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From Catering to Criollas: The Comeback of Comfort Food with Mario Vivas
Bringing people together, one empanada at a time: How Mario Vivas, Owner of Criollas, founded a business inspired by his heritage in the midst of the pandemic. We discuss some of the difficulties he’s faced, new trends he sees on the horizon, and the relationship between the arts and restaurant industry.
Key Takeaways1. Customers are looking for food that makes them feel good and makes them feel at home.
2. Diving deep into your menu and identifying your best seller items will transform your business.
3. It’s important to spend time with your customers. Take note of what they like to eat, their reactions, and any questions they may have.
Mario Vivas: It's a very personal project to have a business or to have a shop or a bakery or a restaurant. You need to really develop and deliver the best product you can sell.
Matt Levin: Inspirational stories, actionable business tips and real-world strategies.
Join us as today's guest shares how you can make your business more resilient in an unpredictable world.
Hi everyone, I'm Matt Levin and you're listening to The Resilient Restaurant podcast.
Today we're joined by Mario Vivas, Founder and Owner of Criollas, an authentic Argentinian empanadas restaurant located in New York City's Columbus Circle in the Turnstile Underground market. Mario founded Criollas in December 2020, using inspiration from his grandmother's family recipes. He lived with his grandmother, Stella, in Buenos Aires while attending college. It was during this time that he began learning how to perfect the family recipes, which are now staples of the Criollas brand.
In this episode, we discuss how he founded his new business in the midst of the pandemic, some of the difficulties he faced along the way, new trends he sees on the horizon, the relationship between the arts and the restaurant industry, and how he's honoring his heritage while bringing food to people's homes across the country.
Matt Levin: Mario, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how your business Criollas came to be?
Mario Vivas: I moved to New York City in 2012. After a few years of working in different industries, I decided to open my own catering business in 2017. Until then, everything seemed easy, very straightforward. We were doing a lot of private events, corporate, and after a few years we realized we’re trying to be a little more specific on the type of food that we serve and try to create a niche.
When COVID hit in 2020, we decided to separate from my business partner in the catering business and I decided to start developing the idea of a fantasy that I once had of opening my own shop. The idea of Criollas was born a year ago in July 2020.
I decided to actually start scouting places around the city. The scouting process was not easy. I looked at places everywhere around Brooklyn, Uptown, Downtown Manhattan. I decided to start looking for places where I could find a lot of people traffic, and I decided to finally choose Turnstyle, which is in an interesting location, I can say, because it combines residents from New York City, commuters, but there is a lot of potential tourism spots around it, such as Central Park. And I thought that this high volume of people traffic would benefit the business.
Matt Levin: So I want to ask a bit about your physical retail location. You're part of an underground market at the Columbus Circle transit hub, which is kind of a counterintuitive place to start out during a pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit more about it and some of the challenges you had getting going?
Mario Vivas: The Market opened back in 2016. They are a big market with 40 stores. You can find food, beauty care products, clothes, and all different types of cuisine. I decided to start there mainly because it was a great location for selling a product such as the one I sell. Ee thought of also opening in Grand Central Station, Port Authority, Penn Station. We were thinking about all different places where we could find big flocks of people.
I think that we were lucky also to find that they were open to talk about different types of lease agreements. If I take you back a year ago, we could have never thought of negotiating rent or talking about a 10 year lease.
No one would have never committed to these long leases that they were offering. So we tried to be fair in the way we negotiated that. They were open to having us. They tried our food and they loved it and they believe in the product. So I think that was key for us to proceed with the process of starting the business there, to work with someone who believed in the product and not only seeing how much money you're going to pay monthly, but also believing in a good quality product that could survive the pandemic and could sell throughout the years.
Pivoting From a Catering Business
Matt Levin: So you had a catering business, which basically evaporated overnight in March 2020. Can you share a little bit about your first kind of thought when you realize, “Okay, I've got to do something else. Maybe I'll take this idea that's been in the back of my mind and bring it to life.” What was your mindset at the time?
