Chef Chat, Part 2: Arnaldo Richards of Picos

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This past December, I found myself standing in line at the tortilla trailer in the parking lot of Arnaldo Richards's Picos. It was about noon, there was a line and there were more people parking and getting out of their cars to join the throng. It was only a few more moments before the Picos trailer sold out of all its savory tamales. That's how much Houstonians love the food there.

It took time for chef Arnaldo Richards to work his way up. His first place, El Granero, failed due to problems with the partnership he had entered into with a friend. In time, Richards was able to open the first Picos restaurant in Bellaire. The restaurant that has became a beloved reliable outpost of Mexican cuisine finally moved closer to the center of Houston. It now resides in the old Ninfa's location on Kirby at Richmond.

Yesterday we discussed Richards's start in the restaurant field and how one of his ventures that looked promising ultimately didn't work out.. In Part 2 of this Chef Chat, learn how Richards and his wife, Janice, picked up the pieces, made a new start and built the first Picos.

AR: We literally went inside, picked up our menus, grabbed the painting my mother gave me that's still over there hanging -- (points at a wall in the current Picos) and we took off.

EOW: That had to be super-painful to just walk away.

AR: And we were making some good money.

EOW: And you never got anything back out of that.

AR: No, I was very naive. I thought that with attorneys and all that, I was going to get my money back. I only got $5,000 out of it. That's all the money I took. The last thing I did was make payroll and tell everybody, "You go cash these checks today. After today, I'm not going to be here and I can't be responsible for making those checks good."

I made a $5,000 withdrawal and that was it. We spent three weeks on lawyers who were saying, "We're going to get this worked out." [My business partner's] father got very angry and was a very powerful man, so that was that. The rest is history.

The lawyer that I still have said, "This is not going to go anywhere. Just go on about your business. You are young."

I already had my eye on the location that would become Picos in Bellaire's. The moment [the partnership] separated, I called the landlady. I just wanted to know how much it was. I didn't have the money, but I raised the money in ten days. I got four friends and my in-laws, because they knew we had done so well [before].

EOW: It's good to have people who believe in you and know your track record.

AR: Yeah, we raised $90,000 in ten days. These days, that would be like raising a million.

EOW: Yeah, that's what it takes these days. What year was this?

AR: That was 1983. We opened in March 1984. We were remodeling the place for four months. I was without a job, without a restaurant, for four and a half months. I had worked consistently since I was 14 years old. But I was still working because I was putting the restaurant together.

EOW: What was it like when you opened? Were you immediately busy?

AR: We weren't immediately busy because we didn't have the Internet and all this social media. There was some, but it wasn't what it is today. One of the best things I did was hire a woman named Patricia Bernstein who put me in the newspaper in several locations.

So when we started, it was slow. We called up many of our old customers. They knew we were starting a new restaurant, but they didn't know when. It took us about two and a half months.

There's a funny story. We had enough operating capital to run for three months. I told my wife, "Honey, it's great that we opened a restaurant, because if we opened a shoe store, those shoes would have been tough to eat!" We had food and we were there all the time.

Anyway, there was an article in the newspaper about three months after we opened and, boy. At that time, articles in the newspaper -- people read those things.

EOW: Powerful.

AR: Very, very powerful. When we opened, the economy was still robust but it was starting to go south. People were looking for out-of-the-way places and holes-in-the-wall -- places with good food but not such a good location. I think the article was by Janice Schindler (a former restaurant critic for the Houston Press and food editor for the now-defunct Houston Post). It was anonymous, though. It was in something like "Best of Houston." I have a lot of respect for her. She was good at what she did.

That was the first article. Then there was another one. They called me and said, "Arnaldo, there's an article coming out and it's going to be a raving review. You need to be ready." I thought, "If we are going to be that busy, we better remodel the kitchen." My brother and I remodeled the kitchen in a week. We were putting panels in the kitchen two hours before the crowds started to come in that Friday. I was exhausted. We were still trying to train employees and hire more waitstaff. My wife was helping tremendously.

It was crazy. We had two-hour waits on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. During the week, it was half an hour to 45 minutes. We were busy like that for three months straight. It was ridiculous. I don't know how I had -- well, I was young. I was running on adrenaline.

Anyway, that's what really put us on the map. That's how we knew we were going to survive and be successful.

