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Trinh Le, left, and his wife, Minnie Nguyen, knew that changing their lives’ direction could be risky, but the results of that career-altering adjustment have been a boon to Sacramento diners. Photo by Jessica Vernone
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Sacramento is eating them up

More and more, Sac State grads flavor the city's dining scene

Jonathan Morales

Trinh Le was preparing for life as a firefighter when his wife and fellow Sacramento State alum, Minnie Nguyen, suggested an alternate career path.


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Ernesto Delgado, owner of three restaurants in the Sacramento area, acknowledges the strides toward prominence made by the capital’s dining scene. Photo by Andrea Price

 

“She said, ‘I like food. I don’t have a culinary background, but I know what food should look like and taste like. Why don’t we just open a restaurant?’ ” Le recalls. “And I said, ‘OK.’ That was it.” 

Their restaurant, Firehouse Crawfish in south Sacramento, opened in 2011, struggling for three years before finally breaking through. Le and Nguyen now oversee five locations and close to 150 employees.

Their success is emblematic of two major Sacramento trends: The city’s food scene is growing fast—and Sacramento State alums are significant players in turning the region into a premier culinary destination.

“There’s so much to Sacramento, and we are demanding attention,” says Ernesto Delgado ’98 (Graphic Design), owner of Tequila Museo Mayahuel and La Cosecha in downtown Sacramento, as well as Mesa Mercado in Carmichael.

“I used to invite people to Sacramento, and they’d never come. Now they’re coming on their own from San Francisco and everywhere else.”

Sacramento’s dining scene has attracted national attention – a January article in Thrillist called Sacramento the “best up-and-coming food city in America.” City officials have been eager to capitalize, branding the city as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.”

From 2009 to 2017, total jobs in Sacramento grew by 12 percent, but food-services jobs grew by 20 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And a December 2017 Sacramento Bee article counted approximately 100 restaurants that didn’t exist five years earlier.

It’s not unusual for leisure and hospitality industries to grow as the economy recovers and workers can better afford dining out and other luxuries, says Sanjay Varshney, a Sacramento State finance professor and chief economist for the Sacramento Business Review. But Sacramento has distinguished itself. 

“We have a large agricultural industry in our backyard, which often is underappreciated or unrecognized,” Varshney says. “City leaders really tried to promote Sacramento as being a destination for farm-to-fork, which puts a lot of recognition and highlight on restaurant owners, especially high-end restaurant owners.”

 

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Sac State’s farm-to-fork connection

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Holding a Selland’s Market staff meeting, Josh Nelson (standing, right) continues work that includes having made a significant impact on Sacramento’s farm-to-fork culture and identity. Photo by Jessica Vernone

Sacramento State’s connection to the local restaurant scene began long before farm-to-fork became a marketing slogan. In 1969, Randy Paragary ’70 (Government) was a Sac State student preparing for law school. But seeing nowhere in town for people his age to hang out, he opened the Parapow Palace bar and live-music venue at O and 30th streets.

“It was filling a void,” he says. “There was absolutely nothing for us, that group of kids, to go to.”

Since then, Paragary—who The Bee called “arguably the biggest player in food and drink that Sacramento has ever seen” —has created a collection of bars and dining establishments, helping shape the city’s expanding food scene. Paragary’s, which opened in 1983 as a pizza and pasta restaurant, was among the first to use fresh, local ingredients. In 2015 it was reimagined as an upscale, farm-to-fork-focused neighborhood bistro. (Co-owner and chef Kurt Spataro also has Sacramento State ties, attending music classes in the mid-1980s.)

Paragary, his wife, Stacy, and Spataro now own seven restaurants, including Cafe Bernardo and Centro Cocina Mexicana, and oversee about 400 employees.

“The restaurant business is one of the last traditional retail businesses that can offer employment to people,” Paragary says, noting the decline of clothing and record stores, and other businesses. “There is very little retail opportunity for people who are entrepreneurial and want to open their own business. Restaurants are the last frontier.”

Paragary was a farm-to-fork leader, but another Sacramento State alum took it from movement to marketing success.

That was Josh Nelson ’98 (Marketing), co-owner and chief financial officer of Selland Family Restaurants. In 2012, he led the group that pitched then-Mayor Kevin Johnson on designating Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” The Selland family – Nelson, sister Tamara Baker and parents/chef owners Randall Selland and Nancy Zimmer – were longtime champions of local, fresh ingredients, and Nelson saw an opportunity to turn a negative perception of the city into a positive one.

“Kings fans shake cowbells because (former Los Angeles Lakers coach) Phil Jackson called us a cow town,” Nelson says. “I looked at that and said this is one of our most amazing assets as a city and something we should be proud of. We’re not a cow town. We’re a farm town, and that gives us the best product in the world to work with.”

