The opening crew at Jaranita, led by executive chef Javier Cussato (center left) and general manager Kenzeo Mpoyi (center right). Photo courtesy Jaranita

InterviewsSan Francisco

Jaranita’s Thomas Medl on Opening During a Pandemic and Keys to Success in San Francisco

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Earlier this year, the team behind La Mar Cebicheria Peruana opened Jaranita, a Peruvian grill and rotisserie set in the former Bistro Aix space.

Open for dining and takeout, the restaurant is led by two La Mar vets in executive chef Javier Cussato and general manager Kenzeo Mpoyi. We recently caught up with Thomas Medl, director of North America operations for the Acurio International Restaurant Group, who spoke about the global view for both Jaranita and the restaurant industry as a whole.

Q: Given your global vantage point, what are you seeing over your properties right now? It seems like there is so much variance from city to city. What patterns or insights do you see?

Thomas Medl: For the most part, we see similar patterns all over the U.S. with our brand. Miami is doing very well — they don’t have any restrictions, so it is simple for them. Chicago also is doing well and San Francisco is also doing well.

The key was to not shut down and stay connected to our diners during this year. We never needed to reintroduce ourselves and say that we have reopened because we never closed.

I believe restaurants have become smarter operators during this time. We invested a lot in different and new technologies, like new website with analytics, a different method of advertising and marketing, handheld units for servers, et cetera. Restaurants now run the risk of becoming too hands-off with the hospitality experience. Most of the other successful operators have acted similarly to us.

What’s your prognosis for the dining world in the coming months? Do you see it bouncing back, and if so, how?

Yes, I believe in the short term we will have to be cautious because of the virus variants, but once there are a good amount of people vaccinated, we are ready to go. We already are seeing increased demand in banquet requests and business for Q3 and Q4, so we are excited to finally see things coming back. People want to return to how things have been, socialize and be happy. It’s great that the second round of PPP was approved, and I hope that will help many of our colleagues survive so they can hop on the bandwagon. There is much demand built up and we should have all the restaurants rocking by July, August.

What has the Acurio International Restaurant Group learned during the last year?

Never take anything for granted. We had to lay many people off and went through some very scary moments. We became closer as a team between all the cities we operate in and shared what worked and what didn’t. We tirelessly tried everything, from virtual kitchens, ghost kitchens, virtual cooking shows, nationwide meal shipping, holiday boxes, open-air bars, new technology, different menus, and so on. Some things worked, others not at all. But we never gave up and found the three to four which worked very well and we doubled down on those.

Photo courtesy Jaranita

In a market like San Francisco, both fine dining and fast-casual were surging pre-pandemic, and many have predicted that those two genres will bounce back more easily than the middle ground of restaurants. What are the keys for success for an 80-seat restaurant like Jaranita?

Ultimately, people want to experience something when they go out. The whole world has changed with Instagram, and everyone wants to show off where they went and what they had. When we go out, we want to share it with our friends and family or post on our social media pages so ultimately, restaurants need to create an experience that people like. They need a good product and great service. You also need staff who like what they do and sell the food and the experience. We opened Jaranita with “only” a beer and wine license, but our cocktails are outselling both beer and wine together. Creativity goes a long way.

Revenue streams beyond the dining room, yes, it’s nice to have extra sales from takeout, delivery, added ghost kitchen, or other things but ultimately, if you just opened a restaurant, you need to focus on the chairs you have in your dining room: How do you keep them full? What makes the people come? Who is my client? How do I improve the restaurant operation today? Those are the questions you need to ask yourself daily. Things change and you need to adapt quickly in our business.

What has been like to open a restaurant during a pandemic? And why did you go for it?

Every crisis brings opportunity. In San Francisco, real estate leases and terms came down to a workable number. We had looked at many sites here in the Bay Area over the past five years but ultimately could not see them as profitable from a numbers perspective until we found our current space.

What factors shaped the Jaranita concept? Was it something in the works before the pandemic?

Jaranita derived from another concept we were planning to open on the East Coast before COVID-19 hit. The concept’s name was Jarana and was set to be a 215-seat restaurant with a large grill and menu selection. Since we loved the concept and the grill in San Francisco’s Marina District location, we decided to call this space Jaranita since it’s a smaller version of the original space. Jarana/Jaranita is designed to be an everyday place, relax after work, bring your family or just have a fun night out. It brings so many different aspects of Peruvian cuisine and enhances the experience with its modern twists and interpretations.

Photo courtesy Jaranita

What was the decision process like to open for indoor dining? 

With our experience operating other restaurants internationally during this pandemic, we have developed strong safety protocols and felt comfortable with opening indoors. Ultimately we also see the demand that our guests are ready to go back inside and quite frankly, the financial aspect weighed also into our decision-making process. We are not eligible for the PPP loan program and somehow have to make this all work.

What are your favorite dishes on the menu? 

It really depends, the menu has so many cool things to offer. For example, our raw seafood corner with cebiche clasico and tiradito verde are delicious if you’re seeking light and refreshing dishes. The leche de tigre has a pick-me-up and wake-me-up mentality to it. The pasture-raised roasted chicken, our signature pollo a la brasa, is cooked over the custom-made charcoal grill and is very comforting. The empanadas, such as carne and pollo are amazing, especially the vegetarian (sweet chard, corn, and cheese with avocado-cucumber dressing). Or try all three in the sampler. 

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