Eight years ago, when Adriana López Vermut gave birth to her first child, her father Leopoldo López Gil posed an unexpected question.
“‘Well, what are you going to do to stay connected to your heritage and your family? And how are your kids going to know where you come from?’” Vermut says, recalling her father’s words. Gil was referring to their family’s roots in Venezuela, where he owned many fine-dining restaurants. Now residents of the San Francisco area, the two hatched a plan to keep the family tradition alive while introducing the Bay Area to Venezuelan cuisine.
Only about a week later, they met with an area developer, whose past collaborations included San Francisco’s renowned food hall, the Ferry Building. The developer was looking for one-of-a-kind, owner-driven concepts for the Oxbow Public Market in Napa Valley—and just like that, Pica Pica was founded.
Originally, Vermut and her father planned to serve a wide variety of Venezuelan fare, but the 400-square-foot Oxbow unit (which she calls the “airport model”) forced them to streamline their menu to focus on arepas—hot corn-patty pockets stuffed with hearty fillings like beef and plantains or spicy chicken and Mozzarella.
“Because it’s an unknown cuisine in the Bay Area, … it has really helped to be very singularly focused,” Vermut says. She adds that while it took a while to educate the public, Pica Pica now has a strong following; it was even featured on an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”
Gil initially advocated for a full-service, fine-dining model, but Vermut recognized the versatility of fast casual.
“He always argued higher average ticket price, more opportunities to upsell, people sit down and drink wine, and whatnot. And I was always of the opposite opinion. I wanted an affordable concept—it’s the fastest way of getting the concept to stick,” she says, adding that customers are more likely to be adventurous with their choices when they’re spending $15 on a meal rather than $35.
Restaurants might be in Vermut’s blood, but she also cut her teeth in the business and finance world before starting Pica Pica. She worked at a tech startup and then at a venture capital firm, where she learned how to write a business plan, manage a team, raise money, and “all the uninteresting pieces that are necessary no matter what you’re selling.” From the outset, Vermut knew her career path did not lie in startups or finance, but she also understood the value such experience provided.
Still, Vermut concedes that it’s impossible to know the extent of owning and operating a restaurant until actually doing so. She opened four locations in the space of six years, following the common assumption that more is always better. Now the brand has condensed to a single unit in San Francisco's Mission District that is just the right size—not as small as the Oxbow location and not as large as a two-story space that was in the Castro District.
“Every time we expanded, we were not really following a good blueprint. It was more, ‘This is a good location; this makes sense; let’s just go with it,’” Vermut says. “What I would do next is try to really understand what are the things that make that [Mission] location successful.” While she hopes to open more locations in the Bay Area, she will only do so if it’s the right fit.
When other young women come to Vermut asking about opening a restaurant and seeking her advice, she often asks if they’re in a relationship and planning to have children. She doesn’t want to discourage these aspiring restaurateurs, but she does want them to consider the timing and the hard work involved before making a decision. Pica Pica began shortly after the birth of Vermut’s first child, and now she has four.
“I look at my dad now and I say, 'I adore you, but that was really mean because I was just getting started with motherhood and that’s a whole enterprise,'” she says of her father's encouragement to open a restaurant. Her father points out that he had the energy for the undertaking about a decade ago, but might not if they had waited. “I have that [experience] with my dad, so I wouldn’t change that for anything. We have been able to build this together.”
By Nicole Duncan