As many keen operators will point out, there’s plenty of money to be made in the San Fernando Valley. The neighborhoods that comprise the vast expanse of suburbia don’t quite fit the same hip, media-friendly mold as, say, Silver Lake or Downtown or Santa Monica, but even those high-powered restaurant sectors struggle to keep and retain talent thanks to soaring rents, bad parking, and more. So what’s the key? Giving people what they want, in a package they can easily open.
That’s the tack being taken by Chio’s Peruvian Grill chef/owner Dante Balarezo and partner Glenn Ramirez. The pair actively prefer to stay out of the limelight (“I’m not interested in that stuff,” Ramirez says) in favor of serving quality Peruvian food at a price point that works. When done right, their restaurants end up pulling in families, weekday lunch crowds, and weekend diners alike, with the promise of an easy, flavorful meal in exchange for a little bit of cash. Or in the case of Chio’s, a lot of cash, a little bit at a time.
If the name Chio’s Peruvian Grill doesn’t sound familiar just yet, that’s okay. There are plenty of casual, inexpensive Peruvian restaurants dotting the Valley, serving lomo saltado and rotisserie chicken in styrofoam containers, and on first glance Chio’s might seem to be lumped in with the wrong crowd. Except this is not that place.
Chio’s does table service, pours beer and wine, and the waitstaff all wear branded shirts as they walk past the big, open window into the kitchen. There, cooks fire off meat from charcoal grills or push flames to the ceiling with big, well-worn woks, before finishing a sub-$10 dish that’s been plated gorgeously and served within minutes. Chio’s does Peruvian food, but they’re also doing something very, very different.
The first Chio’s opened two years ago off Sepulveda Boulevard, with limited indoor seating, a tiny parking lot, and a patio. The model Balarezo was cooking up — inexpensive food and big flavors with full serivce — seemed to work for the Valley, and before long the place was mobbed most nights of the week. “We’ve never done one bit of advertising,” he says over a bowl of ceviche. “We didn’t need to.”
Balarezo is no newcomer to the Valley dining scene. He’s been cooking his native Peruvian cuisine for nearly 20 years, and was actually operating a different restaurant with family members when he decided to go get a degree from Le Cordon Bleu. That meant mornings in the classroom and nights in the kitchen, taking the enhanced skills directly to the final customer.
Armed with a new degree Balarezo pushed around Southern California, working high-volume chain restaurant jobs in Santa Clarita, or cooking vegan Peruvian cuisine for private clients in tony Montecito — including one private island event for a dozen of the richest men in the world.
Eventually Balarezo returned home to bring Chio’s to life, settling in on a life of serving satisfied customers (as many of them as possible) from a humble home in the Valley. That first location turned into a partnership with Ramirez, a former associate from the real estate world, and a quick-turnaround second location of Chio’s jut a half-mile away from the first. The first thing the two talked about when considering the expansion? Never forgetting to give the people what they want. “In Van Nuys, I have a lot of competition for what I’m doing,” says Balarezo. “So we needed to treat people with respect, to meet them at the door.”
As a result, the two locations don’t seem to actually cannibalize one another. The second location, which opened two weeks ago, is located on Van Nuys, easily accessible thanks to a full glass wrap on the building and an attached parking lot. It draws in a new clientele because of the menu, the price point, and the service. The tiny room hums with life at 3 p.m., an hour most restaurants take to clean and prep for the dinner shift. At Chio’s, there is no slowing down.
Just two weeks into the opening of that second Chio’s, Balarezo and Ramirez are already keen to finish construction on their third, this time out in Woodland Hills. They’ve tweaked the logos, confirmed the color scheme and the menu, and know exactly who (and how) they want to serve, meaning the the only thing left to do is bring their food to as many people as possible.
The Woodland Hills newcomer takes up a corner plot in a large, centrally-located plaza with plenty of room for parking. There will also be a patio, and beer and wine, and a menu that hovers around $15 a plate. That location should be open by November, with discussions to follow on another new space down in Bell — same shopping plaza concept, new neighborhood to conquer.
Balarezo says he and Ramirez plan to open at least four Chio’s Peruvian Grills a year for the next few years, all while circling around the dense center of Los Angeles proper. There may be franchise locations in the future, put into places like Orange County or San Francisco, but the Valley will always be the core of Chio’s, both in its customer base and its outlook on growing a restaurant chain. In the Valley, the rent is cheaper, the parking more abundant, and the customers no less hungry — the trick is giving them what they want.
Chio’s Peruvian Grill
7115 Van Nuys Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA
- All Valley Week Coverage [ELA]