Chef Chat, Part 1: Sylvia Casares of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, On Her Home Economics Degree, and Going into the Restaurant Business as a Woman in Her 40's
Sylvia Casares of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen
Photo by Mai Pham
Earlier this year, Sylvia Casares, owner of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, was shot in the stomach and air-lifted to the hospital. It's not an experience that anyone would be expected to recover from easily, but Sylvia Casares is no ordinary woman. In this week's chat, we learn about her humble beginnings, her philosophy behind developing recipes and her vision for the future as she opens up for the first time after her terrible ordeal.
EOW: Where are you from?
SC: I was born in South Texas, in Brownsville. It's the southernmost city of Texas, across the Rio Grande from Matamoros. My parents are from are from Texas, and my grandparents are from Mexico.
EOW: Do you come from a family that's been in the restaurant business?
SC: No, not at all. Just a bunch of women that cooked. I'm the first one to step out and do this.
EOW: How long have you been in the restaurant business?
SC: I started August 1st of 1995. I've been in the food business since right out of college, but not in the restaurant business. I quit my job in the corporate world and decided to take a leap of faith. I used to tell people what I was planning to do a year before, and they would kind of look at me funny, and I realize now why they were looking at me like that. (laughs) To me, at the time, it just seemed like a no-brainer. I just wanted to do it, believed I could do it, and I did it.
EOW: Tell me how you got started.
SC: I bought an existing Tex-Mex restaurant in Rosenberg from two sets of partners that weren't getting along. The restaurant had been open for about two years. One partner wanted to get out really bad, and the other decided they didn't want to be there either. So, I had a made a proposal to buy it out in stages, and that's what we did. One set of partners left, and about eight months later the other partners left. I'd never worked in a restaurant before.
EOW: But, you said you had worked in the food business?
SC: Well, after college, I went to work for Uncle Ben's. I have a B.S. in Home Economics, so I got hired to work in their food labs.
EOW: Home Economics! I didn't even know that was a major.
SC: (laughs) Yes, I think they call it something else now. But back in the Dark Ages, I got a degree in Home Economics. I was supposed to be a teacher, and had just finished my student teaching, when I heard about this R&D job at Uncle Ben's Rice in Houston. So I drove my little 1976 Volkswagen to Houston, interviewed and got the job. And it paid double what a teacher made. So I worked in the research lab for three years as a home economist. We did sensory evaluation -- which is the human analysis of food tasting, doing a quantitative analysis of flavor, texture, color -- and recipe testing and development. After that, I went into the research lab as a food scientist, so I did product development for them.
EOW: What made you decide to leave?
SC: About the seventh or eight year, I started thinking: "I don't know if I want to do this for the rest of my life." I didn't have an advanced degree, which is the only way I could get promoted, so I left after 10 years, and got a job doing food service sales, kind of like a Sysco, but it was Craft at the time.
EOW: So what takes you from this to "I'm going to open a restaurant?"
SC: Well, I was selling to restaurants for eight years, and I'd started out selling to little restaurants like mine, and I learned a lot about the restaurant business by getting to the know the owners, and I became very fascinated with it. By this time I'm in my early 40's, and I'm thinking, "I don't want to do this all my life," because I was doing a lot of travel, and I had children. So, I just thought, "I gotta find another way," because I've always been that person who looks 10 or 20 years down the road, and I thought "I can't be be in sales in my 50's or 60's, because nobody wants a saleslady in her 50's." So, it just seemed like a fun and challenging thing to do, and I love to feed people.
EOW: How to did you get the resources to buy the restaurant?
SC: Well, I was taught really young in life to live on less than I make. So it was my life savings and a little of my 401(k) to have enough money to buy out the first set of owners, and for the second set of owners, we just managed to save from the profits.
EOW: Are there advantages to being a female owned business -- in other words, did you take advantage of any loans or programs for women?
SC: No, I just slugged it out the natural way.
EOW: Were you a single mom at that point?
SC: I was married at the time, but after the restaurant in Rosenberg, my marriage fell apart, so I came Westheimer to start off on my own with a tiny hole-in-the-wall with 18 tables. I struggled for about a year and a half, and I wasn't cutting it because I was in a Class C shopping center that wasn't front facing.
EOW: Why did you open there?
SC: Because I was naive. It was an existing restaurant, and it had a Westheimer address, but the front door faced a side street, so no one could see my door or my sign. After two years, I was making little progress, and I was a single mom, and I actually contemplated selling the assets, but then I thought "I've never quit anything before, and I'm not gonna start now." And by that time, I already had a lot of enchilada recipes and I knew people loved my enchiladas, so I renamed my restaurant from Camino Real to Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen. I also leased the billboard on the corner that said "The best enchidadas are also the hardest to find" with a big arrow.
EOW: And now you have new locations.
SC: Well, that was my old location, and it was so tiny, and I didn't have a bar, and there was no parking, so when my lease was up, I leased the current location on Westheimer at Dairy Ashford, and I've been there ever since. In 2004, Dai Huynh wrote a feature on me in the Houston Chronicle, and that helped a lot as far as getting people to come and find out about me. Then I think in 2006, Alison Cook found me, and so, little by little, people started getting to know what we do here.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Casares and hear first-hand about her remarkable recovery.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.