Elbert Cuenca How Elbert Cuenca built a restaurant empire out of a no-signage, low-profile approach The veteran restaurateur has had a gruelling (and fulfilling) 2019, opening both Elbert’s Pizzeria and the Miko Calo-helmed Metronome. Read our conversation with Cuenca about his beginnings, serendipity, and what restaurant closures taught him
For a restaurateur, Elbert Cuenca hardly does any planning, instead relying on serendipity and waiting for things “to fall into place” to tell if a concept was going to work. The son of a restaurant and hospitality business owner, Cuenca grew up thinking that he was going to be involved in the same business at some capacity. With 25 years of involvement in the restaurant industry, you’d think that somewhere along the way he gradually developed a clear-cut blueprint for how to approach projects—a kind of consistency that involved rules and routines, saying yes to one restaurant opening one year and saving other project ideas for the next.

But no: To this day, the veteran restaurateur insists on not following a plan, and perhaps 2019 is the best testament to that, with the opening of both Elbert’s Pizzeria and the serendipitous Metronome. He says of the latter: “I didn't want to open a new restaurant, but I met Miko [Calo].”

To be fair, Cuenca had been consistent from the very start—except his was a reflexive consistency, taking on whatever felt right to him at the moment. Before opening his namesake restaurants, Cuenca enjoyed a stint in marketing, organizing themed parties, and then opening a casual concept with his cousins, after which he set up his own restaurant, which was then followed by a career in the IT industry. We got to talk to the restaurateur about his beginnings, why to this day Elbert’s Steak Room has no signage, what he learned from restaurant closures, and why he doesn’t plan to open another restaurant anytime soon.
Before becoming a restaurateur, Cuenca was in charge of marketing at Club Mar’s and Zen You opened your first restaurant, Restaurant 12, at Greenbelt 2 in 2002.
Yes, but my real first foray into the restaurant world was in 1995, when my cousins wanted to come up with a new new hip version of Furusato [Cuenca’s family business]. We created a restaurant called Zen. It was very unique. We were in a zero category at that time. [TGI] Friday’s and all these casual dining restaurants hadn’t opened yet, so we pretty much created a new space called casual dining.
That’s a strong entrance to the restaurant world.
We felt that there was a need to create this new space because it didn't really exist. But I quit in 2000. I started getting into IT—I liked gadgets and I got so deep into it that it became my job. But there was this longing after I quit the family business to put up my own place. So I opened Restaurant 12. It was a gargantuan, very ambitious, project. It cost a lot of money. We had a new concept where we regularly hosted guest chefs, sometimes for a night, other times, for a month. It was too much of everything. In hindsight, that’s how I see it.

It closed in 2004. We had a great run in 2002, and started seeing a decline in 2003. By 2004, the smoking law hit and we got hit really bad. In fact, we were shut down for committing a smoking violation. We never recovered. And then my investor partners just pulled the plug on me and we closed. It was a very painful lesson. It was a very humbling experience—from feeling [like you’re on] top of the world to feeling down in the dumps.

And how were you able to bounce back from that?
There was still this desire to go back and do it again, even if I had failed. I guess it’s innate—it was in my blood—to want to operate a restaurant. After Restaurant 12 closed, I had to pick up the pieces. I became a personal Mac tutor for people who were new to Apple computers. I made a lot of friends, a lot of them influential people.

I read that that's when you met Archie King, one of your business partners?
He was my student, we became close friends. I asked him his opinion of a steak room concept. I wasn't approaching it for anything except an opinion. I asked him, “Would you go into a small restaurant that has maybe five to six tables charging $100 a plate for the best steak you’ll ever have? You think there’s a market for this?” He said yes, he had friends who will pay good money for great steak.

And by coincidence, in one of my sessions with him, he had a barbecue at home, and the owner of Bacchus was there and he taught Archie how to cook steaks. We ate the steaks and I said “This is the steak I've been talking about.” From there, the partnership started and Archie said he’d invest in this.
You opened the steak room in 2007, and you once said that one of the biggest problems you had was that you didn't have enough funding to build the restaurant.
Yes, but before I get into that… the steak room was essentially the opposite of everything I did in Restaurant 12. Having learned my lessons, I didn't want to be high profile, so I went low profile. I didn't want to be large scale, I went small scale. I didn't want to be too visible so we kind of…

You don’t have a sign, right?
Yeah, where Restaurant 12 had a huge sign, this one had no sign. I did the opposite for everything, but some of them were by circumstance, like, we ran out of funds just as we were completing. We had to redo a lot of things, we had to do a take two in our construction. As restaurants go, they'll always be short on budget, they’ll always overshoot. Normally, you’ll find a way. In our case, we had run so short that I barely had the funds to complete. I was reselling Apple computers and I was using the terms I had with my suppliers as credit.

So what was the experience like opening the steak room?
Out of the seven tables, we were able to complete just three. I thought we might as well open these three tables and get the business running because I had steaks in the chiller. They were going to go bad if I didn't move. We had to operate, and luckily I was able to buy enough plates, linen, cutlery, and glassware. On the day we opened, I had my students coming. They started supporting me, telling other people about me, and even without a sign, without any advertising, without any internet, we had got the ball rolling. Every night we would have those three tables full.

