Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Restaurant deal for downtown Vallejo comes through

Wednesday November 5, 2003

OnTheMoney: Restaurant deal for downtown comes through

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

A deal signed Monday afternoon will bring a new kind of restaurant to downtown Vallejo.

Mel Gomez and Robert Litwin, owners of Virginia Street's Mel's Roast and the soon-to-be-renovated Empress Theatre, said they hope the deal struck between them and the year-old, San Ramon-based HERO Corp., will ratchet up the rebirth of downtown.

HERO owner and Chief Executive Officer Javier Bujanda said the design and even the name of the new restaurant haven't been decided yet, but he expects the new business will open by mid-2004.

"It's a pilot concept of a flexible restaurant concept," Bujanda said. "There will be meeting rooms in the back to accommodate up to 100. There will be a lounge area where you can sit on sofas and eat, and the front will be a Tappas-style restaurant."

Bujanda said Tappas restaurants, a Spanish import, are all the rage in San Francisco.

"Basically, it's a small plate restaurant, where groups order and share small plates of stylish California cuisine," Bujanda said.

Litwin called the restaurant "a good addition to downtown."

"They did their homework, and they really came in here and got involved in the community, and I like that," he said.

HERO (Hotel Entertainment Renovation and Operation) Management Corp. beat out several other enterprises vying for the Virginia Street space, Litwin said.

"We had to turn down nightclubs that wanted to do loud music," Litwin said. "We didn't want to go backwards, we wanted to go forward. We turned down a Chinese restaurant, also. It had to be a spontaneous, fun place for people to go after an evening of theater, and that's what this will be. This is a goal for downtown, and shows things are happening. This is really good, really positive."

Rob Saunders, who has been hired to design the new establishment from the concept up, said the ideas haven't gelled yet.

"The original version is Tappas, a sort of cafe lounge with an extended bar menu," Saunders said. "They've evolved so that now it's more of a restaurant where there is enough variety that you can get a full meal. It's really a California thing, and it's becoming quite popular."

The end result in Vallejo, he said, will depend on several factors.

"The creative process is a combination of getting to know the area and the people, finding out what they like to do now and what they might be interested in seeing new," Saunders said.

Saunders, Bujanda and Litwin agree that whatever they finally decide, the place won't be like anything else in town, they said.

"We want to make it a really fun place, not thought of solely as a restaurant, but also a great place to hang out," Saunders said.

Bujanda said this will be "a very special place we're putting together for Vallejo."

This is the first restaurant Bujanda and his business partner, HERO's Chief Financial Officer Michael Peeler, have attempted, he said.

"We'd been looking around to start investing in a restaurant and management contracts and we read about Vallejo and saw what was happening in the city," Bujanda said. "We met Robert and Mel and it was a great partnership from the beginning."

Saunders said he plans to conduct market and demographic research to make sure the new establishment is tailored to Vallejo's needs.

"We want to make sure the Vallejo clientele is comfortable with the restaurant," Saunders said. "We'll conduct market and competitive research. So, exactly what form it will take is yet to be determined. The idea is smaller plates with a broad variety of side dishes to share family style. That's where we're headed. But it really could wind up being quite different. It's really that early in the process."

- E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at RachelZ@thnewsnet .com or call 553-6824.

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