Kevin Cody

Parsley, sage, rosemary and time

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Sean Krajewski (left) and Mario Del Pero at their new Mendocino Farms restaurant in Marina Del Rey. Photo by Brent Broza (Brozaphoto.com)

Former Club Sushi busboy Sean Krajewski and former Baja Sharkeez manager Mario Del Pero leave downtown Hermosa for downtown LA

 by Tom Fitt

There once was a day – not so very long ago – when lunch for downtown L.A. office workers consisted of whatever their hangovered selves sleepily stuffed into a brown paper bag at 5 a.m. before making the 4 mph trek to the city on the 110. PB&J was always a favorite, though the concoction invariably left grape stains on one’s trousers and crunchy brown blotches on the tie, which by 3 p.m. looked like a paisley surrogate handkerchief used to calm an allergic nose. Some preferred a tin of sardines, each little pilchard sandwiched between somewhat stale Ritz crackers. Said repast effectively limited afternoon interaction with other employees (forget the Dentyne). Beverages? A choice of the water cooler or Marge’s coffee that by noon had the consistency and taste of the motor oil you should have changed 7,000 miles ago in your Buick.

Rejoice! There’s a new option, my pinstriped brethren, in much part thanks to Hermosa Beach resident Sean Krajewski, 28. He and his three “partners” (the group resists typical corporate nomenclature) are creating what is quickly turning into a chain of sandwich shops known as Mendocino Farms. When I say “sandwich shops,” do not conjure up the image of Wonder Bread, French’s yellow mustard and a slab of Oscar Mayer bologna – all fine for Star Wars metal lunch pails rattling through the school bus, but hardly appropriate for six-figured execs with expense accounts large enough to finance the next moon launch.

When perusing the menu of the two downtown Mendocinos – a third opened April 29 in the Waterside Center of Marina del Rey – the college degree earned while surviving on pizza, nachos and Coors will come in handy. Trilingualism is a plus. Among the offerings on the Spring 2010 carte are Caprese, Prosciutto and Roasted Chicken, Kurobuta Pork Belly Bahn Mi, Aurello’s Apples Carnitas Torta, and the ever popular Drunk’n Goat in Paris. I think I dated her once. If you want ham on rye, best to visit Jerry’s. They have nice pickles and you might run into Jennifer Anniston, speaking of salty gherkins.

The only thing Mendo is missing is a spokesperson/creature. The Aflac duck is inappropriate in that he might find himself on the menu. Perhaps the Jolly Green Giant, given that the stores are eco-friendly (green) and incorporate large nuts in many of their concoctions.

The team’s website (www.mendocinofarms.com) is as entertaining as their menus are salivary. Marginally interspersed among the entrees are quotes appropriate to gourmands. “A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat” – Old New York proverb. “And, of course, the funniest food of all: kumquats” – George Carlin.

Catch her in the rye

“The advantages of what we’re selling at Mendocino is two-fold,” said Krajewski. “First is the approach to the sandwich making. We take fine dining entrees and convert them to a sandwich form. Everybody else builds a sandwich starting with bread and goes from there. ‘I’ve got two pieces of bread, what sort of cheese am I going to use? How am I going to make that gourmet?’ The sandwich is sort of built up from there. We do the exact opposite. We take an appetizer or an entrée — for example, shrimp cocktail or fish and chips — and convert it into a sandwich… Basically, like a Kobe beef meatloaf, we’ll do in a sandwich.

“Secondly, with our menu, we try to be as farm-specific as we can. We use the downtown farmers market and the Santa Monica farmers market. At this point we have a produce company that watches over this. But we generally find the source of most of our products, especially the seasonal ones, and we’ll directly call the farms. Ventura Farms, for example, is one we use for produce. Any time we can be farm specific, and it’s true, we’ll call it out.”

The average ticket for a sandwich and a soft drink at Mendocino is about $9.50, according to Krajewski.

 
 
 

Mendocino Farms at the California Plaza on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.

Tennis balls, meat balls and City Hall

Krajewski moved to Hermosa Beach in 2000, the year of his graduation from San Pedro High School, where he was the number two high school tennis player in LA County his senior year. The competitive edge remains in both his professional and societal life. He ran for Hermosa Beach City Council in November 2005 and subsequently lectured publicly regarding emergency evacuation and control in case of natural or terrorist-initiated disaster.

He started his restaurant career as a busboy at Club Sushi while still in high school. Eventually, he became a server, then a bartender. When Blue 32 opened down the block a few years later, “I was there when it opened, 2005 or ’06. I was one of the managers, which is how I met Mario, who did the menu at Blue 32 and was in on all of the conceptual work for the restaurant,” said Krajewski.

Mario Del Pero (36) and wife Ellen Chen, a Mendocino partner listed as Director of Growth, live in Sherman Oaks with their two children. His South Bay ties are well documented. He opened Hermosa Sharkey’s with Greg Newman, a USC fraternity brother, as a manager. Mario’s published bio simply identifies him as “Chief Sandwich Creator” at Mendocino. In 1998, he created the beach concept of fast food, blending the influences of Baja surfer food with the teriyaki shacks of Hawaii. The resto was Skew’s with three locations in Southern California. He licensed the operation and moved on to Mendocino, which is named after the Northern California county in which he was raised.

