Patricia Lara of Casa Sensei: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur
An Interview With Vicky Colas
Patience is key. Understand that you will not open a restaurant and begin making money right away. It takes an average of two years for a new restaurant to finally make a profit. You need to have the funds to grow and invest behind your brand and concept. The margins are very small and the overhead is huge! It is a very challenging industry and if you don’t have the flexibility to be patient with your funds then this is not the investment for you.
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Patricia Lara.
Patricia Lara, the co-owner of Casa Sensei, has transformed Fort Lauderdale’s culinary scene with her Pan-Asian, Latin-Fusion waterfront restaurant by offering guests an extensive and culturally immersive gourmet experience that puts a unique twist on authentic Asian cuisine. What started as an investment opportunity quickly became a labor of love for Patricia. As a restaurateur, Patricia continues to strive to provide a unique atmosphere, perfect for date nights, celebrating monumental moments with friends or family, or just a fun night out.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
Since my early 20’s, I wanted to open a restaurant as I thought it was a smart investment opportunity and I love to cook. Twenty years later with the help of my husband, we finally opened a restaurant and, to my surprise, I found a true sense of happiness in providing guests with outstanding food, fantastic service, and an overall memorable experience. My husband Vic and I have always shared both a love for great food and a tremendous respect for amazing service. Through our world travels together we’ve had the opportunity to try many new cuisines and different restaurants, which inspired us to bring life to our restaurant, Casa Sensei — where East meets South.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
At Casa Sensei, we offer our personal rendition of brilliant Pan-Asian flavors fused with the dynamic culinary traditions of Latin America. Mixing and matching global flavors, only when it makes sense, keeps menu options interesting. Our Pan-Asian and Latin Fusion offerings allow for an extensive and inclusive menu highlighting both traditional and nontraditional dishes, while also keeping the concept fresh by providing guests with the ability to discover something new every time they visit.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
When I moved to Fort Lauderdale, I made it a point to try all of the restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard, including the ones off the beaten path. During one of these outings, my husband and I ventured into the restaurant that is now Casa Sensei. The location on the canal was spectacular, the weather was nice and cool and we sat outside by the water. At that moment we were wondering why we had never heard of the restaurant and why it looked so neglected. On our third visit to the restaurant, we had a conversation regarding an investment opportunity to buy a restaurant, and low and behold, the restaurant we bought was the same one we had been visiting all along. We had always seen the potential the restaurant had and had a clear vision of what we could accomplish to turn it into what would later become Casa Sensei with some hard work and a little time. I don’t believe there are coincidences in life, only opportunities. It’s funny how things have a way of working themselves out.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Due to the past 18 months, I think if you ask anyone in the industry what was the hardest time you’ve faced in the industry you will get the same answer, COVID-19. It was an absolute shock to have to close our doors to in-door dining after being open for only a year and a half. During the beginning of the shut-down and even before learning of the PPP program, we made the decision to keep our staff employed in order to provide them and their families with economic stability. By keeping our team in place, instead of slowing down, we had the opportunity to reflect on our purpose and mission as a restaurant. During this time we not only made operational improvements but also revamped our menu to include new and creative dishes. When restrictions were lifted and we gradually began to open our doors, we emerged as a better and stronger team and focused on promoting our fantastic outdoor waterfront seating and brunch menu. Our business has more than tripled from the pre-pandemic years and we are very proud that Casa Sensei continues to grow and stand strong.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
The key to creating a dish the customers will be crazy about is the seasoning, it has to be perfect, and the raw ingredients need to be the best quality. When exotic and familiar flavors are combined to create unexpected and delicious dishes it creates a memorable culinary experience for guests. We take great pride in having unique sushi rolls and a variety of Pan-Asian Latin Fusion dishes that appeal to all. Casa Sensei has the type of menu where any guest, from the pickiest eater to the most refined diner, can find something they will enjoy.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
I love to eat at home and have snuck some of my favorite recipes onto our current menu. My perfect meal is pork carnitas with cilantro rice. These flavors give me the feeling of eating with my friends and family, and the flavors remind me of home.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My husband and I love to travel and eat at new local restaurants. We always try to go somewhere different every weekend and look at it as our own form of personal research. Searching for the perfect dishes and also comparing our favorites to other restaurants’ recipes is what we are passionate about — we are true foodies at heart. Our love for traveling and dining is where our inspiration comes from and what fuels our drive to create the perfect dish.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
As of right now, we are looking into the possibility of expanding our restaurant concept in the near future, but we need to make sure the timing is right. We do not want to jeopardize our current operations by spreading ourselves too thin and not being able to allocate our time and attention accordingly.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
The best way to avoid burnout is to have a great support team. Hiring a public relations and branding firm is extremely helpful because they will take the brand awareness and social media aspect off your plate. With their assistance you can focus on the menu and running the daily operations which are already consuming enough as it is. You also need to surround yourself with and hire people who have more experience in the restaurant business than you do.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) If you are not an expert, hire one. Before investing into a restaurant, you need to make sure you know the industry and if not, you need to hire someone who does. For example, there is certain equipment and big machinery needed to run a large restaurant and it is not cheap. You need to have an expert verify that all the equipment you are purchasing for your restaurant is working and has been properly maintained or else you will regret it. Everything breaks down inconveniently over the weekend when repair companies are not available, and/or charge a hefty fee for coming out.