Mario Vivas: Well, it's funny because during the pandemic I was trying to keep cooking for clients, for people that were still in touch with me throughout the pandemic. And I decided to start cooking for them, meals twice a week.
And it started with 1-2 customers. And that list ended up with 14 different customers all around the city, mostly in the Midtown area, on the Upper East Side. So after probably four to five months of cooking nonstop, Tuesday and Thursdays, one of my customers decided to ask me: “What is the best dish that you can prepare and what is your favorite food?” Of course, I'm from Argentina, so I said Argentinian food. I said I was an expert doing homemade empanadas, which I had a family recipe from my grandmother and I was really good at. And he was like, “Okay then, make me like a sample plate and I can taste all the different flavors.”
So after he tasted that he offered me that he would invest in my project if I develop a business plan. So I worked hard, I went running to my home and to my computer and decided to start working on a business plan. And that's how I started planning the structures of what Criollas is today.
It didn’t start with the idea of just selling empanadas, it was truly a way of reinventing myself at that time. Of course I wanted to succeed, I mean, who doesn't. But in the middle of the pandemic where everything was so uncertain, I think it was a healthy exercise for my head to just keep busy myself. I mean, most of my friends have left New York, most catering businesses didn't exist any longer and restaurants were closing. So I think it was a good moment for me to find a time, which to be honest, I would have never found before COVID to sit down and plan my next chapter.
Business Do’s and Dont’s
Matt Levin: So I think by really any definition you're a serial entrepreneur, having successfully founded at least two businesses. Can you share a little bit about the experience between your first and your second businesses in terms of lessons learned and knowing what to do or what not to do?
Mario Vivas: Wow. So the process of building a shop is completely different from a catering business. When you offer a service such as catering, especially when it's corporate, you always are waiting for the clients to come to you. And there seems to be a wheel and consistency on this. But when it comes to a shop, I think that you have to deal with other types of challenges and it has more to do with working with people that you actually don't know. Every customer that walks into the store, is a new relationship you're building, and this is a completely different dynamic from the relationship perspective.
Now, when it comes to food, in catering, you have a 10 pages menu that we offer and the client just picked their favorite. I mean, either we have a bride or a corporate client, they always have a list where to choose the food from, but when it comes to a store, you are limited to that specific list. And I think that makes you have a bigger commitment and to develop the best product you can give.
I also found out a big lesson during the pandemic and cooking for different clients is that there seems to be a comeback of comfort food. I was very uncertain about what type of food I should have cooked for them at the beginning. But then I found out that people actually were looking for simple stuff. They wanted a brisket, they wanted a real chicken with thyme and lemon and nothing else on that. And it was so simple, but it made them feel happy, it made them feel like they were back home.
I think that I learned that comfort food was a key decision in deciding what type of food I should have cooked in Criollas. Empanadas are not easy, I have to say. It takes a lot of time and a long process of baking and doing the fillings and preparing the dough. It's a very artisanal product. I think people really value this in our products, that they're handmade and that it actually requires a lot of time and love to make it happen.
New Trends on the Horizon
Matt Levin: It's interesting you talk about this kind of shift that we are going through or went through towards comfort food and having kind of a safe, welcoming type of experience during a time that is really very scary and felt very unsafe. So what do you see going forward on the horizon in terms of trends over the next year or so in the food or hospitality landscape as the world emerges from the pandemic? Do you think these trends are going to sort of revert back to the mean, or is there something that we're going to carry through from this time that is fundamentally changed?
Mario Vivas: I think that's very interesting. I mean, there are so many new things that I see coming. There's definitely a big trend of everything coming into a smaller scale. The demand is not the same demand as in 2019. But what I can definitely see is a big trend of people coming with smaller menus, becoming more specific on the niche and the type of clients they want to talk to.
Today, for example, Criollas serves only empanadas. I mean, I could not imagine serving more stuff because we specialize in serving baked empanadas. I think there seems to be a big shift in the whole industry about this, and also the fact that the staff - it's definitely smaller than it used to be.
It's better to do less amount of items in a good quality rather than trying to go too far and not deliver a good quality product. So, that I can say is a big highlight of the new change in this new New York.
