Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: David Guerrero of Andes Café — South America in Houston

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat with David Guerrero of Andes Café, we learned about his year of unemployment after Samba Grille closed. His new job: finding an investor for a new restaurant. Initially, he wanted to reopen Alma Cebiche + Bar, the short-lived restaurant on Eldridge in West Houston that failed after five months .

Because of the publicly-available details about his prior surgery to remove a brain tumor, he was told “no” repeatedly by potential investors who were fearful that Guerrero might not have long to live. After encountering so many who lacked faith in his future, it changed Guerrero’s perspective on hiring once he did manage to open a new restaurant. “The way I think now is different,” he said. “I like to give people opportunities. I don’t care about problems in their background.”

Finally, Guerrero got a break. “I went salsa dancing and met a guy named Viet. I said, ‘I have a business plan. Are you interested?’ He said yes. One day we sat down and he was still interested. I brought him food and he said, ‘Wow! You know how to cook!” I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”

Still, a new direction had to be figured out. Alma was no more. The space in the Montrose it had been intended to go in would take more than half a million dollars to fix up, according to Guerrero. “I had to come up with something else,” he said. Because of the length of time it was taking to find a new space, his investor started reconsidering. “Viet said, ‘You know what. I think I’m going to invest in a house.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Time was clicking. At the same time, I was trying to find a job. Chef Charles Clark of Ibiza recommended me for a consulting job at Drexel House, and I worked there until we got Andes Café. I thought, ‘I’ve got to find something.’

My thought was to open EVO [short for “evolution”], a Latin tasting menu concept. I think the Montrose could really use a cool Latin restaurant like that. I was looking for 3,000 square feet. I came here [to the location where Andes Café now resides]. I talked to a restaurant critic who said, ‘Man, David. There’s two options. You’re either going to make it and it’s going to be insane, or you’re going to be broke.’”

I chose here because it’s a small place. I told the landlord what I was going to do. I wanted to do something like Oxheart or The Pass but a South American version. Thirty or 40 people, tops. The landlord said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s never going to work out.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Look around here. You don’t have that many adventurous people.’ East of Downtown is the last area to be developed. It was supposed to be the new Heights.

"The landlord had someone else coming to look at the place. He said, ‘You have one day to come up with a different concept. Give me something simple and let me know by tomorrow.’”

"I talked to my mom and she said, ‘Follow your heart.’ My mom always wanted a little cafe. Her tamales are amazing. She learned from my grandma. So, coffee and tamales was the first idea. There’s a fitness place next door, so it made sense to do a juice bar. The landlord said, ‘That makes sense. You’re ready to go.’ That was in October [of 2013].”

It took three months to complete the build-out. Contractors were too expensive, quoting over $120,000 to do the job. Guerrero, with the help of two men from Salvador, did the build-out for under $90,000. “You know that show Restaurant Impossible? We did it,” he said. “My little brother is an architect and was helping me out. I must have went at least 100 times to Home Depot and Lowe's. I have a car where the back door broke just from opening it and closing it so much.”

Of course, the menu at Andes Café is much bigger than that now. Once it opened, Guerrero drew in his first customers through good old grassroots social media marketing. “People found out it was open because I made a Facebook page and invited them to ‘like’ it,” he explained. People from the neighboring offices in the building were also among the first to check it out.

Guerrero also says he’s a big believer in what he calls “confessions,” which are more like affirmations. “It sounds crazy, but if I express it, it happens,” he says.

Andes Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the only day it is closed is on Mondays. The South American menu initially had a hard time finding traction. “It was still too advanced a menu for the people around here,” he says with a frown. “It is what it is. The difference between Andes Café and other restaurants is with others, there’s a big ‘boom.’ We were reversed. It started with nothing and then went up, up, up, up.”

Appetizers didn’t catch on at first. Guerrero thinks they were initially perceived as something that would just add to the final check total. One very small change made a difference. He started calling them “small plates” and they started to sell. It also helps that they are all shareable.

Nearly concurrent positive reviews from the Houston Press on April 23, 2014, and the Houston Chronicle on April 29, 2014, really started to bring in business. It was an overall positive thing, but there tend to be repercussions with such a sudden influx of customers. “The month of May — oh my God, it was crazy. We had a line three blocks away. That was brutal. One friend of mine who was a sous chef at Samba Grille was helping me. After lunch service in the middle of May, he walked away. He couldn’t do it.”

Guerrero is about to change the menu at Andes Café to reflect his own heritage and to serve some of the more adventurous, unfamiliar South American dishes, such as guinea pig. “I might be the only restaurant in Houston to serve guinea pig.” Before you freak out over cuddly Fluffy on a plate, you first have to understand that in South America, they’re not pets. They’re food sources. The name of the dish is cuy.

“Of course, I need to present it a different way,” muses Guerrero. “If you have it in Ecuador or Peru, it’s not appetizing. It looks horrible. At a food and wine event in 2014, I did roasted guinea pig for 700 people and it was a big hit. If you present it the right way, it doesn’t look like a rat. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

Bringing in authentic ingredients from South America is challenging. Guerrero has even enlisted the help of consulates to connect him with suppliers and navigate the rough waters of U.S. Customs laws regarding food imports. “Black clams are super-hard. At first, the [City of Houston] Health Department told me to not sell them anymore. For three months, everyone who came to the restaurant wanted black clams.

"When you have black clams, they are alive and fresh. If you put them in the fridge, they will die in three days. So what I used to do was put them in cold storage with newspaper on the top and bottom. The Health Department came in and was like, ‘ What the hell is this?’ Now, I bring them in through New York. I still have to keep them in the fridge, but I order them twice a week. I hate telling people when we’re out, but I want to keep them fresh and alive.”

Instead of having an expensive account with a restaurant-supply company, Guerrero goes to grocery stores and Canino’s to pick out his own fresh produce. It helps keep costs down and ensures he gets the product that he wants. It’s not the only way he’s hands-on with his business. “You have to multitask when you're a chef with a small restaurant. Sometimes I’m the electrician or the plumber. When you have a restaurant like this, you can’t afford to hire an executive chef in the back or a manager in the front. Sometimes you can’t pay yourself because you have to pay your guys first. You just deal with it.”

Occasionally, Guerrero looks back at the path not taken. “[Chef] Brandi Key interviewed me for taking over Coppa Osteria and Brasserie 19 as well,” he says, with a bit of a faraway look. “I staged at both restaurants and she offered me a job, but I had to leave everything to open [Andes Café]. There are a lot of sacrifices. Nothing good comes easy. It’s been a struggle.” 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook