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Owner of Columbia's Fusion Cocina Latina talks path from convenience store to restaurant

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Yessie Hernandez posed for a photo in the Columbia location of Fusion Cocina Latina. She recently opened a second location in Lexington.

In less than a year, a convenience store owner became a budding restaurateur.

Yessie Hernandez owns two Fusion Cocina Latina restaurants, including a Lexington location that opened last week. The restaurants serve a range of Latin cuisine, from Costa Rican to Cuban. Hernandez spent 17 years running a convenience store before opening two restaurants, the other on Decker Boulevard in Columbia, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, despite the fast growth, she’s hesitant to label her businesses a success.

“I think I still have a lot of growth to do,” Hernandez explained. “I’m an overachiever … I’m just trying to focus on doing your best every day.”

Her new restaurant in Lexington is a replica, in concept, of her initial Decker Boulevard location that opened last year. She’s stressing a similar experience at both, with the same menus and service — yet there are key differences.

Lexington’s location rests in a larger, more typical space for a full-service restaurant and offers a full bar. Meanwhile, the Columbia location is a snug spot that feels more akin to a cafe.

There’s also the obvious differences in clientele. The Columbia location resides among the diverse collection of businesses known as the Decker Boulevard International Corridor, which boasts a range of Asian, Hispanic and African spots.

Lexington is starkly different, with a majority white population, and the restaurant is in a somewhat modern strip mall. Hernandez acknowledged the differences in locales, but again stressed the emphasis on providing a similar experience at both stores.

“Both cities and both customers are as important, so I don’t want to think of doing service differently or giving one more than the other,” Hernandez said. ”We are Fusion at Decker Boulevard and we are Fusion at Lexington.”

Hernandez grew up in Costa Rica. She gravitated toward cooking for her siblings, and sometimes sold 50 cent empanadas with a friend. She recalled an independent local coffee shop that inspired her dream of owning her own restaurant.

“It’s like giving gifts on Christmas,” Hernandez said of why she gravitated towards cooking.

But it took decades before she would find her way to operating a restaurant.

Hernandez moved to the United States for college at 19. She was infatuated in those early years in the country with cereal (Frosted Flakes, mostly) and sliced yellow American cheese (she'd make sandwiches with that as the only filling), while she searched for sweet plantains.

Despite having a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master’s in clinical counseling, Hernandez opened the convenience store Mundo Musica Latina when she was 22. That store is next door to the first Fusion Cocina Latina.

The lack of Costa Rican food in Columbia inspired her to open her restaurant, and Hernandez posited that aspect has been key to her success.

“One of the things that I miss from our home is our food, we don’t have that here,” she said. “If I wanted to eat that Latin food I was used to, I had to cook it.”

Fusion Cocina opened in June 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a little more than a month after Gov. Henry McMaster reopened indoor dining following earlier restrictions. Aafter weeks of staying home, it was a freeing, if not unsteady time to open a restaurant.

“When we opened, I feel like people were ready to go out and try restaurants and new food,” she said. “We opened with a new product, new service, and people loved that.”

Opening her second location came by chance. A friend in Lexington pointed out that a restaurant space was open and she should inquire. Soon after she reached out to the realtor and, one week later, Hernandez signed the lease.

“I have a lot of faith,” Hernandez said. “I believe if God opened a door for you, it’s because it's meant to be.”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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