He Quit the Funeral Industry and Found Success in the Food Scene

Joel Crespo.
Joel Crespo.

It wasn't supposed to be a permanent thing — just a pit stop somewhere between figuring out his next move in film and television production and helping his mom recover from the loss of his father. But one day, Joel Crespo looked up from his desk and realized he'd been working in the funeral business for seven years.

"The whole notion of a career at the funeral home terrified me," explains Crespo. "They even offered to pay for me to become a funeral director and I was like, 'No, no, no.' It was a good job. I had full health insurance, paid vacation, and it was the kind of job where I had the comfort of not having to take it home with me, so I got roped in. But at what point do you accept your destiny that this is what you're meant to be?"

Though it's difficult to imagine Crespo as destined to be anything but a culinary superstar, there was a time when the restaurant industry was not even in the cards. The man who would eventually co-found Guerrilla Street Food always had a passion for food. However, in college, he found himself making other plans. He went to school for film and television production, then promptly moved to Los Angeles where he got a job working on The Drew Carey Show for three seasons, as well as music videos and the TBS concepts "Dinner and a Movie" and "Movies for Guys Who Like Movies."

Crespo had already been contemplating whether he wanted to stay in the entertainment industry when fate made the decision for him. In 2002, his father passed away from cancer and Crespo decided to return to St. Louis to take care of his mother and help her navigate this difficult time in her life.

"I was at a crossroads then," Crespo recalls. "I'd been in LA for four years, and I needed to reevaluate what I wanted to do. It was a tough business, and it was expensive living there. I saw this as an opportunity to both take care of my mom and see if it was really my calling."

Back in St. Louis, Crespo did temp work, always looking for an opportunity to make some extra money. When a staffer at the funeral home that buried his father came to their home following the service to finalize some details, Crespo randomly asked if the company had any jobs available. The next thing he knew, he was hired, quickly moving from parking attendant to office director to funeral services coordinator.

"I'd talk to families about prayer cards, how they wanted their memorial book to look, what the obituary should say," recalls Crespo. "After about five years they asked if I wanted to design headstones. I've engraved headstones all over St. Louis, including my mom and dad's — they got this really unique engraving on there because I got to do it myself."

Crespo is circumspect about the inertia that comes from simply falling into an opportunity, and how time can catch up with you without your even knowing it. That's how he let seven years pass. It's not that he was afraid of changing his situation — he wasn't even really aware it was happening. But when he started thinking about it, his restless spirit would not go quietly.

Still, it took friendship to kick-start the project that would come to define him.

"Brian saw that I was desperate, and I was serious," Crespo says of his business partner and friend Brian Hardesty.

Though they had several mutual friends growing up, the pair did not connect until shortly after Crespo returned to town from Los Angeles. They bonded over many shared passions — skateboarding, comic books, science fiction and, above all, food. Crespo, who had no formal training, was thrilled to learn from Hardesty, a professional chef.

But could their collaboration be more than a hobby? In 2010, they decided to go for it, quitting their jobs to launch a food truck just like the ones they'd seen in other cities. At that point, the scene was brand new in St. Louis, and they wanted to get in on the ground floor.

If Crespo was in an established career — albeit an accidental one — Hardesty's situation was much more intentional. As executive chef at one of the city's foundational modern restaurants, Terrene, Hardesty was in a good professional position doing what he loved and supporting his family too. That's why Crespo didn't flinch when it was time for his own departure.

"The hardest part of leaving a job is mentally accepting that you can do it," Crespo explains. "Once Brian put in his notice, I knew this was serious. He had a child to support. It was harder for him. For me, I realize I had the privilege of not having attachments, so I had the freedom to make that life change. I wasn't affecting anyone but myself, so I was able to more easily make a bold, rash decision."

However, Crespo would have probably taken the leap regardless of his circumstances.

"Maybe I am a product of the romanticized culture we live in, but I feel like you should have a passion for what you do," Crespo says. "For me, it was a matter of not wanting to hate my day-to-day routine and be stuck in this grind. Maybe that's me being a movie person, but I didn't want to be like Joe Versus the Volcano losing my soul under fluorescent lights."

Almost a decade after taking that leap, Crespo is still awestruck by the success he and Hardesty have enjoyed with Guerrilla Street Food. What started as a food truck has grown into one of the city's most recognizable and respected restaurant brands with two brick-and-mortar locations and more on the way.

With the benefit of such hindsight, Crespo recognizes that it is easy for him to muse about facing change with fearlessness. However, there is still that part of him that viscerally remembers sitting behind that funeral home desk, desperate to try something new. That's the part of him that can't resist giving others the nudge.

"Humans are pretty resilient creatures, so you shouldn't underestimate your ability to adapt to a situation," Crespo says. "There could be a great reward, but if you don't take the chance, it will haunt you. And if it doesn't work out, there's always something else to try — change is inevitable, right?"

Joel Crespo is profiled as part of our Change Issue. Check out all the great profiles online here.