The reporting for this column began with the idea that some sort of golden era was ushered in a decade ago with the launch of Cafe Bernardo’s R15 location, a notion that doesn’t seem so outlandish considering the number of successful bars and restaurants founded by members of that establishment’s early crew.
Henry de Vere White, a former bartender at R15, teamed up with his parents and brothers to found de Vere’s Irish Pub in Sacramento and Davis. The manager who hired him at R15, Josey McCarter, is the managing partner at the Davis site. The de Vere Whites are also partners in Firestone Public House, and they have other ventures in the works.
R15’s general manager, Alex Origoni, eventually founded The Shady Lady Saloon just up the block from R15 with two other employees – bouncer-turned-bartender Garrett Van Vleck and chef Jason Boggs. They also own B Side at 1430 S St. in Sacramento and the Sail Inn Grotto & Bar at 1522 Jefferson Blvd. in West Sacramento. Their Amaro Bistro & Bar, owned in partnership with Deftones drummer Abe Cunningham, is under construction at 1100 R St.
R15 bartender Matt Nurge decided to take the plunge with longtime pal Sonny Mayugba, chef John Bays and R15 co-owner Randy Paragary, opening the Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar at 2718 J St. in Sacramento. Nurge, Bays and Mayugba are now part of a team planning a Jewish delicatessen on K Street downtown, and they have other concepts on the drawing board.
It’s hard not to think there wasn’t some magic to the convergence of so many influential players at one restaurant at one time, but interviews with de Vere White, Nurge and others reveal that there’s really no fairy dust involved in their success. Rather, it is grounded in their driving ambition and years of hard work, networking and blue-sky thinking.
“We’d all like to think we were part of a golden era, that’s kind of cool, that something special was happening,” de Vere White said. “I think it’s cool that you phrase it that way. I think, though, that we had a lot of veteran bartenders and servers at R15. … You had a group of people who liked to have a really good time and were socially outgoing, so they networked really well in Sacramento. You had people who wanted to do something more. They wanted to be their own boss, at least take a shot at it.”
So, how did he and McCarter and Origoni and others wind up at the same place at the same time? Well, you’ll recall that Cafe Bernardo was not the first restaurant concept that Randy and Stacy Paragary tried on that corner of the midtown grid. Before R15, there was Sammy Chu’s and Icon. Neither found success on a block that was largely vacant.
So when it came time to try the third concept, de Vere White said, Origoni, McCarter, the Paragarys and their longtime business partner Kurt Spataro weren’t just hiring. It seemed to de Vere White and Nurge that they were curating the staff.
“The one thing I took from Paragary is that he hires well. The people that he hired hired us,” de Vere White said. “It doesn’t matter if someone is in there sweeping the floors or they’re overseeing the entire thing. There’s a standard that really goes from the top down. … We’re successful here (at de Vere’s) because our staff is great. My brother and I have families. We couldn’t do it all. When you come here and have a great experience, it’s because of our staff.”
Nurge recalled interviewing with Origoni for a job at R15. He’d been recommended by Mayugba, who had been an employee of Paragary Restaurant Group, he told me, but his interview with Origoni didn’t go particularly well. He followed up and received a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you dismissal, he said.
Mayugba, upon hearing this, went to bat for his fellow McClatchy High School grad. The two men also had worked together in their early years at a restaurant called Pescado’s, located where Lou’s Sushi now stands.
Mayugba knew Nurge had grown up in bars and restaurants, watching cartoons on the television at Joe Marty’s saloon while his mother worked at the adjoining El Chico Pizza in Land Park. He also was aware that Nurge had acquired some useful skills while dealing with drug addicts and vagrants who wandered into the Hard Rock Cafe on K Street.
Nurge said: “I learned very quickly how to defuse lots of different kinds of situations, just being in that bar. Every single day, something unexpected would happen, whether it was somebody OD’ing on your bar or a fight spilling into the restaurant or homeless people coming in and trying to attack you. There were so many characters.”
It was this experience, Mayugba’s recommendation and Nurge’s skill at mixing cocktails that helped him land the job. Nurge said he and Origoni eventually became close friends, so much so that Nurge was one of the first people to sign up to help with the launch of Shady Lady.
Nurge remained there for five years, until he and Mayugba started up the Red Rabbit. When he went off to start his own restaurant, he said, they gave him their blessing and all the help and mentorship that he requested. It was a parting gesture that Boggs and Van Vleck said they learned from Spataro and the Paragarys.
“We wouldn’t be where we’re at if it wasn’t for Randy Paragary and Kurt Spataro,” Boggs said. “Randy and Kurt taught me everything I learned about running a restaurant. I still use Randy’s way of costing and the basic infrastructure of how business runs. We still talk to Randy all the time. We talk to Kurt all the time.”
Paragary taught Boggs how to price menu items, he said, a lesson that came Paragary reviewed his initial estimates for labor and food costs and flatly told him that they were dubious.
“He said, ‘Just because you said that, I know you don’t know what … you’re talking about, and so we’re going to sit down and do it together.’ For the next three days, he sat down with me in the office and showed me what to do. To this day, I use everything he showed me almost every single day. … It was an eye-opening experience. I had been this little hotshot chef, and nobody could tell me anything. He set me straight. We all need a couple of those moments in our life.”
The veteran restaurateur’s support combined with long-held ambitions of Origoni, Mayugba and de Vere White to create a spark just as a real estate downturn hit the region and floored leasing rates around the city.
Van Vleck recalled how Origoni kept bringing up the idea of starting their own bar or restaurant: “It was really Alex who had wanted to own his own restaurant. Since he was a teenager, that had been his dream. I mean, he had notes from when he was 17 years old, and he had put together business plans, and I hadn’t really thought about it at all. He was the driving force in initiating the conversation.”
In de Vere White’s case, he had gone to his parents and siblings multiple times with the idea of opening an Irish pub. As a 20-something in Seattle, where he went to the University of Washington, he told me, he had worked at a couple of pubs owned by successful restaurateur Peter Johnson, and he thought Sacramento would embrace such a tavern.
“My brother Mark had me writing business plans,” de Vere White said. “I told him, ‘How … do I write a business plan? I’m a history major.’ He goes, ‘Find a book, man.’ I guess, probably now, he’d say, ‘Go Google it,’ but this was before that. He said, ‘You’ve got a library at that big fancy school. Figure it out. You want an investor? You’ve got to give me something to invest in, not just an idea.’ ”
As for Nurge, Mayugba had been telling him for years that he knew one day they would partner up on a restaurant project. But as a father of three, Nurge wanted to play it safe with a steady job. It wasn’t until he helped with the launch of Shady Lady that Nurge felt he could no longer let fear stand in the way of pursuing a dream.
When Mayugba told him that he wanted to take over the space that Billy Ngo’s Red Lotus would be vacating, Nurge said, he overcame his doubts and stepped up. Such opportunities might not have happened, the restaurateurs said, if they hadn’t been willing to take a big risk during an economic downturn.
“The recession helped,” Van Vleck said. “We had a little bit of money, but we’d go around and talk to landlords, and they’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, come back when you get some real money.’ And then the economy tanked, and people started calling us, ‘So you guys said you have cash, right?’ Let’s maybe work something out. If you had dropped us in right now, we couldn’t have done it.”