“At the same time (of Blue’s opening), I was looking all over the place to open a bar – South Bay, San Diego, everywhere. When Mario opened Mendocino, I asked him if I could shadow him and learn from him. He said, ‘I don’t need a shadow, but you can manage and work for the restaurant,’” said Krajewski. “Mario told me, ‘You’ll make no money and work long hours and learn.’ I said, okay, that sounds amazing. I said I would do it for three months, that’s it. Learn everything I can in three months, then go off and do my own thing. Four years later, I’m still here, but all for good reasons.”

Puerto Vallarta downtown

The first Mendocino, 300 S. Grand in the California Plaza beneath the Omni Hotel, opened in 2007. Krajewski was there within the first six months of operation. The second store downtown, 444 S. Flower, opened November 2009. The Marina site – “about a nine iron from the boats” – just opened and is already posting numbers “really close to the downtown stores,” said Krajewski. Oh, yes, the Mendo group also debuted an upscale Mexican restaurant downtown – lunch and dinner — named Casa, on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2008.

“Casa, in a perfect world, would be the favorite neighborhood restaurant to the downtown business crowd and the loft-dwellers,” said Krajewski. “We want you to be there two or three times a week. We’re not trying to be the most culinary-forward restaurant; we want to offer highly approachable, comfortable Mexican food that everybody understands that is high quality and incredibly good. Plus, it’s at a right price where you can go there fairly consistently.”

He said that, for lunch, the tab will probably be $8.50. At dinner, there’s not an entrée over $20.

More slices of life

Are more Mendocinos in the plan?

“Yes,” said Krajewski. “We have a venture capital group out of New York City that is financing the growth of Mendocino. Granted, we have to hit numbers, the benchmark that they set, but we should do at least one more store this year, then probably three more next year, if everything stays on pace.

“Currently, the business model for Mendocino is strictly urban. It’s all business lunch. It’s designed for the money-rich, time-poor. The 30-minute lunch is all that people are focused on these days. The Marina del Rey store is the first suburban twist that we’ve tried. It incorporates dinner and weekend breakfasts as well as lunch and we have to learn to deal with family crowds. If that concept takes off, it will provide us with much more flexibility because then we’ll be able to do both suburban and urban. If it flounders, god forbid, we’ll go back to the drawing board and stick with the urban idea and just go into downtown metropolis areas.”

Aiding the economy and the unemployment rate, there are roughly 25 employees in each Mendo store. “Right now, including people who supply the food, we’re looking at about 65 to 70 people for the two Mendocinos downtown. Casa has about 45 workers,” he said. Casa serves lunch, happy hour and dinner, Monday thru Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday opening is 5 p.m.

As per volume, the Mendocino stores are doing about 500-550 covers per day, according to Krajewski.

“At Casa, we do about 250 for lunch, then another 250 for happy hour and dinner. The biggest things at Casa are events like corporate happy hours, recruiting parties, happy hour dinners, plus all of the calendar occasions. This St. Patrick’s day, we did almost $20,000 in sales – it was crazy. We did about 450 covers that night and 300 during the day,” he said.

Dividing the quiche

With now four business sites, how do you and Mario divide the workload?

“Basically, Mario handles all construction, and works on menu development with chef Judy (Han, another partner). He also does branding maintenance.”

I confessed I did not know what “branding maintenance” means.

“Mendocino Farms is a brand. We consider how we market the stores; we concentrate on keeping a consistent color, look, feel and service level in all the sites. It’s kind of the way TGIFridays does it. There’s a certain environment and ambience that is constant. This is all maintained with a lot of subliminal stuff including signage, the products we carry, what small farmers markets we use for supply, and how the overall message is conveyed to the guests. Every day, Mario and Judy evaluate our company and figure out how we can become better, and a lot of it is based on the concepts of others, or simply our general issues. It’s the constant development and progression of the brand.”

Cold soup?

Why did you get into restaurants when so many of them fail?

“I think that most restaurants fail because everyone thinks they can do it. It’s the only business where someone who has no experience and no expertise just jumps in and does it, completely with reckless abandon. Yes, the statistics are that eight or nine out of 10 restaurants fail. But, everyone on the street… says that friends tell them they’re a really fun person and should open a restaurant,” said Krajewski. “You don’t say that about any other type of job. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to open a plumbing company. I don’t know anything about plumbing, but I’m gonna be good because I know how to turn on a faucet. I’m not going to learn or study anything about it, I’ll just do it.’ A lot of people get into the restaurant business not knowing the background, and oftentimes people try it for the wrong reasons. They want to be the cool guy and party all the time. The allure for me was that a lot of people just don’t do it that well. I think if you put your mind to it and really focus, you can do it better than most.”

Enjoy the view

It’s not all starched shirts visiting the stores. Krajewski said students from USC daily drive downtown to retrieve sandwiches at Mendocino. C’mon, guys, what could be better than a braised lamb sandwich on toasted ciabatta and a glimpse of a Song Girl or two while sitting in a sunny courtyard? Heaven.

Krajewski unceremoniously continues to demonstrate a quiet intelligence in his endeavors. No surprise to me. I know his parents. B

Mendocino Farms, 300 S. Grand, L.A., 213-620-1114; 444 S. Flower, L.A., 213-627-3262, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.; Waterside Center, Marina del Rey, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. weekdays, 10-8 weekends. Casa, 350 S. Grand, L.A., 213-621-2249.

Editor’s note: writer Tom Fitt is Sean Krajewski’s dad.

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