“Farm-to-Fork” was officially adopted that fall, and—save for some grumbling about replacing the old “City of Trees” motto on the Interstate 5 water tower—restaurants and residents have embraced it. The Tower Bridge Dinner, held during the city’s annual Farm-to-Fork Festival, sells out within seconds of tickets becoming available. Sacramento State has followed suit with an annual farm-to-fork dinner on the Guy West Bridge.

The Selland family opened their first restaurant, The Kitchen, in 1991, and they now also operate Selland’s Market-Cafe, Ella Dining Room & Bar and OBO’ Italian Table & Bar. Nelson credits Sacramento State for providing financial and marketing acumen to turn his parents’ dream into a profitable business.

“I’m proud to be a Sacramento State alum and happy with the education that I received,” he says. “It truly has had an impact on literally my entire family. Almost my entire family is supported by the restaurant. I don’t think we’d be the same without the classes and guidance I got there.”

 

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Joining the party

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Perhaps Sacramento’s most prominent restaurateur ever, Randy Paragary presides over an enterprise that continues to innovate and influence the city’s food landscape—as it has for decades. Photo by Andrea Price

Paragary and Selland may be giants in the world of Sacramento food, but newer names also are making their mark.

The pitch by Minnie Ngyuen ’07 (Social Science) to her husband didn’t come out of the blue: Growing up in a large Asian family, she was used to helping her mother in the kitchen and recalls joining her family and friends at massive crawfish dinner parties.

“I’ve always been a foodie, and I’m critiquing food everywhere I go,” she says. “I just wanted to create something that I would eat, and I believed that the people would enjoy it, too.”

She developed the original recipes for Firehouse Crawfish and is head chef there, at Station 16 Seafood Restaurant & Bar, Station 38 Coffee, and the new Station 8 at the Bank—the names all nods to Trinh Le’s would-be firefighting career.

Nguyen focuses on the big picture – new menu ideas, concepts for new restaurants—and Le ’09 (Marketing) puts those ideas into action, drawing upon business acumen he began developing at Sacramento State.

“There’s nothing like working in the restaurant business. No college, not Harvard, Stanford or Yale, can teach you how to operate a restaurant,” Le says. “But Sacramento State gave me a great foundation, numbers-wise. How to think differently. How to be creative.”

Ernesto Delgado is no stranger to creativity. He found his passion for graphic design while at Sac State and operated a graphic design company before opening Tequila Museo Mayahuel in downtown Sacramento in 2011.

Diners, he says, seek higher-end and creative experiences, and designers are playing a large part. Delgado is working to make each of his restaurants unique: Mayahuel—in the heart of downtown and featuring rotating art exhibits—is modeled after a museum; Mesa Mercado draws inspiration from its open-air market location; and La Cosecha, on Cesar Chavez Plaza, focuses on outdoor dining and Sacramento culture.

“I have three passions in life—design and architecture, my culture, and entrepreneurialism—and I was able to see that, in a restaurant environment, I could exercise all those passions,” Delgado says. “I always knew I wanted to own my own business, and through my design background and Sac State, I was able to produce three very unique restaurants.”

The challenge to consistently have creative and exciting ideas in a market that demands them keeps Randy Paragary excited about his work nearly four decades after opening Parapow. Sitting in his eponymous restaurant, he rattles off the names of other eateries he owns alone or with partners. Most are nearby, and Paragary notes that each had to be different to succeed.

“There wasn’t a Day One strategy. I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” he says. “By the time I had graduated and passed the bar, I had done Parapow and had two other places, so I was deep into the restaurant business, and I enjoyed it.

“It’s really fun. It’s not a drag to go to work.”

What advice do you have for Sac State students who want to be in the restaurant industry?

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Minnie Nguyen ’07 (Social Science):

“You have to be persistent and remember why you’re in business. That’s when everyone is going to realize, hey, this place is amazing.”

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Trinh Le ’09 (Marketing):

“Have some passion. Be passionate about what you’re doing. Don’t do it for a quick dollar. Do it for the long term.”

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Josh Nelson ’98 (Marketing):

“Go work in the restaurant business. Do that first, before you get a hospitality degree or a culinary degree. Anyone who wants to get into the restaurant business should go experience it, because it’s a tremendous amount of work and you better love it if you’re going to do it.”

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Randy Paragary ’70 (Government):

“Start with something really small. Don’t try to bite off a 5,000-square-foot dinner house with hard liquor and 60 employees. Get a little sandwich shop. Do killer sandwiches. Open a little bar that has only beer, similar to what I did, in order to find out if you have the talent... and if you have the discipline for it, and if you really enjoy it.”

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Ernesto Delgado ’98
(Graphic Design):

“You can’t just be a chef, you can’t just be a business-focused person. You can’t just be one thing. You have to wear many hats. It’s a very rewarding career, yet it’s also very demanding.”

11/12/17

Jonathan Morales

jonathan.morales@csus.edu

Jonathan Morales became a permanent member of the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and content editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. What appeals to Jonathan? Local beer and Bay Area sports teams.