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Jorge Guzman On Cautiously Opening Petite León In The Pandemic

Creating positive culture as a new chef-owner while dealing with his own positive COVID diagnosis.

Jorge Guzman was born in the Yucatan, Mexico, and grew up in St. Louis. After studying advertising and playing football at Drake University, he trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America. He gained notice at the Brewer’s Table in Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing complex, where he was a James Beard Award nominee and finalist for Best Chef Midwest. After a detour to Wisconsin as chef for La Crosse Distilling Co., Guzman returned to Minneapolis to plan for his upcoming new restaurant Petite León.

We found the space for Petite León months before the pandemic was even a thought in the States. Once the pandemic hit, we were lucky because we weren’t an existing restaurant yet, so we could pivot easily in terms of what we were going to offer. We were also able to see what our peers were doing.

We signed the lease by June. They had four different people who wanted to go into that spot. We have a plan right now about what we’re going to do. That could change tomorrow, it could change in a couple of months. It all depends on how the pandemic progresses through the winter.

We hired one person so far—my chef. I’m a partner in another group in Ohio as well, so we needed somebody to be Petite León when I’m not there. We’re going to operate with just the owners and him running the place, depending on what happens. If we were to open tomorrow, we would open very cautiously. We would not do the 50 percent capacity dining thing, which is currently allowed—we would do less than that. We would only do two turns.

We created a full menu, but I’ve got another COVID menu—basically a condensed version, almost like a prix fixe, so that it’s a little bit easier to order. You do one order, go to the bar, and it comes out to you. It’s less interactive, just a little safer. We can’t offer everything because we can’t hold that kind of inventory, not knowing what’s going to happen.

Jorge Guzman in the Petite León space under renovation. Photo: Neil Bertucci.

I actually had COVID last week and the week before. I’ve been out of work for two weeks right now. I feel good today. This is day 13 for me in isolation. One of my other partners got it, and so we all got tested, and everyone tested negative except for me. I don’t think it was from him. It must’ve been from somewhere else. I take proper precautions, but it goes to show that you can always be more careful.

I have mild symptoms, but I lost my smell, I lost my taste. I had a headache and whatnot. But thankfully I’m okay right now. I’ve read stories where people are fine and then their whole body shuts down. So I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.

I think any chef that really cares about the profession wants their own place. When I was at Surly Brewing—I really thought that was going to be a longer tenure there. It was such a great place to work. We had so many opportunities to do so much, so I really thought I was going to be there for the majority of my career. And then things went the way they did. It was a huge mistake to move to La Crosse. My experience there was worse than Surly. I took a step back and realized that without being an owner of something, you have no security. So my next step was I had to own something because there’s a chance to make more money. You can have equity, you can have all those things that you need and just be more secure. You don’t have to answer to anybody.

Every chef’s got three or four concepts in the bag. I was moving forward on one of mine—Pollo Pollo Al Carbon, which was just an al carbon chicken restaurant. But right before I saw the Petite León space, my partner Ben Rients and I were talking about a neighborhood spot that could be really accessible, quaint, sexy, dimly lit. “Oh, it would be great if we found a spot like that,” and we just happened to find it. The name Petit León just came almost immediately over the phone. That’s how it started—the name, and the whole aesthetic, and the feel of what we wanted it to be. It’ll morph, like any restaurant does. The first menu, compared to the menu we have now—it’s completely different.

Photo: Neil Bertucci.

Travis Serbus and I are the majority owners, and it’s really our creative push in terms of what we’re going to do. With his cocktails and his lack of ego, it’s going to be a good marriage. I have a little bit more of an ego than he has, but I can check mine at the door. I think we’re going to work great together. It’s a cool menu. I’m really excited about it.

But even more important than creative control is the culture you create within your environment. When you’re just the chef, you can only create a culture in the kitchen, not in the whole company. As an owner, I have the ability now to create a culture of safety and learning and progression. Hopefully people will leave my restaurant and become more successful than I am, because of me. That’s the ultimate goal.

