Santa Barbara based Acme Hospitality now runs so many different concepts that it’s been a challenge to keep their website up to date. At last check, they didn’t account for Tyger Tyger (fast casual Asian food), Monkeyshine (soft serve ice cream), and Dart Coffee Co. The company’s kept up a relentless pace since The Lark, Lucky Penny and Les Marchands opened on the same day in 2013. Sherry Villanueva has led the charge, made strategic partnerships, and has played a pivotal role in the rise of the Funk Zone’s popularity. She previously ran a successful marketing firm called Twist Worldwide and has applied her considerable skills to Acme Hospitality. I recently traded e-mails with Villanueva, who shared further insights into her increasing success in the food and beverage world.
Joshua Lurie: What prompted your career change from marketing to hospitality?
Sherry Villanueva: I have always dreamed of opening a restaurant so when the opportunity knocked on my door, I had to open it. I love the connection that people make over great food and wine and the idea that I could be a catalyst for that was very exciting. For me, it’s all about bringing the community together and connecting them with each other and with the world class products coming out of Santa Barbara County. We keep that focus and it’s an honor to play a small part in making that happen.
JL: Describe the very first day of business for the initial Acme Hospitality restaurant. What was the restaurant, and how did that shift align with your expectations?
SV: We actually opened three restaurants simultaneously on the same day – The Lark, Lucky Penny and Les Marchands. So, as you might imagine, our very first day of business was insane. We were working so hard to complete the construction, get the staff trained and finish up the thousands of details involved in opening a restaurant that I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when we opened the doors. I think we did about 250 covers on our opening night at The Lark which was very challenging for a brand-new restaurant. That was happening as the Lucky Penny and Les Marchands were swamped with guests too. It was the craziest night I’ve ever experienced and I couldn’t really understand what had happened until it was all over. I remember our chef coming to me about 1 a.m. while we were trying to clean the restaurant and set it up for the next day. He was exhausted and overwhelmed as pretty much every last thing in the walk-in was gone. It was exhilarating but scary too. We are very grateful for our early supporters and many of them continue to be our regular guests today.
JL: You have a number of different ventures at this point. What talents do you look for in business partners?
SV: I look for various talents with business partners who can add skill sets to balance our overall team. Most notably those fall in the categories of financial services, legal, accounting, real estate, hospitality and more. While building a talented team is critical to our overall success, I value integrity most of all so the most important trait I look for in them is trust.
JL: What traits must a person possess to work for Acme Hospitality?
SV: When we are recruiting people to work for us we look for those individuals who reflect our core values as they are the center of who we are as a company. They include: integrity, community, hospitality, personality, excellence and profitability. We look for team members who are passionate about creating outstanding experiences for our guests and who are willing to work hard and contribute to a supportive and positive work environment. We can easily train the necessary skills for each position in the restaurant, but we can’t train those basic personality traits that are so important to one’s potential success.
JL: What type of investments are you making in employees to help ensure they still want to work for Acme Hospitality in 5 years?
SV: In addition to our commitment to a respectful, safe and hospitable work environment, we try to make things fun. We spend a lot of time developing our internal culture so that every single person feels like they are a part of something they can be proud of. We provide health insurance for all full-time employee and we offer a generous benefits and PTO package for all managers. We give our employees discounts at all of our properties so they too can enjoy our restaurants. There is nothing that makes me happier than to see a group of them having fun with their friends and families in one of our restaurants on their day off. We also work very hard with each individual employee to help them develop the skills they need to grow. This is particularly evident in our management training program as we help our managers develop skills in financial analysis along with particular skills specifically in restaurant management.
JL: How do you define sustainability at Acme Hospitality, and what measures are you taking to support that vision?