Labor Shortage and Challenges
Matt Levin: So touching on a bit of the labor aspects, obviously there are a lot of headlines right now around the challenges in finding workers and anyone in the industry. This is not new information for the last few months. Can you shed some light on how things are going for you in terms of finding talent?
Mario Vivas: Yeah, so when I started opening Criollas, when we were building out this store, the store took us probably a whole month to build up. And during that time, I remember just collecting plenty of resumes that people would slide under the door while we were under construction. So I would open the door and I would just find like 10 to 20 resumes sometimes more. There seems to be a shift after the winter. A lot of people left New York City and this brought a lot of problems to businesses such as restaurants and bars.
I mean, the demand of course was not high, so it was a struggle to just see a lot of people losing their jobs. But at the same time, because it’s New York City, most of these people, especially bartenders, servers from the counter in different shops, have a part-time job. They’re artists, they’re dancers or actors, they're models, and all these people were left with no jobs, so they left New York City. So I think that there is a big lack of good customer service in the way that we used to know it. I'm not saying that it disappeared completely, but the type of very personable people that we used to have in a coffee shop or a barista around the corner from our apartment, they're not there anymore.
And this might be a shift in the new New York that we see. The people that left, I mean, I don't know if they're going to come back or not, but there's definitely going to be a new wave of New Yorkers in the upcoming months.
Today after all these months of growing and changing menus and staff, I can say that it's still a struggle that we have to deal with and try to find consistent employees that can stay and commit to the job. Most people have no idea where their life is heading or where the arts are heading, so they're trying to work by projects and whatever the project is, they relocate. That has been a struggle and a huge challenge for us to just try to find people that are committed and they can stay throughout the growing of this new business.
Matt Levin: You've only been operating for seven months or so now. It's still relatively early, but if you had to go back in time, are there things that you would have done differently with your initial launch?
Mario Vivas: I think we were smart enough to start small. I think we're very responsible in the way we approach the business. Of course, there were a lot of mistakes and of course we learned from most of them and we're still working on them, but I think that we have a very solid product. People come and they leave very happy. They ask a lot about the product, the fact that it’s also from Argentina, which is not a very developed cuisine, I have to say, in New York City it’s a very small community and there’s not as many Argentinian food business here.
I think that we're learning a lot from the mistakes. One of the things that I can say that was a challenge and it is still a challenge is to just keep the product clean, keep it clean and keep it authentic. We use all local produce, which makes our product very different from others in the market.
It's very easy to start a business and listen to friends and customers telling you, “Oh, you should do this, you should do to-go. You should sell gift cards. You should offer more delivery or media presence.” And bottom line that it really comes down to what makes you happy and trying to make the business feed your personal goals. It's a very personal project to have a business or to have a shop or a bakery or a restaurant. You need to really develop and deliver the best product you can sell. So it really comes down to the question, if you really want to sell good quality, comfort food, or do you want to sell cheap, fast food? I mean, that option is in the restaurant owner. We have an option and we have to choose.
Matt Levin: In these kinds of trade-offs that you're making, how much of them are like a trading off passion type of decision, something you really want to do, versus a kind of a business decision that seems maybe economically right for the business, but you don't have the passion for, is there something that's maybe best for the market. In your experience, have any of those two things been at odds with each other?
Mario Vivas: I think that it's all about finding the balance and finding the middle point. I am business-oriented, but I'm also very passionate about what I do. And if I'm not going to do something a hundred percent right, then I prefer not to do it. I actually tried to push myself to do it a hundred percent right.
So, I tasted other empanadas in the business and I can tell you that people didn't put all the best effort into them. So I was trying to see what it was in the market.
It was like an “aha” moment where I say, “Listen, this is a big deal. We can definitely kill it because there's not any good empanadas right now that I could come back home and say, ‘oh my God, I have the best empanada.’” So that's what we’re trying to make people feel, to go back home and feel they just had the best empanada they had in their lives.
Matt Levin: That's great. That's a really great operating mantra, right? To be able to say this is the way we want people to feel and if you can help align your employees and your business partners and everyone around that mission.
