Jack of One Trade
Rocket scientist-turned-restaurateur Jack Huang has built a mini-empire in Pasadena by seasoning his eateries with fun, sophisticated ambience and foreign flavors.
By Noela Hueso 07/01/2010
One day last year, restaurateur Jack Huang drove up Arroyo Parkway with his 5-year-old daughter, Nicole, in the back seat. As they turned the corner onto Old Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, she noticed a familiar sign. “Look, Daddy!” she said. “Ixtapa!” Down the street a little further, she saw another. “Daddy! Bar Celona!” Finally, they reached their destination at the edge of Old Pas. “Look! Villa Sorriso!” She paused for a moment and then asked a question: “Daddy, can we have one more?”
Considering Huang’s track record, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the answer turns out to be yes. In the past 16 years, Huang — who owns the three establishments his young daughter named: the Italian Villa Sorriso; Bar Celona, a Spanish tapas bar; and the newest addition to the family, Mexican sports bar and nightspot Ixtapa — has become one of the area’s most successful entrepreneurs; he employs 250 people and has generated from $7 million to $10 million for each of the past several years, despite slower sales in a grim economy.
Yet despite his family’s roots in the restaurant business — his parents owned traditional Chinese eateries in the San Fernando Valley — Huang didn’t set out to follow in their footsteps. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in mechanical engineering, he lived in Hermosa Beach for a decade, employed by aerospace companies Northrop Aircraft and TRW on such federal defense projects as the F-20 Tigershark Supersonic Jet Fighter and the Peacekeeper ballistic missile.“I like to tell people that I am the only restaurateur who has secret clearance,” he says with a laugh.
But it was his love of food and desire to be his own boss that ultimately drew him to his new path. “I was very proud of [the aerospace jobs]… I just felt like I was more of an entrepreneur,” he says.
Affable, tan and fit, Huang, 52 — a past member of the Old Pasadena Parking Meter Zone Advisory Commission and, before getting termed out in 2008, a board member for the Old Pasadena Management District and Old Pasadena Business Improvement District — is quick to laugh and share stories about his experiences.
The La Cañada Flintridge resident was attracted to Old Pasadena because of its prosperous reputation and bustling consumer traffic. “I thought I must be able to make some money out of this crowd,” he recalls. He opened his first restaurant, Wok ’n Roll, in 1994 with the help of his wife, Karen, and her parents. The fast-food concept was a nod to Huang’s Chinese heritage (wok) and his wife’s Japanese heritage (roll, as in sushi). After a slow start, Huang had an epiphany.
“I finally figured out people aren’t going to pay $5 to park and come to a place where it’s $5 to $6 for a meal,” he recalls. “If they’re going to pay $5 or $6 to park, they don’t mind spending $20 to $40 to eat.” Huang calls it his wake-up call, and the lesson he learned — your location should dictate the concept you create — was invaluable when he opened subsequent businesses.
Within the first year, the Wok ’n Roll format was changed to “a full-
service, white-linen establishment,” becoming the first sushi bar in Old Pasadena — and business picked up considerably. When a larger property across the street, the floundering restaurant Sorriso, became available six years later, Huang grabbed it, envisioning it as Wok ’n Roll’s future home. His more immediate plan, however, was to revitalize Sorriso, which was started by Varo Angeletti in 1991. Huang bought the venue and recipes; he also inherited all its employees, including Raul Mercado, now the head chef at Villa Sorriso. “People would ask me, ‘Why are you doing Italian?’” Huang recalls. “I told them, ‘Did you know that the Chinese invented pasta?’”
Huang updated the space, added a martini bar and soon had another hit on his hands. Then in 2003, the former Clearwater Seafood and Old Town Bakery properties became available on Old Pasadena’s western tail. Huang decided to move Sorriso to what has become the crown jewel of Huang’s holdings — a 12,000-square-foot space that features seating for 300, banquet facilities, an outdoor courtyard and a fountain — and renamed it Villa Sorriso.
But they still had a long-term lease at the existing Sorriso location. What to do? “From our travels and living in New York City for a few years early in our marriage, my wife and I really grew to like tapas, the small plate dishes, which were kind of like sushi and dim sum,” Huang recalls. “So we said, ‘Let’s do Spanish.’”
Bar Celona opened during the July 4th weekend in 2004, two months after Villa Sorriso’s grand opening. It now features a bar lounge and performance area, where Spanish guitarists and flamenco dancers perform every Tuesday night.
Though Huang decided to close Wok ’n Roll to concentrate on his two new ventures, his mini-empire didn’t stop there. Last February, just when the economy was at its worst — with the AIGs and Lehman Brothers of the world collapsing left and right — another opportunity presented itself: The owners of Fred’s Mexican Café, on the corner of Arroyo Parkway and Colorado Boulevard, came to Huang and asked if he was interested buying them out. He was. Huang took over the property in September, outfitted it with a dance floor and big-screen TVs and opened Ixtapa there in November, just in time for New Year celebrations and college bowl games. Despite a few slow nights, business has been generally brisk, and Huang is optimistic. “We’re showing a more than 50 percent increase [in revenue] compared to what the old operator was doing, so that’s a good sign,” he says.
While Ixtapa’s income is robust, the Huang empire hasn’t been completely immune to the economic downturn; business at Bar Celona and Villa Sorriso, while still strong, has had its ups and downs. “Two or three years ago when the mortgage companies were riding high and everybody was making money, I could count on mortgage brokers and banks — Merrill Lynch, IndieMac, Countrywide — doing all kinds of parties at Villa Sorriso,” Huang says. “They’d come for lunch, stay in the afternoon for drinks and return for dinner.”
Now, that industry is gone. Even so, the outlook is far from bleak. Villa Sorriso and Bar Celona still book company mixers and other special events on a regular basis. Last year, Villa Sorriso closed to the public to host the Michael Jackson family memorial dinner after the star’s funeral at Glendale’s Forest Lawn. “We had paparazzi across the street all day long and a celebrity security detail came in and checked the place out,” Huang says. “There were police, helicopters and news trucks everywhere.” In January, the restaurant hosted Fox’s UpFront after-party, where Glee’s Lea Michele and other network stars partied with advertisers and media.
Huang’s continued success amidst an economic recession has as much to do with his knack for surrounding himself with loyal employees — some of them have been with him since his Wok ’n Roll days — and making personal connections with his guests as it does with his business acumen. On any given day, he can be found greeting guests at one of his three restaurants, making sure everyone is happy and their needs are being met — and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. He has been known to valet park cars and take pictures for partying customers.
“I like to think that when customers come to our places, we know which table they like to sit at and what kind of bread and drinks they like, and it’s on their table before they even ask,” Huang says. “You need that personal touch to make that connection with your customer.”
Steve Mulheim, Old Pasadena Management District’s president and chief executive officer, says Huang’s success stems from “his passion for his businesses.” On the board from 2002 to 2008, “Jack was always very involved, always very passionate about maintaining Old Pasadena as a premiere destination and making sure that we were putting our best foot forward,” he says.
For now, that zeal will remain focused on Old Pasadena. What’s next on Huang’s plate?
“Almost every day somebody suggests that I open another Wok ’n Roll concept,” Huang says. “Old Pas has too many sushi restaurants already; you can go to Alhambra and it’s cheaper, you can go to Panda and it’s a little faster. I’m looking for that niche, something that’s a little more unique. I’m thinking about doing a steakhouse next.”