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

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Inside Dish

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.

Caracas Arepas Grill
7940 N. Michigan Road
(317) 228-9550
Concept: Authentic Venezuelan cuisine for lunch and dinner, including staples such as empanadas, arepas and paella.
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.
Owners: Daniel Blanco, chef and managing partner; Oscar Camacho; Alex Quinianilla; and Guillermo Gallegos.
Start-up costs: $6,000 at 3970 Georgetown Road; $40,000 in current location.
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.
Employees: 7
Seating: 70
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. 
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.

  • Partially Pleased
    We had dinner here on a Saturday night because we read this IBJ story about Daniel. The service was great, the wait staff super friendly and excited proud about their restaurant. Daniel made the rounds, which is always fun. But, Daniels needs to work much on the menu and environment. I'm sure these will come with time, but it is more like a luncheonette than a place to go for dinner. Bright lights, cafeteria tables and seats and cold tile floors made it less than pleasant for a Saturday night out. But, now that we know how it is, we will go with our expecations changed. The menu was not well written. There are four entrees - three of them read exactly the same. When you ask the waitress, she can describe the differences. But the menu really needs to be more descriptive, especially since this is food that many of us are unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, we will be back (probably for carry out to eat at home with friends) and will do our best to help Daniel make it here. Its a great story!
  • Great Food
    I just had lunch at Caracas, the food and service were tremendous. I ordered the lunch special which included a bowl of their soup of the day and a lunch portion of one of their house specialties. The soup itself could have been the entire meal filled with chicken, beef, plaintains, potatoes and more. The Carne Guisada for the main dish was served with rice, beans and plaintains. The entire meal was $6. This is one of the best values for lunch I have seen. If you live or work in the area give it a shot.
    I am only 7 years old and my grandmother is typing what I tell her. I had a Reina Arepa and although it is big, it was sooooo good I ate it all. I then asked my grandparents to visit the restaurant and they loved it. Daniel and his wife are very nice people. oth Daniel and his wife are very warm people and want to please their clientele. A
  • Excellent
    The food is really good. Please tell him to be careful in the truck...5 hours sleep a day is not enough to be alert all the time...but I sure admire his entreprenureal spirit, and his arepas!!
  • Great food!
    We have eaten there, and the food is unusal and good.

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