At a time when tech workers with deep pockets are being blamed for displacing longtime residents and businesses, the newest Latino restaurant on 24th Street owes its existence to those very gentrifiers.
While D’Maize will be operating its restaurant full-time at the former site of Casa Sanchez, most of its business will remain in catering, often to tech companies in the area.
Luis Estrada, the head chef at D’Maize, a new Salvadoran restaurant at 2778 24th Street, said he has no plans of moving away from catering. He used to have one order a week, and now says he has about 20 big orders a day.
“I never expected that my pupusas were gonna be in Facebook, that my pupusas were gonna be in FourSquare, that my pupusas were gonna be in Google or at a happy hour at Firefox,” said Estrada.
“For me, that’s enough,” he added.
D’Maize moved into the historic Casa Sanchez space in October, where the family business made its first batch of now-famous salsa some 90 years ago.
The tortilla chip and salsa maker retains ownership of the building — its red-and-white “Casa Sanchez” signs still adorn the facade, with a smaller “D’Maize” logo printed onto the ground-floor window — and has offered D’Maize a five-year lease.
And D’Maize, like Casa Sanchez, is a family venture. Estrada is the head chef, and his wife, Zenaida Merlin, is head of the rest.
“He’s in charge of the kitchen, and I’m in charge of everything else,” Merlin said
After graduating from a business course with the Mission Economic Development Agency and the kitchen incubator La Cocina, the pair was primed to exploit the cash-flush tech firms that feed their young employees breakfast, lunch, and dinner in-house.
“They were just right there, right then, at the right time,” said Leticia Landa, a program manager with La Cocina, of the pair’s stint at the kitchen incubator.
Landa said that Estrada and Merlin were connected early on to caterers like Zesty, Cater2.me, and ZeroCater, which contract out to tech companies for events and employee meals. Such catering connections are becoming quite common for La Cocina businesses, she added.
“With Google, Facebook, these Silicon Valley firms, [D’Maize] feeds them,” Landa said.
Trek from El Salvador
Estrada and Merlin both moved from El Salvador when they were young and connected with Mission District non-profits to build their business in the neighborhood.
Estrada learned to cook from his mom, who worked in “one of the best places” in San Salvador, he said. Watching her taught him the chops needed for kitchen work, and he eventually went to culinary school in El Salvador.
When he was 18 years old, Estrada met Merlin in El Salvador. She had moved to the United States at 15 but returned to her home country to work as a teacher. The pair moved back to the Mission District together, and Estrada got work as a dishwasher at a downtown Mexican restaurant through a friend of a friend.
After 10 years, he became a head chef at both the Legion of Honor and the de Young museums. Then Merlin became pregnant, and Estrada decided he wanted to spend time with his child.
He managed to stay at home for the first year of their son’s life by working some odd cooking gigs and later advising other restaurants. Eventually, the couple decided they wanted to have their own restaurant.
They took a six-week business course with MEDA and were connected to La Cocina, where they stayed for three-and-a-half years — a speedy graduation when the average exit time is five years — honing their catering business and developing a clientele eager for their pupusas.
But Estrada and Merlin wanted a brick-and-mortar space and eventually met Sanchez, both head of the family business Casa Sanchez and a board member at La Cocina.
“All the pieces of the puzzle, it was a very small puzzle, but they all came together,” said Sanchez.
She was approached by several people about D’Maize wanting a physical location and had the old Casa Sanchez spot available. The space sat vacant for six months when Ayutla Restaurant closed last February after declining business, and though Sanchez was approached by a host of suitors eager for a spot on 24th Street, she said D’Maize was “like love at first sight.”
“We wanted to keep it culturally relevant, Latino,” she said.
D’Maize was both — and it helped that La Cocina agreed to co-sign for the space.
MEDA also helped the pair with an $80,000 loan, which enabled a complete renovation of the run-down interior of the restaurant space and allowed for a major expansion of the kitchen, a necessity for the high volume of quickly made food D’Maize caters.
Catering also employs the most people. The restaurant now has 22 full-time staff, up from just him and his wife four years ago. It’s added six employees in the last six weeks, and Estrada is adamant about keeping those jobs alive.
“When I came here, no one gave me an opportunity,” Estrada said. “Now it’s time for us to give the opportunity to others.”
Watch Mission Local’s 2014 video with Luis Estrada and Zenaida Merlin of D’Maize back when their business was just in catering.