For most of his career, Tom Schnetz has thrived on taking risks.
When he graduated from UC Berkeley with a political science degree, Schnetz didn’t take an obvious path to the Legislature or law school. He worked for a furniture maker in San Francisco fixing up houses. When he felt a hankering to get into restaurants, he fired off 10 letters to top Bay Area eateries, conceding he had no kitchen experience but offering to work for free if that’s what it took. He landed at Square One, Joyce Goldstein’s revered spot in San Francisco, where he washed lettuce, prepped food, learned the ropes and refined his palate.
When he wanted to start his own restaurant, he was ready for more risk. He used those once-ubiquitous introductory credit card offers – dozens of them – to amass tens of thousands of dollars to open his business.
“I was not averse to risk at all. I believe in myself,” said Schnetz, 49, who went on to build a mini restaurant empire in the East Bay, including the landmark Mexican restaurant Doña Tomás in Oakland and Flora, an upscale restaurant and bar in that city’s downtown serving classic American fare.
Now, Schnetz, who was born and raised in Sacramento, is ready for his next venture – and another calculated risk. On Tuesday, he and his brother David opened La Venadita, a family-style taqueria and bar in once-downtrodden Oak Park. La Venadita is a casual restaurant serving authentic Mexican comfort food housed in a renovated building with plenty of architectural touches, including high ceilings, exposed rafters, polished concrete floors and an expanse of interior brick.
“To me, this is perfect,” Schnetz said, his eyes scanning the 2,500-square-foot space in the days before La Venadita (Spanish for “little deer”) was ready to open. “If I could pick any neighborhood in the city, I would pick this one. I love old buildings. I love places that feel like neighborhoods. There’s something really nice about that.”
Schnetz, who grew up in the Land Park home where his parents continue to live, recently bought a house five blocks from the new restaurant. He will split his time between Sacramento and the Bay Area.
While the new restaurant has stirred plenty of interest from well-wishers, not all of the attention has been positive. Some have accused him of perpetuating gentrification in Oak Park, particularly along a stretch of Broadway, where three gourmet coffee shops and a craft brewery have settled in, along with newly constructed luxury lofts.
“People who walk by have been great. But when the article (by The Bee’s Bob Shallit) came out the other day, there were certainly some negative things said. One person referred to me as an (expletive deleted),” Schnetz said. “Let’s see, you’ve never met me and you have no idea what’s going in here. This was a derelict building that sat here forever. We’re putting something in here that I think is beautiful and I’m creating food that I think is going to be great.
“This is not a $50-a-plate restaurant. I like those places, too. But this is tacos and tortilla soup and chilaquiles. It’s comfort food that’s meant for families.”
Patris Miller is already a fan. The artist and gallery owner, who lives and works nearby, walked to La Venadita with several of her neighbors during the soft opening. A resident of Oak Park for two decades, Miller said the building had been boarded up for years.
“We were able to have a sampling of many different foods on the menu and it was delicious,” Miller said. “My neighbors and I were sitting there talking about how there were no options, really, for going out in the community back in the day. We talked about how fun it was getting a group together and walking to an eatery and enjoying the food. We talked about how far we’ve come.”
In the East Bay, Schnetz’s restaurants are known for breathing new energy into blighted areas. When he opened Doña Tomás, he chose an Oakland neighborhood “when other people wouldn’t touch it,” said Matt Ridgeway, who co-owns with Schnetz the Mission-style taqueria in downtown Oakland called Xolo.
“It’s infectious,” Ridgeway said of the restaurant. “I can’t even put into words how it has transformed the neighborhood. Once someone saw that it was working, more people would come in. It’s a happening block now. Tom has a good eye for things that have potential but aren’t quite there yet.”
Then there’s the confusion over his surname – a guy named Schnetz claiming to serve authentic Mexican fare?
“I’ve had to deal with that from the beginning. I would get people come in saying, ‘You’re not Mexican. Your name is Schnetz.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, really? You obviously don’t know me. Guess what? I’m half Mexican,” Schnetz said.
Indeed, Schnetz’s maternal grandparents were from Mexico, though he didn’t get his cooking chops from his mom, Sylvia, who had little interest in toiling in her kitchen at home.
“No, she was not a good cook,” Schnetz said with a laugh.
“He makes the best soups,” his mother said, “and I would ask him, how many teaspoons of something, and he wouldn’t tell me. He said, ‘You have to learn to taste.’ ”
Schnetz found he had an intense interest in food soon after he went off to college. His brother and sister also graduated from UC Berkeley. He would drop by Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous Berkeley restaurant, for late-night dinners. He and a college friend would immerse themselves in wine tastings until they became adept at identifying wine styles and winemakers. He later grew fond of cocktails, and these days his East Bay establishments are known as leaders in the Bay Area’s thriving craft cocktail scene.
After starting at the bottom in the kitchen at Square One, Schnetz, along with his brother, David, went on to open a casual breakfast and lunch spot in midtown Sacramento called Marshall Grounds. Known for its creative sandwich options, the restaurant was open from 1991 to 2000.
David Schnetz wound up renovating houses, along with helping Tom on his restaurant ventures in the Bay Area.
“Every restaurant I would make, David would help me build it,” Tom Schnetz said. “Most of the things we do, we try to do as much as we can ourselves. … They would probably would have cost double if we didn’t do the work ourselves. It’s a huge thing. There’s a lot of money that goes into these things. I like to design it myself. There’s a look I really like, so I create that look.”
In addition to the building’s aesthetics, Schnetz is banking on the food to keep people coming back. During his travels throughout Mexico, he learned to appreciate the distinctive flavors and diversity of cuisines, and he has made an effort to be as authentic as possible.
Asked how La Venadita will distinguish itself from numerous other Mexican eateries in town, Schnetz said, “Honestly, I care about the food. I care about what I put out there. The carnitas I make are hopefully as good or better than anything you’ve ever had. If you get chilaquiles, it might be something you’re not used to. It’s so delicious. There’s thought behind all this. When people care about what they’re doing, I think you can tell. You can taste it in the food.
“People don’t give Mexican food enough credit. Moles are as complex as any sauce you’re going to get anywhere. I’m using 15 or 20 ingredients in this thing that we’re making for enchiladas. That’s the thing that gets lost.”
Schnetz is not finished with Oak Park. He’s already got designs on his next venture and is looking for the right building.
“We’re looking at another space and playing around with different ideas,” he said. “We might go back to our cafe roots, and this one might explore the German side of our family.”
3501 Third Ave., Sacramento
More information: 916-400-4676, lavenaditasac.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.