It has been a year of accomplishments for David Suro-Piñera, owner of Los Catrines Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Philadelphia. The restaurant, which is touted as the first to serve authentic Mexican cuisine in the city, turned 20. Suro-Piñera also launched his own brand of kosher tequila, which is made solely from the agave plant found in his native Mexico. Siembra Azul, or Blue Harvest, has won critical acclaim and is now sold in finedining restaurants and some retail outlets on the East Coast, as well as in his restaurant.
In addition, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, at its recent annual convention in Philadelphia, recognized Suro-Piñera for his business contributions with the 2006 Yacatecutli Award, named for the Aztec god of commerce. The award is given to an individual whose company supports business relationships between the United States and Mexico. Siembra Azul employs dozens of workers in both countries.
Anative of Guadalajara, Suro-Piñera grew up near agave fields in the state of Jalisco. He went to school with the children of agave farmers and tequila producers. Suro-Piñera met his wife, Annette, while working as a waiter in Cancun. He followed her home to Philadelphia and got a job at the only Mexican restaurant in town. A year later, he bought out the owner and renamed it.
How have you managed to keep a restaurant going for 20 years?
It’s a combination of things. The most important is I’m a restaurant operator. I’m at the tables. The person responsible for the leadership of the restaurant can’t spend most of his time in the office going over the books. For me, the most important part of the operation is having contact with the customer. You have to be on the floor, listening to what people are looking for, what they like most, what they like least.
You moved the restaurant five years ago into an historic building. Did that help the business?
The previous location was smaller. Another motivation to move was to keep us in the mainstream of restaurants in Philadelphia and to enhance our facility.
The restaurant industry is changing drastically. It has become more competitive. That’s a challenge. We have to keep reinventing, keep refreshing. We serve fresh ingredients and fresh food every day; we need to keep the concept fresh every day.
Twenty years ago, Philadelphians were unaccustomed to authentic Mexican cuisine. Was it a struggle in the beginning?
It’s true Philadelphia did not have the concepts we see today, the Tex-Mex. There was not much knowledge of Mexican food. But I was fortunate. What we proposed to them no one else was offering. Back then we developed the customer. We learned from each other.FAST FACTS
JOB: owner, Los Catrines Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Philadelphia; producer of Siembra Azul tequila
EXPERIENCE: waiter in Cancun before coming to the United States in 1985; bought his restaurant one year later; spent 15 years researching and creating a team of experts to create a brand of tequila
BIRTHPLACE: Guadalajara, Mexico
Did you find yourself doing a lot of education about tequila as well?
The tequila industry unfortunately has been identified with the wrong things [such as binge drinking]. I’ve been trying to change those stereotypes. We started doing tequila tastings. Parallel to the restaurant, I’ve always been involved in the tequila industry. I grew up with it.
How did you find the time to run a restaurant and travel to Mexico to develop Siembra Azul?
I’m the most fortunate of restaurant operators in that I’m blessed with the team I have. I have people who have been with me for 19 years. Our team of managers is a remarkable group of people.
What do you look for when hiring people?
I look for chemistry. That’s a commodity. There has to be that invisible, indescribable, personal connection.