What I’ve experienced as a chef is that most often, you’re seen as a tool to progress the restaurant or the company. Very rarely was I taken seriously in what I wanted. My aspirations were seen as a threat. You’re not always heard, and you’ve got other people that have different ideas. You just don’t mesh well because nobody’s really listening.

I know I can create a good culture. I did so within my kitchen at Surly and anywhere else I’ve worked. The expectations are set right away. If you’re not meeting them, we help you. We talk, we converse. It’s a give and take. There’s no threat. Half my tenure at Surly, I’d walk through the door not knowing if I was getting fired or not. That’s just not a healthy way to go to work or to be alive. The last thing I want is for anybody in my company to fear losing their job, or the fear of anything. Fear isn’t a motivator. It’s not a way to control people. It’s not a way to do anything.

Photo: Neil Bertucci.

We want to promote the good in people, not take advantage of people, which is how restaurants have often been. You take people, you work them as hard as you can, you barely pay them, and then they leave and they’re pissed off, or they’re knee-deep in abuse or alcohol or drugs. That’s what we’re trying to get away from.

It’s not all down on paper yet, but some of the things that we know we want to do right off the bat is to give our employees insurance, or at least help them pay for medical costs. We’re going to implement a 20 percent service charge. We’re not going to be tipping. That service charge allows us to give back to our employees. We can set aside a kitty fund, or we can help pay for a portion of insurance or whatever it is that we’re going to do.

A lot of times these guys and gals have two jobs, and then they’re just burned out and tired. All of a sudden they have to go to the hospital. They don’t have insurance, and they’ve got a $5,000 bill. Now they’re just fucked. How do you pay your rent? How do you pay your bills? How do you put food on the table?

The service charge also allows us to pay a higher wage. We want to start everyone at $15 an hour and try to get them to $20. Let’s be honest—you still can’t live off $15 an hour. It’s just not doable. But if we can give more money back from that service charge, maybe now they’re making $20 to $25 an hour to start off because we’re able to split tips appropriately.

Photo: Neil Bertucci.

Everyone says they have “core values,” but one thing I’ve learned is like, great, what are the steps to get you to that specific core value? How do you know you’ve attained that value? You can’t attain all your values every single day, because it’s not at the forefront of your mind. You’d be exhausted mentally. Write down your core value, and then maybe three steps to achieve that value. Maybe that’s something that we focus on, like, “Today did we make so and so, did it feel this way? Let’s check our list and make sure that we’re doing it properly.”

We want to set up a retirement plan. We eventually want to figure out how to give equity back to our employees. We haven’t figured that out yet. Those are things that we need to talk to our lawyers about, but that’s something we’ve written down. How do we take what we have in ownership and give that back to our employees, so that they can make more money and have a say in what we do? If they have a voice and they know they’re being heard, that’s a positive thing.

I believe in managing individuals. You can’t just manage the company as a whole. If you get personal and you actually care and you give a shit and you take 10 minutes out of your day and you ask Maria how her kids are, and she tells you that one of them got suspended and one of them’s doing great, and you actually make a connection—that’s what I’m really good at. I care about who works for me. On a personal level, outside of what they’re doing for me at work, I want to know about them as people. It’s just the human aspect of it. They’re not just employees. I hate the word employee, because it takes away from the human aspect of what you are.

I think it’s more than just the industry that has to change to get through this pandemic. I think it has to be people’s perception. Food continues to go up in price, but restaurant prices can’t go up, because people aren’t willing to pay more. But they still want that whole experience of dining out, getting waited on. When the bill comes, the majority of people aren’t willing to pay what it really costs to produce that product. Which in turn makes the restaurateur not able to operate successfully or even stay open if she doesn’t pay minimum wage or take shortcuts here or there.

We have to, as a society, understand that the restaurant industry is really important to the economy as a whole. It’s 16 million people. The effects of all those restaurants closing—I don’t have to tell you what those are. You can just read about it. Now your farmer is fucked, and now the guy that grows the seeds is fucked, and now the transportation company is fucked. It’s just a big circle effect, everyone is just going to go down, down, down. If we can’t support restaurants and how they should be treated, this will continue to happen. You’re going to see more closures. Then you’re going to be left with your TGI Friday’s and your big box restaurants. And what fun is that?