Top of the Food Chain: Women who rule the restaurant roost

Women are typically associated with feeding the family at home. But feeding people professionally as the owner of a restaurant? That’s apparently a different story.

San Antonio’s role as a hospitality and tourism mecca — coupled with a love of eating — makes restaurants a popular choice for anyone wanting to own a business. In fact, restaurants pump approximately $3 billion into San Antonio’s economy each year.

But of the 4,362 restaurants in San Antonio, women, according to Richard S. Cardenas of the San Antonio Restaurant Association, own fewer than 20 percent of the establishments.

So, for women to rise to the top of the local food chain is an accomplishment indeed. Meet five women who have done just that — sometimes more than once.

Lisa Wong
-Rosario’s and Ácenar

Lisa Wong made her mark on local cuisine back in the early ’90s with a little West Side eatery called, simply, Lisa’s. With a line of customers out the door for lunch and dinner, it was hard to imagine being any more successful than she already was.

But the entrepreneurial spirit kept calling Wong to try different things. In 1995, she opened Rosario’s in Southtown at a time when the neighborhood just south of downtown was beginning its renaissance as an arts and cultural district. “;I questioned what I was doing,” says Wong. “;I had this successful West Side restaurant, and I was thinking about moving to a location where there were a lot of empty houses and buildings.”

Rosario’s offered diners a cozy cantina atmosphere, but it wasn’t long before Wong realized she could take the restaurant to a new level. There was another space available, just a couple of doors down, but it was a lot bigger than the 2,500 square feet her restaurant then occupied. As Wong and her father walked the new, 10,000-square-foot space, she remembers her dad asking if she was sure this was the right move.

Wong’s father passed away right before she moved Rosario’s into its second, and current, home on South Alamo Street. Serving traditional Tex-Mex with a modern twist, Rosario’s has a vivid color scheme and angular, wide-open spaces that set the tone: Guests range from the affluent to the artiste, and they all seem to share the feeling that they are walking into a party. As people circulate through the space, nobody seems to mind waiting for a table.

“;I never claimed to serve the best Mexican food,” says Wong. “;I have competitors whom I respect enormously. What I have always said is that I’ve created a taste that obviously has a following.”

In 2004, Wong opened Ácenar, a new restaurant on San Antonio’s River Walk. “;Growing up, our family would walk downtown. I have such fond memories of being on the River Walk then. I never thought I would have a restaurant here — this is by far the dream that I never thought possible.”

Wong says that for the first few months, just walking in the doors of the new restaurant gave her a sense of pride each day. “;The food at Ácenar is different from Rosario’s,” Wong explains. She describes the menu as featuring the usual San Antonio favorites, combined with traditional items created in a non traditional way. Tacos take a twist, loaded with crab and oyster, and chalupas pile on duck instead of the typical beef or chicken.

Wong is also involved in a limited partnership in another Southtown restaurant, ChinaLatina, in the original Rosario’s location. The offerings there combine tastes that reflect her Chinese-Mexican roots. “;My paternal grandfather emigrated from China and was traveling through Mexico, where he met my grandmother,” Wong explains. She describes her father as a great cook, who for years owned a downtown restaurant featuring American-style cuisine with Chinese influences.

Diana Barrios Treviño
-Los Barrios

“;At Los Barrios, we are all about family,” Diana Barrios Treviño states unequivocally. “;This is the place where families come together.”

The restaurant has long been a favorite for baby showers, wedding luncheons, memorial gatherings and just about anything in between. “;This is where our family celebrates all our events, and we love that everyone else comes here to celebrate as well,” she says.

Barrios Treviño grew up in the restaurant her parents owned when she was a little girl. “;I used to cry when my dad wouldn’t take me there after school,” she says. When her father died in 1975, her mother, Viola Barrios, started another restaurant in a rented garage. When her landlord

saw she was doing well, he tripled her rent, and she moved Los Barrios to a vacant Dairy Queen, where the much expanded restaurant stands today. “;Mother is the heart of the business,” says Barrios Treviño. “;She set the example for all of us.”

Barrios Treviño didn’t have an official role in the restaurant until she finished college. Now, she runs Los Barrios along with her brother Louis and husband, Roland. Although they all wear several hats and are willing to tackle any task at a moment’s notice, Barrios Treviño has a talent for public relations, and has been the “;face” of the restaurant on local and national television programs, a tactic that has further entrenched Los Barrios as a mainstream San Antonio establishment.

In fact, it was a segment she did with Emeril Lagasse for Good Morning, America back in 1999 that opened a new door for the restaurant. After the segment aired, the show’s producer called Barrios Treviño to say she’d just spoken with a friend, an editor at Random House Books, who had seen the program and wanted to know if Barrios Treviño was interested in doing a cookbook.

And so, The Los Barrios Family Cookbook: Tex-Mex Recipes from the Heart of San Antonio was published in 2002, followed by The Barrios Family Cookbook in 2003.

With all the success and notoriety, it would be easy for the daily grind to start spinning out of control. Barrios Treviño is determined to keep it real: “;You can make this be the biggest thing in the world, but then what do you do?” She finds balance in humility. “;If you don’t have humility, you can kiss this all goodbye. You can get really pompous and start living your customer’s lifestyle, but this is a service industry — I humble myself for our customers every day,” she explains.

Her greatest tests, she says, aren’t necessarily on difficult days; rather, she prefers to keep the good days in check. She goes on to say, “;I’m really being tested when I’m having those great moments, because I can’t get all puffed up and ride on that. As soon as I do, there will be a customer whose food is never ‘just right,’ and even though everything is going great now, that means I’ll probably fall down in five minutes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen!