There was enough money for me to start buying more glasses, more linen, more plates. We started completing it. That was in August 2007, and by December, we had come up with enough funds to complete the entire restaurant.
"...some of the restaurants that I take inspiration from have the names of the owners on it—like Antonio’s and Sonya’s. There’s value to this personal approach. It’s a bit bold in the sense that people will look at you like you’re narcissistic, but that was never the purpose. It was about being personal, telling people that this is me, I'm a person offering you something, I put my name on the line" Let’s talk about the idea of putting your name in the names of your businesses. You want to let people know that this is a personal offering. In the years that your restaurants have been running, how closely do you think you’ve lived by this idea?
Yeah, because some of the restaurants that I take inspiration from have the names of the owners on it—like Antonio’s and Sonya’s. There’s value to this personal approach. It’s a bit bold in the sense that people will look at you like you’re narcissistic, but that was never the purpose. It was about being personal, telling people that this is me, I'm a person offering you something, I put my name on the line. And it holds true all the way through the way my staff will serve our customers because they know they represent Elbert. It resonates all the way down to our dishwashers and cooks are cool with that. They have to uphold a certain standard of quality and service.

You’ve talked a lot about keeping the customer experience a priority. Have you found that doing so can be affected by the scale of operations? Do you think keeping customer experience a priority is incompatible with bigger operations?
No. Customer experience doesn't have to be a super personal one; it doesn't have to have a small ratio of customer to staff. It has nothing to do with that. The experience varies depending on the concept of the restaurant. In a restaurant like the steak room, the experience is centered on the steak. But for you to be able to enjoy that steak, I had to create an atmosphere around it. The experience is totalitarian. When I serve a steak dinner, everything from the temperature to the noise level of the restaurant, to our timing and approach and the frequency of engagement with our customers—this is all key to the experience.

Tell us about your year. You opened Metronome and Elbert’s Pizzeria. What was it like opening two restaurants in one year?
Hell. It was really difficult. The pizzeria, I must admit is something that I wish I could spend more time in. That’s the one with my name, Metronome doesn’t. I don't want to say one is more important than the other, but with the pizzeria I assigned that to my brother... [Adrian Cuenca, Steak Room's Corporate Chef who trained in Naples]
And how about Metronome? How did you meet Miko Calo?
Metronome was a restaurant that I didn't plan to put up. I had no intention of setting up another restaurant because I was already working on two projects at the same time back then.

I didn't want to open a new restaurant, but I met Miko. This is a story of serendipity. I was introduced to Miko by her cousin. We had lunch, we went over what it was she was looking to do. I have to admit, before that, I didn't know who she was. There was no resume presented to me before the meeting. But we decided to have a pop-up dinner at the steak room because I was planning to run a series of pop-ups anyway. I said to Miko, “Why don’t you be the first one?”

How did the pop-up go?
Actually, prior to that, the French ambassador heard about our pop-up and he wanted to meet Miko because he heard that she worked with [Joel] Robuchon for seven years. He asked if he could have a special audience with us and try the food. He didn't understand that Miko didn’t work for me.

Because he couldn't make it to the pop-up, he wanted a special audience. So in that lunch, Miko cooked. She served us four courses and I was blown away to say the least. It was food that wasn't really outstanding, but it’s food that as you kept biting into, there was a certain feel-good about it. Yes, it was familiar but it was so restrained. The next morning, I woke up dreaming of the same dishes. I remember thinking I wanted to have the same food again.

That gave me this idea that her food is approachable, especially since typically, French food is so rich, it was a once-a-week-at-the-most kind of experience. And when we got to our pop-up dinner a couple of weeks after that, every dish out of the 28 that were served was completely clean.
And then what happened from there?
At that point, I felt like it wasn’t just me anymore. My friends have spoken. Miko had a name [for a restaurant] in mind, but to me it was always just a restaurant for Miko Calo. After that dinner, I congratulated her and told her that there's something here that we need to do together. I said, "I’m going to do you a favor. I'm not going to look for a restaurant location for you.” And she goes, “I don't understand, I thought you liked the food and you were ready to work with me.” And I said, “That's the thing. I think this is too special for me to find the location. The location has to find us and then it would be perfect.”

I believed in this whole serendipity thing, right? It wasn't even 10 days after I said that to her that my friend from Mantra Bistro called me and said this particular space had a wonderful kitchen and that I should look at it. The moment I saw it, Miko came to mind. So I showed her the kitchen, and she fell in love with it. I told her I never envisioned a location—I envisioned a restaurant, the location is secondary.

In the end, the one thing that convinced Miko was… I asked her a simple question: “Is this the kitchen that will allow Miko Calo to be Miko Calo?” And the answer was a resounding yes.

What are your future plans?
I don't plan anything. I have ideas of things that would be great restaurants. I always have them in mind, but I don't plan them. Things just have to fall into place for me to do them. If something comes up, then I will say that that's the next project. For now, if you ask me what I want to do next, my answer is I don't want to open a new restaurant. I have enough—in fact, maybe a bit too much. I have no plans to do anything new. At least not in the next two years. I want to nurture what I have right now.
Words by Catherine Orda. Photography by Pat Mateo.