A little over a month after purchasing Takanami and less than two weeks after announcing the Japanese fusion restaurant would become a taco and tequila joint, owner Valentina Carrero unveiled her restaurant’s new name — and it sounded familiar.
The space at 219 Iowa Ave is the new home of El Patrón, a recycling of the name and sugar-skull logo — and some of the recipes, staff and decorations — used until very recently by the Etre Restaurant Group, also the former owner of Takanami. The original El Patrón replaced Italian restaurant Givanni’s on the Pedestrian Mall in the spring of 2016, and closed at the end of July. Carrero’s El Patrón had a soft opening Wednesday, Aug. 1, and fully launched the next day.
Both Carrero and Etre Group founder George Etre say the Iowa Avenue El Patrón is its own entity, a new restaurant utilizing the leftover resources from the other business as well as Carrero’s fresh vision.
“I went for a more classic feel with the food and the drinks,” Carrero explained. “We still have some of our really big drinks like [Mexican] bulldogs and things like that, but overall it’s kind of a more classic feel.”
Etre gave a couple reasons for why his group decided to let go of half their restaurants this summer.
“We’ve had four restaurants for seven years and it’s taken its toll on us,” he said. “Valentina has worked for me for three years and put in the hours, and I thought it was time for her to get the opportunity to do [her own thing].”
Etre also said business at Takanami and El Patrón had been suffering as a result of downtown construction, specifically the current Ped Mall improvement project, which has turned the once-open shopping area into a maze of paths lined with chainlink fences.
“The construction has been so devastating, it’s turned a lot of the Ped Mall into a ghost town,” he said.
But Etre said he has faith Carrero’s new business will survive both the construction and competition in downtown Iowa City. The new El Patrón has taken over some of the former’s catering appointments, and has nearly 40 jobs this month alone. Carrero is also planning to make her tacos more accessible to students on campus, offer lunch and late-night specials and pen a deal with local grocery stores to carry her new homemade salsa (“I was a fan of the College Street El Patrón salsa, but this one is better!” she said).
Though some may have been surprised when Carrero announced Takanami would become a Mexican restaurant, Etre was not. “She originally wanted to buy El Patrón,” he said. “Her heart’s always been in El Patrón.”
This was evident in the Facebook post in which Carrero first announced the Takanami rebrand: “As a young female latina business owner, it has been my dream since I was born in Colombia to open my own Hispanic restaurant,” she wrote. “I am excited to showcase the new restaurant to you all.”
Carrero purchased El Patrón’s name, sign and old decorations at a discounted rate from Etre, and has also taken on some of the staff, who have been combined with the former Takanami crew. She now has full creative control over the direction of the brand as it relates to the restaurant on Iowa Avenue.
“El Patrón means ‘the boss,’ which is a really cool design,” Carrero said. “The artwork at El Patrón — I always really liked it so I just took advantage of that.”
But that won’t stop the El Patrón name and its associated imagery from popping up in other cities, independent of Carrero’s vision. Etre said he and his group are exploring an unusual type of franchising, one where they provide a name, design and consultation to budding business owners in college towns, but let the owners choose their own menu, staff, hours, decor and other features.
The original El Patrón was opened as a “showroom” for this concept, Etre said. “We knew going in what we were going to do, and once [Carrero] took Takanami over, I decided to speed that process up, especially with the construction this summer and next summer.”
The completion of Carrero’s restaurant marks the first time Etre’s franchise concept has been applied, though he said his group is currently working with entrepreneurs in Madison, Wisconsin, to open a different version of El Patrón designed to fit the tastes of the University of Wisconsin crowd.
“I started my businesses 13 years ago as a young and new entrepreneur, and found out it’s tough to get started,” Entre said. “What we’re going to do with Val and others is help them navigate the process. There are so many pitfalls you can fall into — not maliciously, but if you just don’t know, you can get in trouble. We help them set up things like payroll and connect with suppliers and get a liquor license, and then hand them the keys.”
Though Etre and his team mentored Carrero, Etre assured Little Village that the new El Patrón is “1,000 percent Val.”
“There are a lot of young people who deserve to leave their mark on Iowa City,” he said. “The community gets stuck on the Etres, the Swifts, the Kaedings. There’s a lot of young talent that deserves to be the next generation of restaurant owners and show what they can do.”
Carrero isn’t worried about her business’s name being associated with other past or future restaurants.
“I am fine with there being other El Patróns out there and each one being unique,” Carrero said. “I turned a full-service sushi bar into a full-service Mexican restaurant in one business day, which in all accounts should have been impossible. So I am excited to showcase my product and business is booming.”
El Patrón currently opens at 4:30 p.m. every day, but starting the first week of University of Iowa classes (Aug. 20), the kitchen will open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Thursday and for dinner 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday, food will be served from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and drinks sold until bar close.
As for the future of 109 E College St, Etre said he and his group intend to use the former El Patrón as an extra kitchen for catering jobs, and a venue for wedding receptions and business lunches until they find a different space to host general events with more parking and away from downtown construction. Once they’re out, it will be up the building’s owner, Jim Mondanaro, to fill the space.
While he didn’t see Takanami and his College Street El Patrón thriving through 2018 and 2019, Etre said fans of Formosa (which he owns) and Iowa Chop House (which he co-owns) needn’t worry. “Formosa and Iowa Chop House have such a strong following, they’ll absorb a lot of this … people will fight through the construction to get there.”
“Nobody can just sit back anymore and open your doors,” he said about the downtown restaurant scene. “You have to fight for customers. It’s just a lot more work. Whoever survives the next year and a half will be able to reap the benefits: I’m sure [the new Ped Mall] will be beautiful.”