Interview: Santa Barbara restaurateur Sherry Villanueva (Acme Hospitality)

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Restaurateur Santa Barbara

Sherry Villanueva has been integral to the Funk Zone's soaring popularity. [Rob Stark]


JL: How do you define sustainability at Acme Hospitality, and what measures are you taking to support that vision?

SV: One of our core values is community, so for me, sustainability at Acme has to be connected to that. We work very hard to be responsible consumers by composting, recycling and working hard to eliminate waste wherever we can. We source products locally whenever we can to support our local farmers, fishermen, ranchers and winemakers. We are committed to being active participants in our greater community of Santa Barbara and we commit substantial resources to helping numerous non-profit organizations throughout the county. Internally, we work very hard at building a healthy culture so that our employees stay with us for the long term.

JL: How do you measure success for Acme Hospitality concepts?

SV: We measure success for Acme Hospitality concepts with each and every guest we serve and through the experience of each and every employee who works for us. If we don’t create a positive experience even for just one, we have not succeeded. I also measure success by creating a strong and healthy company that is resilient and able to withstand challenging times. This was put to the test last year with the natural disasters that hit our community hard and I am very proud at how our team and our company came through it.

JL: What steps do you take to achieve balance in your life, if that’s even possible?

SV: I love my job and am excited to come to work every day. It’s challenging and dynamic and I am constantly growing and learning. I also love to spend time with my husband Jim and our two daughters Annie and Katy and we often get a chance to travel together or to simply spend time hanging out either in Santa Barbara or San Francisco. I love taking our dog Dixie to run on the beach and spending time snuggled at home with my cats Fred and Ginger. I try and stay fit and love playing tennis when I can sneak away.

JL: Who else in the hospitality world do you look to for inspiration or advice or guidance?

SV: I am very lucky to have two extraordinary hospitality professionals on our executive team at Acme. Treg Finney, VP of Operations, and Skyler Gamble, Director of People Capital, both play crucial roles in defining our path forward. I have a business partner, Brian Kelly, who is extremely valuable strategic decisions and helps me to see the bigger picture. Also, I often turn to my sister Kathleen Cochran for advice. She is a gifted hotelier and her advice from her experience in the industry has been invaluable. As far as inspiring people out in the hospitality world, Danny Meyer is my hero. I appreciate how he puts his team first and spends a lot of energy building and protecting his company culture. I think this is so important and I try to model ours after what he’s done with his.

JL: Pulling from the entire Acme Hospitality line-up, construct a dream day of eating and drinking. Keeping in mind the realistic limits of human consumption, what would you eat and drink for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Also, who would join you?

SV: I’m the luckiest girl in the world because I get to experience my dream day of eating and drinking regularly! I don’t think I could do it all in one day however and might just have to spread it across a weekend.

I’d start with breakfast at Helena Avenue Bakery where I would order the Green Breakfast Bowl, fried eggs on top of sautéed breakfast greens with quinoa, avocado and ricotta. I would add a cappuccino made with locally roasted Dart coffee. I’d probably go for a walk along the beach and stop by Tyger Tyger for the Crispy Rice Salad with grilled albacore, avocado, red onions, coconut, cabbage and lime. I’d have a glass of the Pessoa Alvarinho wine from Portugal because my New Year’s resolution is to drink more wine at lunch so I had better start practicing. I’d also grab a Sundae at Monkeyshine made with toasted rice soft serve, salted rice crackers, coconut and miso caramel sauce. For the afternoon, I’d visit the Santa Barbara Wine Collective so I could taste through my favorite local wines including the Notary Public Rosé, Storm Sauvignon Blanc and Babcock’s Ocean’s Ghost Pinot Noir. While sipping on wine, I’d of course need a few snacks so I’d order the Caprese starter and the Lucky Bread for delivery from Lucky Penny. I think that would all get me in good shape for cocktail hour and dinner at Loquita. I’d start with the Costa Blanca gin and tonic with Makrut lime infused gin, Mediterranean tonic and blood orange. For dinner I’d order a selection of tapas including the croquetas de pollo with free range chicken and jamón Iberico, the carpaccio de carne with grass -fed beef, Manzanilla olive, sherry vinegar and Arbequina olive oil, espárragos with gribiche, cured egg yolk, smoked shallot and boquerones and the pulpo which is Spanish octopus with black garlic aioli, lemon vinaigrette, potato and pickled red onion. All of this would have to be accompanied by a great glass of Spanish red wine and I would pick the 2016 Costers del Priorat “Petit Pissarres.”

I get to bed early so I could wake up refreshed to dive in again where I would start my day at Les Marchands for brunch. I’d order the shakshuka made with baked eggs, tomatoes, roasted peppers, onions and feta accompanied by a thick slice of Helena Avenue Bakery sourdough toast. Since it’s the weekend, a cocktail just might be in order so I’d go for the traditional Bloody Mary to round out my meal. After an afternoon of shopping at local boutiques like The Shopkeepers and the Blue Door, I’d hit the communal table at The Lark for an early dinner. I love sitting at the communal because it’s always so much fun meeting other people there and sharing our experiences (and even our food on occasion!). I’d order the Wild Arugula and Autumn Pear salad along with the Roasted Chicken which is my absolute favorite. The chef changes the set seasonally and right now he’s doing it with red garnet yams, caramelized honey crisp apples, rainbow carrots, ras el hanout spices, crispy ginger and a cider gastrique. It’s a wonderful way to end the weekend and dive right in to the fall spirit.

If my husband and two daughters were with my on my weekend eating and drinking adventure I’d be in heaven. I also love to spend time with my extended family including my dad, my sister and her family, my cousins and my dear friends we call “framily” because that’s what they are. There is nothing more magical for me than to surround myself with people I love and to share our lives over great food and drinks.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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