He’s arguably the biggest player in food and drink that Sacramento has ever seen, a former hippie with a law degree who debuted in 1969 with Parapow Palace, the beer bar and live music venue at 30th and O streets he opened in his 20s.
Now, more than four decades later, Randy Paragary, 68, has 600 employees on his payroll. He oversees 10 restaurants through the Paragary Restaurant Group, including five locations of Cafe Bernardo and their adjacent bars, as well as Centro Cocina Mexicana. He also has behind-the-scenes partnerships in such spots as Ink Eats & Drinks and The Red Rabbit.
But the competition has never been more fierce as Sacramento’s dining scene continues to expand, evolve and experience its own version of natural selection. That’s partly why Paragary is giving his Paragary’s Bar & Oven at 28th and N streets a $1 million facelift. In the process, its name also will be shortened to simply Paragary’s.
The restaurant has been closed since February 2014, gutted to the studs, awaiting a fresh look that’s expected to be unveiled in late April or early May. The building’s exterior will feature reclaimed redwood. The new bar will be outfitted with craft cocktail equipment.
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The kitchen will include some fresh faces. Kurt Spataro, Paragary’s longtime company partner and executive chef for the Paragary Restaurant Group, will help oversee the new menu. But head chef duties will fall on 32-year-old Scott Ostrander, the current head chef at Paragary’s Esquire Grill, who previously worked a stint at the Michelin three-starred Alinea in Chicago.
The building holds plenty of sentimental pull for Paragary. He first set up shop there in 1975, with the cocktail lounge Lord Beaverbrooks. The space transformed into Paragary’s Bar & Oven in 1983. Back then, the buzzword was “California cuisine,” a precursor to the omnipresent “farm-to-fork” that emphasized seasonal and local. Paragary’s Bar & Oven was an early adopter, serving fresh pasta and pizzas from a wood-fired oven. The Paragary Restaurant Group also operated a midtown garden for its restaurants during the early 2000s.
Through all the changes, Paragary has kept his office upstairs. As construction rumbled outside, he said he hoped the new aesthetic will draw a different clientele to his namesake spot. “I don’t think our food was ever in question here. We just ran out of gas as far as our look. We also were not connecting with a younger generation. When I opened Beaverbrooks, I wasn’t even 30 years old. So it was full of 30-year-olds. And I haven’t replaced it with new 30-year-olds, and that’s really what our goal is with this remodel.”
With his latest move forward, Paragary accepted an offer to look back on what he’s learned in his 40-plus years in the business. There were some misses, such as Sammy Chu’s at 15th and R streets and attempts to expand in San Francisco and Stockton, but many other achievements – and much wisdom – were earned along the way. The following are some of his comments during a wide-ranging conversation:
I’m not a chef. I never have been.
When you’re at that age, 23, it’s for fun. It wasn’t a career. I’m a hippie, I’m going to college and there was a music revolution going on, and there wasn’t a place for us. It’s like, where do you go where that music is being played over the sound system and have a beer?
That first place was (by the) seat of the pants. There was nobody guiding me or my family giving advice. We just did it.
The restaurant industry is one of the last businesses standing in retail for a person that has a dream. Let’s say you like fashion. Are you going to open a men’s shoe store today? Impossible. How about books and records? You like music? You cannot open that. Other than hair cutters and restaurateurs, there’s really very little for entrepreneurial-spirited people to get into (as a) business. When you think about K Street and the arena going in, you have the 700 block and (other) development around the arena, what have you heard that’s going in there other than a restaurant? What shop? What store?
To reach 30 years, you really have to enjoy the hospitality part of the business.
Start off small. Some of the people I’ve seen fail in the restaurant business are those that bit off something that’s really sophisticated and really difficult. I recommend getting your feet wet. I don’t care if you’re just opening a sandwich shop to learn how to get in the business. Find out if you can really do it.
There is no loyalty to bars. Everybody’s Budweiser tastes the same.
Most of the people who’ve worked for me who’ve opened their own places, if not all of them, have been successful. If you ask them, they say they learned the business working for us. It’s not all fun and games. You have to treat it seriously and make sure your money is protected.
We were kind of on a downward slide at Centro for a period of time. We made some management changes and tweaked the menu a little bit, and it’s up 25 to 30 percent from where its bottom was. But you’re never going to hear we did that. And if we closed it, I would’ve been told I’m unsentimental.
The 2 a.m. thing I’ve done. That’s not the most pleasurable part of the job, being the closing manager of a late-night bar or late-night restaurant. That’s a lonely drive home at 2:15 a.m. No thanks.
Just to be consistently good is easier said than done.
There’s a lot of places with hamburgers. There’s a lot of places with pasta dishes. There’s a lot of places with pizza. Nobody’s going to go to the same place all the time. But if you just can be on the path of travel of people when they go out, you’re going to have years and years of successes.
I did take some risks in different parts of Sacramento that have created pockets of success.
There’s jealousy. There’s emotion. I mean, ugh, I hate it when somebody’s doing something better. But what are you going to do? There’s never any ill will. A lot of the competitors have worked for me. When it’s (Alex Origoni) of Shady Lady or Patrick Mulvaney, I’m glad they’re doing well.
I’m sure there’s stuff now that I don’t know about as a 60-year-old guy that a 22-year-old guy does. I wasn’t on top of craft cocktails. … I’m not in the forefront of local breweries. The guys at Track 7, I’m not friends with those guys. They’re not my peers. But there are young guys who can identify something right now that would make a cool bar and they probably won’t be able to do it because it’s so expensive.
Where do I fit in? It’s a good question of what the future will be like when there’s 10, 20, 30 more restaurants opening in the downtown area. There’s a thing called supply and demand. There’s a demand out there of people who want to go out to eat, and we have our supply. Is that demand going to increase as we build these 20, 30 more restaurants downtown? I hope so.
That process of once you have your space, now you’re working with your architect and designer, buying chairs and light fixtures, it’s creative. It’s not painting. It’s not writing a song. But it’s similar in that you end up with a finished project that you created.
As a practical business matter, dying, or just getting to the age when you don’t want to be stuck in town … becomes something that I do think about.
I would never step away entirely. I think it would be fun to have one restaurant. I think it would be really cool to only have Paragary’s, but then I’d think I’d certainly like to have a Bernardo’s, too, because I like that food. And why would I give up Centro? I want to have margaritas and carnitas.
I talk about Frank Fat, Sam Gordon … Eppie (Johnson), those guys went to their grave owning stuff.
People go out with the expectation of having more than a pleasant time. That’s what the restaurant business is for. It’s not just to eat. It’s more than that.
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.