“;This is so rewarding,” she says. “;We thank everyone for coming here to share good time and bad times. We celebrate, we cry, we pray with our customers — we’ve done it all. That’s the part of us that says ‘thank you’ for letting us be a part of your world.”

Barbara Hunt
-Boardwalk Bistro

Travel around the world, try different foods, experience varied religions and lifestyles, then roll it all up into a rug and unfurl it in San Antonio.

Since 1988, diners at Boardwalk Bistro have reaped the benefit of owner Barbara Hunt’s travels. Although the bistro’s offerings — from Moroccan tagine to pesto-grilled trout — have a decidedly Mediterranean flair, there are American favorites with a world twist, like roast beef and provolone on kalamata bread. Hunt wanted to create an ambience that reflects her love of the different places she’d visited. “;The recipes, the music, the décor — they’re all the result of my studying cuisine, religion and lifestyle around the world,” she says. “;For the bistro, international travel is an essential component of our success.”

Her son, Russell Atkinson, is the bistro’s executive chef, and Hunt herself enjoys making the pastries and desserts that complete her meals. “;He loves this the same way I do,” says Hunt. A confessed foodie, Hunt is always in pursuit of that “;culinary symphony, when great food pairs with the perfect wine.” Hunt’s other great symphony is when the bistro’s energy just flows. “;It’s so rewarding when it’s extremely busy, the bistro staff is in sync with each other and with our guests. It’s just such a memorable and satisfying experience for everyone,” she says.

It’s not always easy to do. Unlike the situation in an office, a restaurant owner can’t put customers into an in-box that can be pushed aside until employees arrive. Guests arrive when they do, so it’s a constant shuffle and check to keep the right balance. “;A hungry customer doesn’t care that we’re short one waiter or the chef is ill. The beauty of it is that we all share thesame goal here and, no matter what, we want you to have the wonderful meal you expect,” she says.

Hunt thinks the connection between food and nurturing makes restaurants a good business choice for many women. “;We’re also good at negotiating and finding that middle ground,” she says. “;We just need to practice saying no.”

It’s a real love of the industry that keeps Hunt going. “;I couldn’t have stuck it out for the long run if I didn’t love this work,” she says. “;Monetary gain or recognition wouldn’t be enough. I have to put all the demands in perspective to keep from getting physically drained.” Hunt credits her customers for helping her keep everything in balance. She concludes, “;As long as I can maintain the energy it takes to meet the challenge, life is great.”

Blanca Aldaco

Blanca Aldaco loves a good tortilla, but counts on the rest of her menu and a breezy patio to create a tantalizing, sensory experience at her restaurant, Aldaco’s.

For Aldaco, it’s hard to describe her food without painting a picture that puts anticipation into overdrive. Chiles Rellenos aren’t just stuffed peppers, they are “;rich and succulent.” Her Ensalada Tres Marias is “;light and refreshing.”

Living in Texas for 20 years only makes Aldaco want to celebrate her roots that much more. A native of Guadalajara, Aldaco has a menu that reflects the Jalisco-style cuisine that puts much of the Mex into Tex-Mex. Her location at Sunset Station has been a draw for downtown

diners since 1989, although she did start out in a smaller location in St. Paul’s Square. She treasures her experiences, from the day she opened the doors of the restaurant and the moment she realized she was a success, to being able to look back with pride at her accomplishments.

But, back to the tortilla. A Mexican restaurant in San Antonio has to get it right, and Aldaco has cornered that market, offering a cooking class focused on the humble flour-shortening-water mixture. “;I teach Tortilla 101,” she says, adding that the class is popular with locals wanting to nail the technique and tourists wanting to take a new skill home with them from San Antonio.

Aldaco reminds herself often of the need to roll with the changes. “;It’s easy to think that you’ve paid your dues, but I have to remember that no one ever fully pays their dues. This industry changes too quickly, so I have to work harder every year to keep up the great food and great service my customers expect,” she says.

She also realizes that she, and the restaurant, are hardly unique. She explains, “;Restaurant owners are always asked what makes us unique. We’re not trying to be unique. We’re trying to be the best at what we do, here. It comes down more to hard work and ingenuity — to promote your business without losing your personality — we don’t want to be the other restaurant, we want to be ourselves!”

Hsiu Yu
-Hsiu Yu

Hsiu Yu opened a restaurant to fulfill her husband’s dream. Nearly 22 years later, it turns out that it was her dream too.

The restaurant on Broadway that bears her name has been a fixture for fans of spicy oriental cuisine. A mix of popular Mandarin, Northern Chinese and her native Taiwanese tastes, Hsiu Yu’s menu, and her approach to running the restaurant, have brought fortunate dividends.

Yu moved to America from Taiwan in the early 1970s and met her husband working at another San Antonio restaurant. “;It was his goal to have his own restaurant, so that’s what we did,” she says.

With her mother, sisters and daughters helping her up front, husband Chung Yu is content in the kitchen. “;It’s a lot of hard work,” she says. “;It’s 100 percent of our time into the business.”

Well, almost. When she needs a break, she goes shopping. “;It’s where I’m not thinking about the restaurant for a little while,” she grins.

Yu marvels at how they started from nothing and built their following on word of mouth. “;Look what we have now,” she says. “;Most of our customers are repeat customers. They’re like our friends.”

In fact, the secret of Yu’s success is just that simple. “;Work really hard — devote yourself — and be really nice to all your customers,” she says. After 22 years, Yu says it all comes naturally to her. “;I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “;I like what I do. I feel lucky that this is my reward. I’m very happy.”

Author: Susan Sheffloe Speer

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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