Last February, Nemo Lopez gave up a lifetime of meat eating and became vegan. By March, he ditched a career in the restaurant industry to open his own vegan taco stand at the Seaport Farmers’ Market.

Lopez spent years working in the restaurant industry and saw its waste firsthand. He decided to start a small business with a focus on environmental sustainability. “I think owning a business could make a positive impact in trying to motivate people or make people aware,” says Lopez. “I don’t find the point just to make money. To take, take, take. I think you always have to give back to the community.”

Lopez came to Canada from Mexico in 2007 with less than $600 in his pocket. He came here as a refugee. He says he was fleeing the drug cartel in Cancún. At the time, Lopez was managing a bar in the hotel district, and says he kicked out two men for harassing a female tourist. After this, he discovered the men were involved in the drug cartel and feared they’d seek revenge.

When he first arrived in Canada, he faced a lot of obstacles. He had no connections here, and barely spoke English. “It was tough. The first few years were hard,” says Lopez. “People thought I was naïve when I first came to Canada.”

When he first decided to open his business he faced a lot of doubters. “Almost everyone I told that I was going to open a vegan taco stand laughed in my face,” he recalls. “They couldn’t really understand how authentic Mexican tacos could be meatless.”

Lopez spent a few months perfecting his recipes before opening his stall in March 2019. He uses all the same flavours as traditional tacos, but instead of meat he uses substitutes like textured vegetable protein, tofu, and jackfruit.

“It’s just about taking that negative perspective from people, like ‘oh ew vegan’ and just saying ‘come back, try this’ and even if they don’t buy the food their mentality is going to be a little more open,” says Lopez.

Through his various jobs, Lopez has acquired skills that are helping him in his business. Lopez spent a few years working as a door-to-door salesman in Mexico. He often uses the skills he learned in sales to attract customers at the market. Whenever he sees someone looking at his sign he will call them over and offer up free samples.

“Here, try this, it’s going to blow your mind,” he told two curious customers as he sprinkled salt onto their palm. “What does it taste like?” he asked them. They look puzzled before the both replied, “Fried eggs!”

They both ordered tacos.

Lopez often works at the market alongside daughters Alana and Emily (age 8 and 9). Lopez does most of the cooking, while his daughters share samples. He says when it comes to eating he tries to let them make their own decisions.

“When they’re with me, everything is vegan,” he says. “But if they want McDonald’s, I’m going to give them McDonald’s. But I am also going to make them aware that for them to have a happy meal they’re going to get at least five plastic items, and they’re going to go to the garbage.”

Lopez is using his business as a way to encourage people to think about their environmental impact. “I’m trying to make this place better if I can, with what I can. What’s the point to make money if you’re not going to do anything for your community?” he says.

He wants to see the Seaport market develop a zero-waste policy, as the Wolfville Farmers’ Market has. Markets tend to attract environmentally conscious folks because of the focus on local food—they’re ideal places to champion waste-reduction. “It’s more monkey-see, monkey-do than anything at that market,” explains Lauren Barnes, a frequent market shopper. “Seeing other people bring their own bags and their own containers kind of catches on.”

Lopez is trying to help spread this mentality at the Seaport Market. When he first opened his taco stand he noticed people bringing reusable containers. He started trying to motivate more customers to do this by offering free agua fresca, the Mexican version of infused water, to every customer who brought their own container.

Lopez’s taco stand is simple. On top of a bright tablecloth there is a small burner to heat the tortillas, freshly prepared fillings, and an array of sauces. Sometimes there are also baby trees on display. Although the trees are definitely vegan, they’re not intended for the tacos.

Lopez has started giving away baby trees to people in the community. His motivation for the project is to inspire people to be a little more mindful about the environment. “I don’t only give the trees to people who buy food from me,” he says. “Sometimes people are walking by and they go ‘what’s going on with the trees?’ and I say ‘I’m giving them for free, you want one?’”

Emmanuelle Schultze is an intern at the Wolfville market and met Lopez at a recent sustainability fair in Halifax. At the fair, Lopez gave Schultze one of the trees. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Schultze says. “We are given this tiny little tree that we will take care of until it’s ready to be transplanted. One day all these trees will grow and help make a greater impact.”

Lopez started with 250 trees and they were gone much faster than he expected. He got the trees from the provincial natural-resources department. Simon Mutabazi is the forester who provided them. “Every small act can contribute to educating. As you know, every tree planted helps in terms of carbon storage. If everybody can plant a tree, it’s going to help in a way,” says Mutabazi.

The trees are baby red spruce, which is Nova Scotia’s provincial tree. “It’s a valuable tree. Looking at the future, red spruce is here to stay. It’s a good choice,” says Mutabazi.

The trees have been a great way to draw people to his taco stand, especially kids. “Three weeks ago I was at the market and this mom and her three-year-old little boy came by,” recalls Lopez. He gave the little boy a tree and explained that he had to take care of it.

“I was like ‘what’re you going to call it?’ and he looked at his mom, he looked at me and said ‘unicorn’. It’s not just that you give a tree, but in that moment I could see the mother’s heart just melting,” says Lopez.

Mutabazi believes that engaging with young kids is the key to getting the message out. “They are the future leaders and the future stewards of the land. To get the family as a whole engaged, that’s even better,” he says
Alissa Lysack and her daughter Madelyn, age 6, stopped by the taco stand.

Madelyn saw other people carrying trees and told her mom she wanted one too. “She loved it, she held it in the car on the way home to take care of it,” says Lysack. “She’s looking forward to finding a place in our backyard to plant it in the spring.”

Each tree that is picked up, whether it gets planted in the spring or not, allows the roots of a community to expand. “Kids are so passionate for things like that,” Lopez says. “They care, you tell a kid ‘listen you have to take care of this tree’ and they will.”

Lopez has big plans for the future as he continues to grow his roots in Halifax. He wants to write a cookbook, start a YouTube channel, and eventually open up a vegan Mexican restaurant. For now, he is focused on connecting with like-minded people and continuing to grow his business.
“A lot of people have passion, they are trying to help,” says Lopez. “So I’m going to try to get close to them and just work as a team. Because that’s what we have to do, we have to be a big team.”

Halifax Magazine