@giorodriguez: How does a boricua restaurant make it big in San Rafael, a place not particularly well known for its Puerto Rican culture? By deeply thinking about what it means to be “social.” [Originally published in Forbes, Dec. 30 2012]
As many of my readers know, when I talk about “social” I try not to say “media.” In conversations about marketing, the word media tends to limit thinking in unfortunate ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of retail marketing. Too many retail businesses – many of them small – have suffered in the hands of social-media marketers whose biases have left them all but blind to their client’s greatest asset.
But what if one were to exploit that asset in ways that are social? The asset, of course, is the retailer’s access to physical space. A recent visit to Sol Food – a wildly popular group of restaurant-and-takeout properties in downtown San Rafael – is growing fast (not just in income, but physically) by experimenting with space in a deeply social way.
First, owner/chef Marisol Hernandez and husband Victor Cielo have created a vibe in each of their properties that makes for a big part of the Sol Food experience. When you first walk into The Big Place on 901 Lincoln Avenue (the largest of the three food-related businesses), you are immediately taken in. The greens, blues and orange you’d see in great island bistros but rarely here in the US. The music over the PA, loud enough to assert itself into your conversation, but not so loud as to overwhelm it. And the design of the room. In the new tradition of fast-casual dining, you get on line (which often spills out into the street) to order and the food is brought to you at large communal tables. If you are feeling less-than-social, you won’t probably mind the arrangement. You’ll adjust quickly, and perhaps even feel thankful that the music is amped loud enough to create a semi-private dome over your party.
Second, Sol has adapted her menu to the local culture, without sacrificing authenticity. She was born and raised in Marin County, so it’s not exactly like she needed to adjust to the natives; she is a native of Marin. But as the daughter of a Puerto Rico-born father, she also knows the real thing when it comes to Puerto Rican cooking (she also spent a few years on the island learning the craft). The result: amazing Puerto Rican food that’s also hip to Marin. The mofongo is vegan (gasp – it’s an iconic plantain dish known for its heavy reliance on fatback) but it is spectacular. The chicken is free range. The eggs (try the jamon, queso, y huevo for breakfast) are organic. People come from all over Northern and Central California — from Salinas to Sacramento — for the vibe and the quality of the food. In the end, Sol Food is a great California eatery that serves Puerto Rican food, not just a great Puerto Rican eatery in California.
But the Puerto Rican element truly matters, and it factors into Sol’s bigger business strategy. Just recently, she opened Conchita, a cultural gift store that sits caddy-corner to the The Big Place on Lincoln. Not just Puerto Rican gifts, mind you, but take a look at the main wall at Conchita and it will remind you of the storefronts in Old San Juan. And right next door to the The Big Place is La Bodega, Sol’s take-out kitchen that’s also replete with authentic Puerto Rican artifacts. And not too far away from this busy corner is The Small Place, the new spot for Sol’s first restaurant which has its own vibe and clientele. Sol’s sprawling little empire (she’s opening yet another restaurant soon in Mill Valley) is something to behold, but it’s the corner on Lincoln that deserves most attention. On nights when The Big Place features the band La Mixta Criolla, the party spills out into the street. You see, Sol has created a good business by fully vesting in the cultural element, mixing with artists and musicians that have been spreading Puerto Rico throughout NorCal.
Sol y Cielo
In short, she’s created a scene in San Rafael, not unlike what Jimmyz Kitchen has done for the Wynwood section of Miami. The Puerto Ricans of that city – many of them recent exiles in the new Puerto Rican diaspora – have named the corner where Jimmyz presides “La Placita de Jimmyz,” a nod to La Placita de Santurce, a hub of nightlife and urban culture in San Juan. It may be time to christen the corner of Lincoln and 3rd, “La Placita del Sol.” Like all great townsquares, Sol’s little corner is becoming a social hub.
“Many Puerto Ricans come thinking they might run into someone they know,” said Victor. But, again, the Sol experience is not just for Puerto Ricans. “Sometimes I tell them, it’s the cheapest vacation they’ll ever take,” as she told The Food Network’s Guy Fieri. Investors should be smiling. At a time when space stubbornly remains the number-one asset in the retail world — and at a time when few people know how to innovate — Sol and Victor seem to have figured it out.