2) Understand the numbers. Making sure that you have a handle on all of your costs and expenses by implementing new and effective inventory systems is very important. At the end of the day, if you aren’t making money then it isn’t making any sense and your profit margins are key to being successful. In particular, I wish someone would’ve told me that you must keep an eye on your liquor costs as they can vary by 10% or more if you are not careful and have bartenders who are too generous with their pours.
3) Trust your team. You are as strong as the people behind you so you need to have qualified managers and surround yourself with people you trust. In the restaurant industry it is very important that you are hiring professionals that you can count on. Your employees need to know that they can trust you just as much as you trust them. This is easier said than done of course, but Casa Sensei would not be what it is today without our amazing employees.
4) You get what you give. Managing the staff and people behind the scenes is the biggest challenge you face in a restaurant. You cannot assume that your employees will follow through on your ideas or expectations if you are not present. Everyone’s version of perfection is different and in order to be a successful restaurant you need to take the time to train your staff accordingly. Rushing training or lack of, will only hurt you in the long run. If you want a certain level of service, you need to be there every day and make sure that your staff feels comfortable in what they’re doing.
5) Patience is key. Understand that you will not open a restaurant and begin making money right away. It takes an average of two years for a new restaurant to finally make a profit. You need to have the funds to grow and invest behind your brand and concept. The margins are very small and the overhead is huge! It is a very challenging industry and if you don’t have the flexibility to be patient with your funds then this is not the investment for you.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
We have so many dishes on our menu that are simply delicious but our Truffle Butter Crunch Roll is rolled to perfection and made with yellowtail, soy paper, shredded kani, lemon pepper, veggie tempura flakes, and drizzled with truffle clarified butter; also our Korean Steak Chimichurri with tender marinated skirt steak served with Argentinian Chimichurri, jasmine rice and maduros is just incredible!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have had one main aspiration in life, and that was to make a difference in doing something that will in return give back to the community. Everyday I accomplish this goal by being in the hospitality industry and with my Non-Profit Organization, Wonder Paws Rescue. Balancing the two was one of the biggest challenges I’ve come across however, they were both very important to me. I have cried tears of joy and tears of frustration on the same day many times, but I have managed to bring to life both dreams in the last three years. A belief that I have always lived by is that you cannot feel whole and or truly be happy if you do not pay it forward and stay focused no matter how challenging it may be. I read an amazing quote a while back by Harper Lee that said, “She was powerful not because she wasn’t scared but because she went on so strongly despite the fear.” If I could inspire a movement it would be to encourage individuals to dream big and lean on your family and friends to find the strength to accomplish your goals.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!
About The Interviewer: Vicky Colas, Chef Vicky, is an award-winning chef in the Caribbean food arena. In 2012, Chef Vicky was awarded a silver medal for Caribbean Chef of The Year at the Taste of the Islands completion hosted by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. She was called to represent her country and be a part of the Culinary Team Haiti as a Culinary Chef Ambassador competing with 10 other Caribbean nations. The team was also awarded a silver medal for the Caribbean Team of the Year and received an Award for “Best Team for Taste of the Islands”. A published nutrition researcher, her study was selected in 2013 in the International Journal of Child Nutrition. Her recipe and interview have been featured in Essence Magazine online, Island Origin, and most recently the cookbook Toques in Black: A Celebration of 101 Black Chefs in America. In 2019, she was nominated in the “40 under 40” class of Legacy Magazine as one of South Florida’s “Black Leaders of Today and Tomorrow”.
Most recently, Chef Vicky was selected as one of twenty women candidates awarded for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Women Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) fellowship and is also part of a selective group of talented Chefs in the James Beard Foundation local food advocacy training programs. She is a wife, a proud mother of 3 boys, a business, and a food influencer in her community. Chef Vicky has been featured in her local news stations such as WSVN CH 7, Deco Drive, WPLG Local 10 News, 6 on the mix CH 6 and Good Morning Miramar.
Vicky is also a subject matter expert in the Hospitality, Culinary Arts, Restaurant Management, and Public Health (Dietetics and Nutrition) arena. She is a graduate of Florida International University (FIU) and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.