Back to His Roots
Mario del Pero marks a return to the South Bay with the opening of Mendocino Farms at The Point in El Segundo.
Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles’ cultish sandwich mecca, inspires the kind of obsessive loyalty that most rising restaurant brands can only envy. The maestro behind this magic? Mario del Pero, a USC grad and former general manager at Sharkeez in the South Bay.
With Mendocino Farms opening in El Segundo, we anticipate the lines stretching down to the Hermosa Pier. We caught up with this homegrown hero on business, brand-building and what it really means to eat local.
You’re opening two new locations this summer as part of your impressive expansion history. There’s also a saying that for every one new opening, at least two restaurants are shuttered. What’s kept you open and thriving?
Mario del Pero: They also say 9 out of 10 restaurants fail—I think both sayings might be accurate. When I was deciding whether to be in the restaurant business in 1993, I noticed while browsing a lot of microfiche articles (for those born after 1985, microfiche was like Google, powered by a hand crank) that most of the great restaurateurs all knew one another, and many had worked for the same greats. These individuals were really students of the business, and if you learned from them, you could become part of the 1 out of 10 that figured out a way to adjust and evolve restaurants so they could succeed.
You have one of the great restaurateurs in the country right here in the South Bay—it’s Tom Simms. He has been an incredible mentor to me. He and his sons Chris and Mike (with partner Chef David Lefevre) have all been a lighthouse (pun intended) of innovation in this community that was previously underserved.
How do you distinguish yourself from chain restaurants while simultaneously developing a chain of your own?
MDP: There are so many great restaurant concepts out there from which we constantly derive inspiration and excitement, so thank you for putting us in that group. At our base camp, we have written in really large print in the main conference room: “How do we scale our culture?”
As great brands grow, there is a constant threat of losing quality for the sake of quantity. The three things that seem to lose their luster first are the culture, food, and store design.
We have made enormous investments into the training of our team. We recently brought on the former VP of CPK as our director of training, and he is truly our brand guru.
We just built our own smokehouse to explore the art of smoking meats in-house. We continue to add young, innovative chefs to our culinary team. And we have used our scale to influence the best farms in California to work with us, so our ingredients keep getting better.
We also continue to challenge old norms with design, planting giant trees inside some restaurants, building kids corners for children to get up and draw on the walls, situating corn hole courts in the middle of our dining rooms, and generally continuing to think of new ways to break old rules. El Segundo will not look like any Mendo that we have ever built, though happily the menu will be the same.
“Eat local” is a big part of your brand. How are you integrating local resources into your menu planning?
MDP: Almost 50% of all of our produce comes directly from a farm and never even goes to a third-party produce distributor. Most the time you are getting field greens that were picked the day before in Oxnard, then washed, boxed in a recyclable crate and directly delivered to each of our stores.
This summer we wanted to celebrate the original, heirloom varieties that have the flavor, texture and depth worthy of the center of the plate. So we created a BLT … only we call it the “Heirloom TBL.” We are featuring a number of varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes from Tutti Frutti Farms for this special sandwich.
Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches. Why did you focus your concept on the humble sandwich?
MDP: Almost everyone loves sandwiches, and if you offer gluten-free bread (which we do), then everyone loves sandwiches! Seriously, my business partner Ellen Chen and I decided on sandwiches for a few reasons. We noticed that our friends were starting to care more about the quality of their food and where it came from, and we felt like the Subways and Jersey Mikes of the world were not sourcing the ingredients those people would seek out to buy for themselves at Whole Foods.
Also, we thought the humble sandwich could be done so much more creatively. Why not reinterpret fine dining entrées into sandwich form? Or honor the tradition of the classic sandwiches we all grew up with by giving them a modern update?
The sandwich also has global reach, which gives our culinary team a lot of freedom to innovate a torta one day and a banh mi the next.
Your wife, Ellen, is also your business partner. Any advice you’d offer to couples out there who may be considering a joint business concept?
MDP: Don’t do it! Just joking. Everyone says, “Don’t be in business with your friends,” but in fact I only want to do business with my friends, and I am lucky to own my business with my best friend. My advice if you are going to be in business with your friends is to make sure that you don’t have the same skill strengths. Really try to find someone that complements you where you are weak.
Opening in El Segundo must feel like life coming full-circle for you. Tell us a bit about your early years in the
MDP: You can take the kid out of the South Bay, but not the South Bay out of the kid. I spent most of my 20s in Manhattan and Hermosa Beach. I am so grateful to Ron and Greg Newman for not just teaching me the restaurant business but for showing me the daily investment of love and passion that it takes to be successful at it. Ron and Greg are such students of the business—constantly listening to their guests and investing in their people and restaurants. I owe my career to both of them.
My partner and I founded Mendocino Farms to be a neighborhood gathering place, and the fact that I can come back to the community that I love and provide a place for the people I care about to come together over a good meal is beyond exciting for me! The greatest satisfaction will be to see my peers who were partying and drinking a Shark Attack bucket at Sharkeez 18 years ago now come into Mendo with their kids to grab sandwiches and let them play with the shark toys in the kids corner. Now that’s full circle!