Life is Delicious: Veronica Esparza

The facts of Veronica Esparza’s early life didn’t seem to point toward a successful business career. She grew up in Potrero, Mexico, population 400 or so, 60 miles from Monterrey, the nearest city, and had to drop out of school at age 15 “because my mother couldn’t afford to send me any longer,” says Esparza. At that time, she had already been working since age 5, “mostly selling things on the street.”

When a great-aunt who lived in San Antonio visited relatives in Potrero, Esparza says, “I asked her to take me with her. I had grown up hearing about her life here, and I thought I could have a better life in this country.” Without education or skills, Esparza did the only work she could find, cleaning houses and sometimes cooking for her clients. Working in their homes, grabbing at all the jobs and hours that came her way, “I was making pretty good money at a young age,” she says, “better than I would have if I had continued my education.” While she was still in her 20s, a car accident that left her with severe burns forced her to stop and consider her future. One of her clients for whom she had cooked visited her in the hospital and urged her to think about catering as a profession. “He had admired my presentation and told me, ‘Your food tastes like home cooking, but it looks as if it was made in a restaurant.”

When Esparza regained her health, she trained to become an assistant laboratory technician, her first job with benefits and regular hours, but she continued to think about cooking and accepted when she got a chance to cater a hospital holiday party for 2,000 people. “I was living in Pleasanton then,” she says, laughing, “and I must have shopped for that party in every H-E-B from there to all over San Antonio.” Though she was still a novice, her food was a hit, and guests asked her to cater further events. To learn the catering business, she took a part-time job in the kitchen of the Omni Hotel restaurant, where it took her about three months to learn the basics of providing food for special events. Then Esparza felt ready to give up her other jobs and start her own business. “I didn’t know I couldn’t cater out of my home until I went and applied to the health department for a catering permit,” she says. “They told me I needed to work out of a real commercial kitchen, so I started looking around for one.” She found a small coffee shop in the M&S Tower north of downtown, a 24-seat restaurant that had operated since the 1960s and had closed shortly before Esparza bought it in 2000. “I had a credit card I had kept for emergencies,” she says, “with $50,000 credit on it. I thought, ‘People use (credit) for what they wear; why don’t I use it to start a business?’ So I bought the coffee shop, and that’s where I stayed for seven years.”

That was the same year Esparza got married, to Realtor Manuel Esparza, himself an entrepreneur who supported her business goals. “Right after I bought the coffee shop, we ran out to the flea market and bought an old horse trailer,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t afford a real caterer’s truck yet, but I needed something to deliver the food in, so we sanitized and painted the trailer, and oh, it still looked awful.” Esparza told her husband, “The trailer looks so bad, I have to have a nice name to paint on it.” So he came up with a name that he thought would be the first in the Yellow Pages under Catering: Absolutely Delicious. “I told him, ‘That’s nice, but I don’t even know how to spell it,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, just write it on a piece of paper, so you’ll always be able to spell it.” With a staff of two, she operated the Absolutely Delicious Café and began catering out of the new space. The following year, she got an offer of the cafeteria contract for the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC), where she presided over a state-of-the-art kitchen, catering functions for various departments. Meanwhile, she continued to build her own business, to the point where Absolutely Delicious had outgrown the little near-downtown coffee shop. While still mulling over her next move, she saw a television news report about the closing of the Old San Francisco Steak House, a venerable restaurant off San Pedro Avenue that had long been a local favorite for celebrations. It was time for another imaginative leap, and Esparza made it, nearly cleaning out her business bank account to purchase the property. Opened in 1968, the restaurant was showing its age with some leaks and cracks that would have to be repaired before it was reopened.

Because she had kept her company relatively debt-free, Esparza was able to get a small-business loan, but not before calling her loyal clients and asking them what they thought her strengths and weaknesses were as a caterer and whether they would continue to work with her after the move to the new location. Most of them assured her that they would continue to use her company’s services, she says, “and that was the only guarantee I had when I made my new business plan.”
That was in 2007. Now, Esparza estimates that about 95 percent of her business comes from repeat customers. Though she kept the memorable favorites on the Old San Francisco menu — steaks, fresh bread and the signature block of Swiss cheese — her catering fare is much less predictable. Food and décor may reference different cultures or food trends, and Esparza prides herself on never giving exactly the same party twice. That’s why it’s problematic when prospective clients ask her what her style is: “I don’t have just one style,” she says, shrugging. “I say it depends on the client and the event. You tell me what you want, and we’ll go from there.” Recently, she catered a function for a first-time client at a large local bank; for the autumn theme, she suggested soup shooters. The client wasn’t sure, concerned about whether people would be worried about burning their fingers on a glass of hot soup. “I told her not to worry, that I was thinking of butternut-squash soup with little grilled cheese sandwiches as a butler’s pass item, and that we would take the time to tell people what they were and how to pick them up,” she assured her. After it was over, Esparza asked the satisfied client, “What would you say my style is?” The banker answered, “Veronica, your style is you — it’s in all the little touches on all your stations.”

With a current staff of 13 full-time and 15 part-time employees, contracts with banquet facilities and a crowded calendar of events for as many as 7,000, Esparza has come far from the days when “I used to be my own dishwasher and delivery person.” She has learned to delegate, especially to her main banquet manager and her executive chef, who formerly worked for Disney. “When I hired him, he told me, ‘Give me a week and let me show you what I can do,’” she says. “In two weeks, he had gotten me out of the kitchen.” That doesn’t mean she has stepped back from the business; far from it, she says, “I am at the center of every event we do.” She checks in with employees via GPS, cell phones and the photos they take of the “food scenery” at as many as nine events per evening. “What we do is still my vision,” she says, “but my employees are my representatives. They are just as passionate about what they do as I am. When I compare my business to other caterers, I think that one of my greatest strengths is that I have the best staff in town.”

That extends to her home, where a live-in housekeeper takes care of the Esparzas’ house and daughters, ages 7 and 4. Most days, Veronica Esparza works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. “When I come home, it’s like walking into a hotel,” she says. “Dinner is ready, the house is clean, the children are clean, and I can just be a full-time parent.” Esparza treats her housekeeper the same way she treats her business staff, giving her time off and full benefits, including medical insurance and retirement. “She is one of my most important partners,” Esparza says. Recently, Esparza and her husband have decided to recommit to their marriage, spending more time together and working on improving their communication. “When we got married, I told him about my business goals, and I let him know that if I wasn’t happy as an individual, I wouldn’t be happy at home,” she says. “He has always been supportive of me, but he never asked me for anything. Now we’re spending more time together and with our daughters, planning for more family time.”

Asking for help at home or at work, to Esparza, is one of the cornerstones of business success for women. “If you try to do it all, if you stress yourself to death doing it, what’s it for?” she asks. “Women need to be a little selfish sometimes, to take care of themselves. Otherwise, you can’t take good care of everyone else.”

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