Verde Cocina prospering after humble start in Hillsdale
The consultant told Noé Garnica the coffee house in Hillsdale that he wanted to make the site of his first restaurant would never work.
"He told us the kitchen was too small so we let it go for a while and it sat vacant for two years," Garnica said.
Then in 2011, he defied the consultant's advice and made his move. The two-story, wood-framed, 83-year-old coffee house/reading room at the corner of Southwest Capitol Highway and 21st Avenue became Verde Cocina Hillsdale.
"We had nothing to lose. We were just ready to open a restaurant and there weren't any good opportunities anywhere else," he said.
He and his wife and young children were living near the U.S. Post Office in Multnomah at the time and often would pass the Hillsdale location to admire it.
Now operating there for nearly a decade, it's looking like Garnica has good gut instincts when it comes to business decisions. With his wife Anna, he also now operates a much larger Verde Cocina restaurant on Sylvan Highlands where Big Red's used to be; a café in the Pearl District; a catering business (Buenos Dias Catering); food service at the Oregon Zoo; and one of Portland's best-known farmers market operations. Verde Cocina has 70 employees and is a major customer of three local farms.
They don't teach those instincts at culinary academies or restaurant management schools. Garnica said, with pride, "I've never been a manager, always a line cook." He developed his food service smarts growing up in Mexico, cooking for various appetites and building his businesses.
Here's another example of his instincts: He was making and selling salads for one of the cafeterias at Oregon Health & Science University. Lettuce had to be stored at 38 degrees. That's too cold for romaine lettuce so Garnica tried using kale. Salad sales went from 50 per week to 300 per week. This was years before kale became such a trendy food commodity.
ALWAYS GLUTEN FREE
Then there's the gluten-free thing. Verde Cocina was the restaurant where a lot of diners first heard of such a concept and learned about the benefits of a gluten-free diet. Verde Cocina lead the way when Garnica was given a spot at the Portland State University Farmers Market and was told he couldn't sell burritos or tamales because another vendor was doing that. He responded with gluten-free corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas as the foundation of his other offerings like salads and breakfast dishes.
It's this kind of adapting that has given Verde Cocina its reputation for combining fresh local ingredients with the kind of Mexican flair you won't find at Taco Bell. All the food is prepared from scratch. No MSG, fillers or preservatives are used. No food is over-processed or over-seasoned. No gluten ingredients are used and there are vegan and Paleo (non-processed food, basically) options on the menus.
Anna Garnica is Noé's wife and co-owner of Verde Cocina. "Because of my own health issues, I became gluten-free early on. I looked around and saw there were a lot of other people just like me," she said.
"Noé had learned about cooking healthier food while working for a health professional as a personal chef," she said.
Anna's own instincts told her that customers would appreciate consideration for their different dietary needs. "Noé learned which key ingredients are good then but he didn't need much advice because he grew up cooking fresh, local ingredients with his mom and aunts in Mexico," she said.
"The ingredients were right there," Noé added.
"I don't think you have to have a health concern to be concerned about your health," she said. "Everybody is concerned about that. In general, people want to eat more healthy food. This is not a fad."
KALE IS KING
A good example of how the couple combines health concerns with popular cuisine is one of its most-ordered salads. "Verde Cocina salads were being made with kale in 2009, so Noé was an early kale salad pioneer. When the kale craze really took off, our kale salad had been on the menu for some time. We were ready for the kale foodies. Our sweet potato, black bean and kale salad remains one of our most popular salads," according to Jocelyn CySip, who's been with the Garnicas since Verde Cocina Hillsdale opened in 2011.
Though he spends most of his time at the Sylvan location, Noé Garnica says he still likes to cook at Hillsdale, where he estimates that 70% of the customers are "regulars."
He said those loyal diners taught him a very important lesson: "It's a matter of knowing this is true to me. That this is authentic."
That's why one of the first things he got rid of was the big Italian espresso machine on the bar. He wasn't selling much coffee. "I learned not to try to compete at something we can't win at."
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