restaurant openings and Entrepreneurship and Restaurants and Retail and Small Business and Inside Dish

INSIDE DISH: Venezuelan chef keeps day job, hatches big plan

January 21, 2011
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Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”

Our subject this week is Caracas Arepas Grill, the city’s only Venezuelan restaurant. And it's the first and only restaurant ever operated by 45-year-old truck driver Daniel Blanco, who seized a recent opportunity to become an entrepreneur and delivered the goods.



Blanco grew up in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, the son of parents who worked long hours to make ends meet. He learned to cook out of necessity. “I was tired of sandwiches,” he said.

His mother and grandmother shared with him what they knew of South American cuisine. Although Blanco never wrote down any recipes, they became ingrained in his extremities. “I only needed my fingers and taste,” he said, pointing at the tip of his tongue.

Blanco left Caracas for Indianapolis in 2001, dismayed by the heavy-handed Hugo Chavez administration and fearing for his safety after being robbed three times in one month. He soon earned a job as driver of delivery trucks for Indianapolis-based Piazza Produce Co.

“He’s a great driver,” said Steve Georgescu, transportation manager for Piazza Produce. “He never dilly-dallies on the route. He always busts it to get the job done.”

Within the last year or so, Blanco was presented with a business opportunity. The owner of a small strip-center taqueria — or taco shop — at 3970 Georgetown Road essentially offered him the keys to the restaurant.

“His business was down,” Blanco said. “He had problems. There were too many taquerias in the area. I said, ‘I don’t have any money.’ He said, ‘No problem.’”

The owner offered the space rent-free for a month. Blanco talked it over with his wife and kids, and decided to take a calculated risk. He’d keep driving his early-morning shift for Piazza Produce, and then cook at the restaurant in the afternoons and evenings. Caracas Arepas Grill opened on Feb. 15, 2010, with a start-up investment of a mere $6,000 for food, utilities and cash flow.

Conveniently timed publicity from area newspapers helped generate a respectable $24,000 in gross sales over the first two months. But as temperatures rose, sales began to dip. Poor air conditioning made the tight space unbearably stifling during the summer. The storefront set some 100 yards from the street, which diminished whatever curb appeal the dilapidated strip mall might offer. Pest control became a problem as well.

Fed up, Blanco closed the shop on Sept. 1 and began looking for a new location. By November, he had the keys to a 2,200-square-foot restaurant space in the Crooked Creek Retail Shoppes center at 7940 N. Michigan Road.

Needing significantly more startup capital than for his first location, Blanco asked an old friend from high school who had become an electrical engineer. The friend assembled a cadre of three investors, who together with Blanco ponied up $40,000 in equal shares. The revivified Grill opened on Dec. 18, 2010, with Blanco still hemming to his Piazza Produce route in the mornings.

In its first 30 days of operation, the restaurant logged $20,000 in gross sales — far surpassing the best monthly take at the previous locale. The eatery has built a solid following on Facebook with some 660 friends. And being the only Venezuelan restaurant in town — and likely one of only a handful in the Midwest — has its allure for South Americans looking for a taste of their native culture.

“My customers drive from Champaign (Illinois), Cincinnati, Kentucky and Chicago,” Blanco said. “There were two families from Cincinnati who came in for breakfast on a Saturday morning. They went to the mall to shop, and then they came back here for lunch.”

In the video at top, Blanco discusses the origins of the restaurant, its move to the new site, and the many advantages of the locale. He also details his dual life as truck driver and restaurateur, leading to 19-hour days during the work week, and the plans for expansion that likely will rid him of his job with Piazza Produce for good.
 

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Caracas Arepas Grill
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7940 N. Michigan Road
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(317) 228-9550
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Concept: Authentic Venezuelan cuisine for lunch and dinner, including staples such as empanadas, arepas and paella.
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Founded: The first location opened on Feb. 15, 2010, at 3970 Georgetown Road. Seeking a bigger and more visible location, owner Daniel Blanco closed the restaurant on Sept. 1. The current locale opened on Dec. 18.
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Owners: Daniel Blanco, chef and managing partner; Oscar Camacho; Alex Quinianilla; and Guillermo Gallegos.
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Start-up costs: $6,000 at 3970 Georgetown Road; $40,000 in current location.
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Gross sales for 2010: $52,000 from Feb. 15 to Aug. 31 in former location; $20,000 from Dec. 18, 2010, to Jan. 18, 2011, in current location.
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Employees: 7
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Seating: 70
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Goals: To open two smaller locations within the next 18 months, ideally downtown and in Nora. Much of the food for those locations would be prepared at the current restaurant, allowing the new locations to have smaller kitchens. 
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Good to know: Blanco has kept his job as an early-morning truck delivery driver for Piazza Produce Co. while operating Caracas Arepas Grill, meaning his typical weekday starts at 3 a.m. and finishes at 10 p.m.
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