Food & Drink

‘Nothing here is cookie cutter.’ New Zócalo eatery filled with one-of-a-kind design

Fresh flowers floating in water at the entrance of the new Zocalo restaurant on Jan. 24, 2018. The grand opening for the restaurant is January 28, 2018.
Fresh flowers floating in water at the entrance of the new Zocalo restaurant on Jan. 24, 2018. The grand opening for the restaurant is January 28, 2018.

The grand opening for Sacramento’s newest Zócalo restaurant was still a week away last Saturday.

But the place was packed anyway, with waits of up to an hour for a table at the new 6,000-square-foot eatery as managers and staffers worked out the kinks in the operation.

“People knew we were going to do something a little above and beyond,” Zócalo co-owner Ernesto Jimenez said of the full houses even during a “soft opening” that lasted a couple of weeks before this weekend’s official launch. “They wanted to be wowed.”

The new restaurant at The UV, the freshly renovated center formerly called University Village near Campus Commons, has many of the familiar elements that have made successes of the flagship Zócolo, which opened in a former flooring store in midtown in 2004, and a second Zócalo that debuted at the Fountains in Roseville in 2012. The menus, featuring high-end regional Mexican cuisine and creative cocktails, are identical. Each restaurant has a noisy, high-energy vibe.

But there’s plenty new – and wow-worthy – at what Jimenez is calling “Zócalo 2.0.” Most dramatic is the restaurant’s design scheme by Ernesto Cruz, a whimsical artist and architect from a town near Guadalajara who also created most of the innovative interior elements at the first two Zócalos. His work at the UV site – which formerly housed a Chinese eatery and adjacent salon – is even more inventive.

The dining room has five white clay columns, covered in relief with Spanish poetry, crafted in an elegant script. The verse starts at the top of each pillar and winds down, jumping sometimes in mid-sentence from one line to the one below it. “Tu rostro chorreando de mis ideas llenas,” reads one. (Rough translation: Your face gushing from my bountiful ideas.)

Big cube-shaped lights, made from resin the color of flan, hang from the ceilings, along with chandeliers that, like the tops of the columns and other design elements, have a floral motif. And all of the restaurant’s tables are made from golden-brown parota wood from Chiapas in southern Mexico, including one spectacular, 16-foot-long specimen in the dining room’s center.

Another massive table, this one with hand-carved hearts around its edges, is the centerpiece of the “Alhambra Room,” a semi-private area with a Moorish theme, inspired by a trip Jimenez made to a castle in Granada, Spain, on his honeymoon six years ago.

“Nothing here is cookie-cutter,” said Zócalo executive chef Ryan Rose of the work Cruz did to design the place, then stock it with his own creations. “There’s nothing you can order out of a catalog.”

Jimenez made 10 trips over two years to meet with Cruz at his studio in the town of Tlaquepaque and plan out the project, which ended up costing $2.4 million, about 50 percent more than the two previous Zócalos. Eventually Cruz delivered his work in two and a half truckloads – each with 40-foot-long containers.

Of Cruz, Jimenez said, “He’s a really uncommon character,” a passionate bohemian with an old-school mentality who eschews social media and prefers to design freehand instead of using modern computer-aided tools.

Cruz’s methods and his attention to detail mean it takes a long time to complete a project, Jimenez said, but the result is worth the wait.

Design, though, is just one aspect of Jimenez’s vision of Zócalo 2.0. It also embodies a commitment to “community,” an idea the Zócalo management team has been developing in emulation of the “Sacred Commerce” philosophy, developed by the owners of Café Gratitude in the Bay Area, of building sustainable, spiritually fulfilling businesses.

That means, for example, sponsoring an annual fundraising dinner that generates $100,000 for low-income housing in Mexico, and playing a bigger role in the Sacramento communities surrounding the Zócalo restaurants – something the team regards as a key separator for companies trying to survive in a competitive business.

“If you don’t have those ties to the community ... and you’re not willing to do what it takes to get there to be involved in the community, I don’t think you’ll stay,” said Jimenez, 53, a Sacramento native whose parents moved here from central Mexico.

The Zócalo credo emphasizes gracious customer service and a focus as well on the company’s “internal” customers – its employees.

The three Zócolos employ about 250 people and managers say they are intent on keeping people long term. That requires getting creative with scheduling to meet the specific needs of millennials, who Jimenez said are “really smart kids and hardworking – when they are here.” Their eagerness to have more balanced lives means they want to put in fewer hours than previous generations, he said.

Some want to work only a few hours a day or get weekend evenings off. “They’ll say, ‘I’m on a volleyball team every Friday night,’ ” Jimenez said with a laugh. Or they’ll ask for a month or two off for summer travel, requests most restaurants – even Jimenez’s own in the past – would deny.

But now, he said, “you have to be OK with that. If it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ they’re not going to stay.”

Added Rose, “Just like a guest has choices and options on where they are going to dine tonight, now, especially with a tight job market, the employees have options, and that’s going to be our competitive advantage – we’re making sure we are meeting their needs.”

Another part of the cultural shift at Zócalo is renewed focus on food preparation and customer service, two areas that Jimenez acknowledges have been inconsistent in the past.

One step is the opening this summer of a commercial kitchen in West Sacramento, where employees will do the most time-consuming food prep – making Zócolo’s 26-ingredient mole sauce, for example, or the popular arrachera los altos skirt steak that is marinated for four days – away from the hectic rush of the restaurants. Those products will then be delivered to each restaurant.

“It will alleviate that meat grinder that happens” in the restaurants, Rose said. “Now store managers can bring their focus to what is coming out of the kitchen.”

Training workers is a bigger emphasis now, too. In advance of the opening of the newest restaurant, two-dozen veteran employees were shifted to the UV center restaurant site to work with new hires, said Rose, who started with the company 13 years ago as a lowly bar assistant before working his way up the ranks. The new hires spent time observing the operations at other stores as well as getting “generalist training” – a brief exposure to every job in the house, from dishwasher to manager.

“It brings a level of empathy,” Rose said of the cross-training idea. “They know how it is to be a bartender when it’s really busy, and how it is to be a hostess when somebody has to wait for an hour, looking you in the face, saying, ‘Where’s my table?’ 

Jimenez said the company’s immediate plans are to focus on the three current locations and the prep kitchen, which also will be turned into a new sort of restaurant concept, yet to be determined, and possibly a hub for a meals-to-go business.

Eventually, Jimenez said, he and co-owner Jimmy Johnson could open new Zócalos here or in the Bay Area and other spots where developers have expressed interest in the company.

But, he said, any expansion will require partners and landlords who understand that it takes years to work with Cruz and come up with fantastical, one-of-a-kind dining spots – the only kinds of eateries the team cares about.

“They will need to have a lot of patience,” he said of future partners.

Bob Shallit: 916-321-1017