Chef Sergio Monleon grew up to the sights, sounds, and smells of paella and Arroz al Horno simmering in his home kitchen. Turning up the heat was a family tradition that would lead the then-inspiring chef to live in Madrid for 8 years, where he washed dishes and cooked in heated kitchens as a line cook. His work was far from glamorous, but he knew what he wanted to do with his career: cook.
La Marcha Tapas Bar
Chef Monleon eventually made his way back to his hometown of Berkeley, California and opened La Marcha Tapas Bar with his business partner Chef Emily Sarlatte in 2015.
The new chef felt a bolt of excitement as he opened the doors of La Marcha for the first time to customers. He was now going to have his own restaurant and a chance to create dishes he was nostalgic for. The restaurant would go on to having packed crowds, especially from 4 p.m. – midnight, and during each day’s two happy hours.
Nowadays, La Marcha’s restaurant floor is quiet and happy hours are recollections of the days past. The restaurant staff dwindled from 15 to a “skeleton crew” of two – Chef Monleon and one other cook. “It looked like we weren’t going to make it through,” said the chef.
Chef Monleon began using third party food delivery apps, which “served as a lifeline” (albeit, temporarily). Their commissions were tough and if the wrong food was delivered to a customer, the mix-up was something La Marcha had to respond to and manage, even if that meant replacing food and losing a sale.
The food delivery apps were also so backlogged, according to the chef, that updating menu items or restaurant information for La Marcha didn’t happen immediately. Still, Chef Monleon mustered through.
Managing a Small Business During Pandemic
Three employees of the restaurant started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and tested positive. However, as Chef Monleon pointed out, all three employees were family and living together. Each of the positive cases could have just as likely been traced back home. Thankfully, the virus wasn’t spread to any restaurant customers.
The chef let La Marcha customers know about the incidents. The restaurant was closed for two weeks and underwent deep cleaning. They also re-examined all operations so that they could create the safest environment possible and not cause restaurant patrons any worries or fears.
Now it’s business as usual at La Marcha – well, business as unusual, one could say.
The Only Way Out is Through
Chef Monleon notes that he was more of a risk-taker before the pandemic hit. Now he is more concerned with being conservative, especially as small business loans are not certain to come again or consistently at that.
The break in normalcy has given restaurant owners like Monleon the opportunity to re-examine and even scrutinize business operations.
The chef has been thinking more about the infamous pay discrepancy and tip-payout in the restaurant industry. Chef Monleon wants to “balance the tip pool” by ensuring the back of the house gets compensated and tipped fairly.
According to the chef, the back of house staff used to receive irregular tip-payouts compared to the front of house. While the front of house staff typically consists of seasonal workers looking to pay their way through college, many back of house staff members are career cooks who need to take care of their families.
Customers: Please Be Patient
“I don’t know if La Marcha is ever going to be what it was,” said the chef.
Chef Monleon hopes customers can “have some compassion and understanding and are willing to support in whatever way [La Marcha] opens back up.”
For now, the restaurant also has a wine shop and offers Napa Valley and regional Spanish wines that sommeliers would be impressed by. Best of all? There is a wide selection of affordable wines. Free delivery is available for orders over $60.
The chef has also created the Croqueta Burger, a burger inspired by the classic Spanish croquette. Customers are able to order burgers like Pollo Croqueta Burger™ (spicy chicken), Jamon Croqueta Burger™ (ham and cheese) or Cangrejo Croqueta Burger™ (crab and aged cheddar) to-go or to be eaten “perched on a bluff with a Bay Area vista.”
Chef Monleon is a business-owner so he understands the grit it takes to forge ahead with only success in mind. The chef is still cooking in his restaurant’s kitchen everyday. “Persistence and dedication,” is keeping him going.
Clearly, he was meant to work in the restaurant industry to not only cook with tradition and community in mind, but to transform it from the inside for all to continue enjoying on the outside.