Mario Vivas: Absolutely. Even better is when they tell you that they've been to Argentina and that it tastes exactly as the one they taste when they went to Buenos Aires or Patagonia, it’s actually a very big compliment.
Going Back to the Basics
Matt Levin: If you were to give one piece of advice to people to do something that they might not be doing right now, what would it be?
Mario Vivas: I think it comes back to going back to the basics. I truly believe in businesses that are trying to do smaller menus. I think that becoming more specific gives you the ability to observe every food that you're serving more in detail and see what you can change.
It's also a smart way to deliver a very good quality product. There is no way that with this new industry shift, you can follow up with such a large menu. So I think that going back to basics and really trying to read people's need, it's key here.
The best answers are going to be given by customers. So if you want to find out which is the most popular item that you sell or everyone's favorite, you can just go check your POS system and you're going to get the answer to that. So I think that going into detail and finding your best seller and trying to even make it better and keep it solid and persistent, that it can be key and can completely transform your business.
The Creation of Smaller Menus
Matt Levin: So I don't have any data in front of me right now, so I can't really speak to this in a fully concrete way, but given your experience and your observation having lived a long time in Argentina and now lived in New York, do you think this type of Cheesecake Factory style menu with hundreds of things on it without a ton of focus, is it a uniquely American thing?
Mario Vivas: I think it's really American, which doesn't mean that it's bad, it's different crowds. I think you're talking to different audiences here. I mean in a city like New York it is very hard to picture a Cheesecake Factory, for me, for what I conceive as a New York concept of the restaurant industry.
I think it would be very hard for me to imagine it, but I think it's a completely different field. I'm not saying it's bad or right, but it's a completely different story. New York was already great, New York already had great restaurants.
It is really restaurant owners’ responsibility right now to really reinvent themselves. It's time to do homework. It's time to make our food better and make the people come and taste again what the city has to offer.
Matt Levin: So it's interesting. Your advice is really about focus and doing it in both a qualitative and a quantitative way. And in fact, in our data at MarketMan, we've actually seen this. During the pandemic, people reduced the number of suppliers they worked with and simplified menus.
We saw it clearly in the backend data from our customers. And so now while sales are back up and actually exceeded pre-pandemic numbers, menus and supplier relations are still more limited. So people are, to some extent, being more cautious than they were previously. So there might be a kind of current behavior change.
So do you think your advice about focusing on limiting and really leaning into what you do best is maybe more broadly received?
Mario Vivas: I think it will be taken positively. Cities like New York City, we have a very big immigrant influence and I think that's key here. I mean, even in Buenos Aires, our city was raised by Spaniards, by Italian, by French and we can see all those influences today in our cuisine.
It really depends on immigrants here, and I think there are the ones who are kind of like the gourmet ambassadors in New York City and they are the ones who brought all the different flavors. And what we see today, it's nothing else but the result of all of that effort.
Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
Matt Levin: Any last words of wisdom for fellow restaurant operators, either people like yourself, we're starting out with a new concept or people who've been in business for a while?
Mario Vivas: I think it's always smart to just grow from small and not try to go too far from the physical perspective, but also from the budget's perspective. It’s very important to spend more time in the shops to just watch our customers, to see what they like to eat, their reactions, their questions. I got so many people coming to me asking me for vegan options.
And then when we had the vegan option, they were like, “Oh, I want to have a beef empanada now,” and I'm like, “What happened to the vegan option?” Well, they liked the beef one better now. So all these real stories are important to pay attention to and it's important to just stay there and be present.
Matt Levin: Awesome. Well, Mario, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been super insightful and it's really exciting to have been a bit of a passenger on your journey and hear about your true passion for the craft.
Mario Vivas: No, thank you so much for inviting me. This has been great.
Thanks for listening to The Resilient Restaurant. Sign up for our podcast newsletter at marketman.com/podcast to receive bonus content and exclusive podcast announcements. You can also find articles on marketman.com/blog for more content related to the restaurant industry and restaurant management.
This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.