2017 Los Angeles Rising Star Restaurateur Armando De La Torre Jr. of Guisados

2017 Los Angeles Rising Star Restaurateur Armando De La Torre Jr. of Guisados
April 2017

2100 East Cesar Chavez Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90033


Although he worked in restaurants since he was teenager and grew up with a father who cooked family meals, Armando De La Torre Jr., was never set on a career in the hospitality industry. 

The East Los Angeles, California-native, returned home after college to work for his grandparent’s real estate development company. During this time, De La Torre Jr. and his father, Armando Sr., stumbled upon a shuttered tamale restaurant at one of the family properties in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A. In a bold career move for the both of them, the duo decided to take it over and go into business together—with Armando Sr. focusing on food and Jr. on operations. With the help of a partner, they opened Guisados in December of 2010, serving traditional homestyle braises on fresh, handmade tortillas. 

As co-owner, De La Torre is putting his business law degree to good use, handling day-to-day operations, including marketing, branding & design, PR, establishing a rotating Featured Artist Program, and running around greater L.A. to check in on his 85 employees who serve thousands of Angelinos each day. Over the past six years (and before De La Torre turned 30), Guisados has expanded its locations to include Echo Park, Downtown L.A., West Hollywood, and Burbank. With an emphasis on consistency, quality, and community, Guisados’ homey tacos have become a Los Angeles staple.

Interview with L.A. Rising Star Restaurateur Armando De La Torre Jr of Guisados

Caroline Hatchett: When did you open your first restaurant? 
Armando De La Torre Jr:
When I graduated college in 2009, I moved to Chicago for a year. I came back in 2010, and couldn’t get a job. So, I worked for my grandparents real estate development company that my father and uncles ran as well. One day, my dad calls and tells me, meet me at 2100 East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. I walk in and my dad is mopping the floor. He says, “What do you say we do something here?” My dad was always the cook of my family. I worked in restaurants since I was 15 years old. We thought if we put our minds together, what could we make here? We brought in a partner, Ricardo Diaz, and the three of us created this concept for Guisados. Ricardo was with us for the first six months, and we opened [at that address] in Boyle Heights in 2010. 

We wanted to make home-style food. Guisados means “braises” or “stews” traditionally served with rice, beans, and tortillas—something mom would worked on all day. We wanted to deliver that idea with our stews—fillings for tortillas. My uncles' market is next door and they grill corn all day and make handmade tortillas to order. Every taco came with handmade tortillas, seeds, cheese, and avocado for toppings. We took that idea and ran with it. We don’t waste much product. 

CH: What’s the division of labor between you and your father? 
I do day-to-day operations and design. I’m an artist, and I like to put my work out through the restaurant. When we first started, my father did the food, with me running operations. As time has gone on, we’re mainly quality control. We’re also trying to expand the business and the brand. Branding is my passion. I love creating brands. 

CH: Where do you have stores now? 
Boyle Heights, Echo Park, Downtown, West Hollywood, and Burbank. Echo Park is our #1 location because it’s so close to Dodgers Stadium and also has a patio. A normal day Downtown is 500 covers; Echo Park is 600 to 650.

CH: From where do you source your masa? 
Our masa is made at the Boyle Heights location and is delivered two to four times a day to our other locations. The masa is no more than two hours old, has no preservatives, is made from 100% non-GMO corn; it’s steeped for 24 hours, and then ground. Do one product and do it well. Have competitive prices like $3 tacos, so you can stay affordable. 
CH: How do you inspire and retain staff?
We stay competitive in pay rates. The minimum wage is a minimum, and you get minimum effort. We’re always at least a dollar above to start. Now that we’ve gotten to the size we are, we started offering employees healthcare. That’s special for a taco shop. 

CH: What are your plans for growth?
We don’t know. When we opened the restaurant, we joked about having two. It wasn’t until the Jonathan Gold review that we blew up and had the opportunity to expand. We’re about seizing the moment. There’s so much competition Mexican food-wise. We want to take it one step at a time. It’s about how consistent can we stay. My thing is, I want more people to try our food, through collaborations, events, opening more Guisados, creating a more robust catering company, and more pop-ups around the U.S. 

I Want to open to New York City. A lot of the ingredients available are different from L.A. Avocados are cheaper, plumper, better. Different corn. We’d have to make sacrifices to keep the same prices and quality. That’s my dream. Realistically, San Diego and San Francisco, too. We Wwant to get to 10 restaurants and see where it takes us.

CH: What have been some of the challenges of growth? 
Now that we’ve grown to 85 employees, we need to form an HR department and corporate structure. It’s important to us that we stay family oriented and small, but we need to create structure. Now I’m working backwards. Also, we’re in a position now (we used to have just one guy cooking) where people have different tolerances for heat, salt, and spice, so quality control is a challenge. We’re starting to create manuals; how to make this and that. Every day, my father and I come into the restaurants to eat. My father and I are very involved day to day. We stop into every location every day. 

It’s good to hire people who have worked for competitors or who know how to create structure. Being able to understand when you’re wrong or ideas aren’t fully developed is also important. We do our best to always be open to criticism. 

CH: How do you keep staff motivated?
Through Guisados front office. We open up opportunities for employees to do what I do. I created an opportunity for our employees to do social media, our own community of employees. The food all has to be curated so that it looks genuine on social media to the way the it looks in the restaurant. I hired a head of catering who presents ideas to us. I’m trying to open opportunities within our staff. [I encourage employees] to take the next step. They don’t see this as a career; it’s about preparing them for their next position. [We’re creating] opportunities within our own walls.
CH: Tell me about the art on the walls.
We have a Featured Artist Program. We ran out of space on the walls across the five restaurants. So we [selectively] promote artists, keeping the restaurants fresh and giving local artists—kids, photographer, ect.—opportunities [to show their work]. I like Guisados being the avenue for that. 

We’re trying to find a way to make the artist program more rewarding. I really want to create an after school program for kids considering getting into the restaurant industry. It will brings kids into the restaurant, teach them how to use a knife, make tortillas, and get a real feel for what it’s like. When I was young, that’s not what you wanted to be. Kids don’t know what it takes. A lot of fails, and a lot of people who don’t like it. Boyle Heights is a gang ridden area, I get the cholas and cholos wanting a job. My ideas are bigger and there’s a way to get there. 

CH: What’s your approach to scaling each location? 
I love a smaller size, a smaller footprint. It’s easier to create a restaurant when you’re not in debt or worried about rent or about filling seats and turning tables. [The QSR model] is a blessing for us. We don’t go for big, locations. Location, location, location isn’t as true as it used to be because of social media and online portals. We go for a smaller sized restaurant.