” she said. “Whether she’s an immigrant or she’s not. The next generation of women that are coming up behind us, it’s our job as women, that they’re better than we are. That they surpass anything that we’ve done. We reach back and we help them.”

More Articles in this Series…