From left: Chefs Lucero Martinez-Obregon and Richard Sandoval.
Richard Sandoval has been operating restaurants across the world for 17 years, since he opened Maya, an upscale Mexican restaurant in New York City.
Sandoval sees his latest venture, a reinterpretation of historic Atlanta restaurant Zocalo, as a template for further expansion. He purchased a majority stake in Zocalo from its original owners and reopened it about a month ago with a new menu based on that of Venga Venga, his restaurant in the ski town of Snowmass, Colo., about 15 miles from Aspen.
“It’s kind of like a cantina,” Sandoval said of Venga Venga. The food is approachable for mainstream Americans — enchiladas, tacos, queso fundido, ceviche, flautas, plus a few signature items such as pan-seared achiote salmon — and drinks make up about 40 percent of revenue.
Business is good at Venga Venga, and so are the economics. The straightforward menu means he can serve 800 people a day with just three people in the kitchen, compared to between four and six kitchen staff at lower-volume Maya. And Venga Venga’s food cost is a manageable 23–24 percent. The average check is around $14-$15 at lunch and $25-$26 at dinner.
But Snowmass is a seasonal town, and business drops by 60 percent once the snow melts, Sandoval said.
He said Zocalo lets him experiment to see if the same model can work year-round.
The Atlanta restaurant has some unique qualities, such as its history, to which Sandoval is paying homage by retaining signature dishes, such as cochinita pibil, a Yucatán-style roasted pork, and its signature lemony margarita.
“It’s almost like a lemonade,” Sandoval said. “It’s a very refreshing margarita.”
He has beefed up the drink program, with new variations on the margarita, such as the Cadillac, made with aged reposado tequila, and the Atlantarita, sweetened with peach liqueur. He also offers sangria and a variety of flavored Mojitos, as well as nine Mexican beers by the bottle and a robust wine-by-the-glass program.
Lucero Martinez-Obregon, whose family opened Zocalo in 1995, remains. She has also been executive chef at Sandoval’s Pampano restaurant in New York City since 2009. Sandoval said Martinez-Obregon is helping turn Zocalo around, after it suffered some recent neglect.
“It was kind of run-down,” Sandoval said. However, “Every day sales are growing compared to last year. People who had stopped going are coming back.”
At just 2,000 square feet, Zocalo is on the small side of what Sandoval envisions in a future chain, which would have 3,000-4,000 square feet. That is still significantly smaller than his 6,000-square-foot La Sandia concept.
“It’s a model that I love,” Sandoval said. “The investment’s not very high, and labor’s very low. With Obamacare, you have to find a way to open these restaurants with that kind of labor model,” he said, adding that he is currently scouting locations in San Diego.
Once the model is further fine-tuned, he said he might consider franchising.
Sandoval currently operates some 35 restaurants, many of them one-off concepts such as Raymi, which serves Peruvian food in New York City; Tamayo, offering contemporary Mexican food in downtown Denver; and Toro Toro, a churrascaria in Dubai. His largest chains, Asian-Latin Zengo and Mexican restaurant and tequileria La Sandia, have four units each.