This story continues on the next page.

EOW: How long were you in that location?

AR: Thirty years. Exactly 30 years. We closed on our 30th anniversary. I said, "We're going to go all the way through. We're going to celebrate our 30th anniversary and then we are going to close." We had so many customers with us who had been there a long time. It was really heartwarming. They were celebrating that they were sad at the same time.

EOW: Sure. I'm sure for some, that was their home away from home.

AR: I still have customers who went to my very first restaurant, El Granero. I still have cooks with me who worked there.

EOW: That's amazing. When you have staff loyalty like that, that's a very good thing.

AR: I have two guys who have been with me for 32 years. I have others with me who have been with me since I opened [the first] Picos. I have waiters who have been with me for 27 years.

EOW: They're family at that point.

AR: Yeah, they're family. They've made their lives and careers here. They make good money.

EOW: What made you decide you needed to move to this location?

AR: The area where I was is declining. People change. The economy changes. People get older. They are not as adventurous anymore. We started noticing people were not eating with us as often as they were in the past and we really were not gaining the new clientele. We weren't getting a younger crowd anymore.

We were out of the way. Before, out-of-the-way was cool. Now it's not cool.

EOW: Now you're not convenient. Now you're not centrally located.

AR: Right. You're too far. You're not on Kirby. You're not on Montrose.

We were still doing well but people felt unsafe, which I never understood. I lived about eight or nine blocks away and felt like that area was safer than this area. I know there's a lot of crime in all the parking lots in the area. The first thing, the guy from across the street at Pappasito's came to talk to me and tell me, "Arnaldo, you better install cameras and security because there is a big problem here."

EOW: There is a lot of smash-and-grab here: busting in the car windows and grabbing stuff.

AR: Yeah, we have signs in the parking lot that say, "Don't leave valuables in your car." It's a crime of opportunity. Some people are just walking around, looking to see because they know this area is very affluent. There's going to be nice cars, people are going to have their laptops in their cars.

EOW: How long did it take between closing the old location and opening this one?

AR: Oh, it only took us four days.

EOW: So you were just ready.

AR: It just took a long time to open this. We got the opportunity to get this location. It wasn't by happenstance. I know the landlord -- the people who own the building next door. Julie Tycer is the CEO and I knew her. We have a lot of mutual friends.

So one day, about four months, five months before, she actually closed the doors on the guys from Ninfa's for nonpayment of rent. I approached her and told her that I had done a lot of research and knew that the folks at Ninfa's weren't doing very well.

So we were having a tequila dinner and she was attending. I sat with her awhile and explained that I was interested. I told Julie, "Just give me a shot when the property becomes available."

Maybe it was a blessing, but Jimmy Moreno [Ninfa's proprietor] made the deal with Carlos Mencia [to rebrand as Maggie Rita's] and of course when it wasn't doing well, [Mencia] pulled the plug. It was kind of a mess. A lot of people have a very negative idea about the location. I just had a guy the other day who thought it was still Ninfa's! This is nine months later!

When they were locked out, I was in Mexico and [Julie] called me and said, "Arnaldo, if you're still interested, the property's available." I got back the following Monday. By that time, I had already called my architect, my engineer, my electrician and we were waiting here at 8 o'clock in the morning for Julie to open up the doors. I think that's why she thought, "This is the guy."

EOW: How has it been since you opened?

AR: It's been up and down. Of course, in the beginning it was pandemonium. Everybody wanted to come and see it. We had some negativism from people because we did sort of change the menu. At the Bellaire location, we had some Tex-Mex dishes and we removed most of them from the menu. We still have some, but our concept has always been Mex-Mex.

EOW: Your culinary perspective has broadened and you're trying to represent more regions of Mexico. Now it's about those seven regions.

AR: We had always represented them. I always wanted to have food from every region of Mexico. That's unusual, because even in Mexico, you won't find a restaurant like mine. My mother told me for years, "Arnaldo, come to Mexico and open a restaurant here. You're going to do gangbusters." Especially in Monterrey, which is a meats and tortillas kind of place.

I considered going back to Mexico when I was younger, but I told people that I can't go back because I didn't want to be the junior-junior-junior partner. I have two older brothers. I stayed here because I had the opportunity to open the restaurant that I did. It was destiny. It wasn't a goal. I just knew it was going to happen.

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