latin-american dream: reluctant son helps father open thriving colombian cafe

It's noon on a Tuesday, and as usual, Barroco Grill is jumping. Diners stream into the funky little Lakewood café, each receiving a warm, familiar greeting upon arrival. Customers place their order at the counter -- most doing so without so much as a glance at the menu -- and take a seat in the art-filled dining room. After polishing off another delicious, affordable meal, they exit, some stopping to pen a little love letter directly on the restaurant's fan wall.
Lakewood is home to Melt Bar & Grilled, Pier W, Deagan's Kitchen and about a zillion other great restaurants, both upscale and casual. But one of the most buzzed-about eateries of the last six months is Barroco Grill, a tiny Latin upstart that specializes in stuffed arepas. If, like most people, you have no idea what an arepa is, let alone tastes like, then you will appreciate the remarkable nature of this success story.
Like many immigrants, Carlos Vergara came to the United States in search of a better life for his family. His dream -- a quality education for his sons -- was foremost on his mind when the Vergaras made the 2,600-mile journey from Cali, Colombia to Cleveland. Once here, Carlos accepted the jobs that were offered to him, including as a hotel housekeeper. Eventually, he gravitated to restaurant work, toiling in the kitchens of numerous local eateries.
Like many sons of immigrants, Juan Vergara wanted nothing to do with restaurant work. After graduating from high school, he went on to Cleveland State University, where he earned a degree in graphic design. With a gift for both technology and conversation, Juan excelled at his telecommunications job with a cell phone provider.
And then father approached son about opening a restaurant together. As might be expected, Juan had different aspirations than his father.
"He has always wanted to open his own place," explains Juan. "That was never my goal. I enjoy working for somebody else."
When it was clear that his father was serious about opening a place of their own, Juan agreed to discuss the matter.
"I said, if we're going to do this, it has to be something different," Juan recalls, "not food that everybody else is already doing."
Growing up in Colombia, Juan loved stealing snacks off his father's food cart, which he operated to make extra money. Columbian street food -- arepas, specifically -- might be just the sort of unique concept that could succeed. Made from hominy, arepas are like thick corn tortillas that are split like English muffins and filled with a variety of meats and veggies. Fast, cheap, delicious and totally customizable, the Latin-themed street food could be hot, hot, hot.
The Vergaras settled on Lakewood owing to the neighborhood's food-savvy populace and affordable rents. To say that they opened Barroco Grill on a shoestring is an understatement; by doing much of the work themselves, they ended up spending about a quarter of what others do to open similarly sized operations.
When creating the menu, Juan once again stole from his father's food cart. "The recipes are the same, the sauces are the same," he says. "The only difference between us and a street vendor in Colombia is that we have an actual store."
Warm, crisp and corny, the arepas are filled with grilled chicken, steak, pork or chorizo. Diners customize the sandwiches with housemade sauces such as chimichurri, pineapple, ranchero and spicy peanut. About the size of a hamburger, each sandwich costs about $6.
Despite his reluctance to get involved, Juan soon discovered that the restaurant was an ideal outlet for his graphic design skills. The menu, unlike at most ethnic mom-and-pop shops, is slick and professional looking. Buzz is generated through a Facebook page and website. Local artists were solicited to help decorate the interior.
"As I got more into the branding, marketing and advertising of the business, I decided that it wasn't all that bad," notes Juan. In fact, he is continuing his college education, adding a business and marketing degree to his graphic design. It was while studying Baroque art in school that he came up with the name: barroco is Spanish for baroque.
Barroco Grill opened in March of this year. In that short period of time it has grown from a two-man operation to one that employs eight staffers. Already, the Vergaras have been approached by investors to open additional locations and even a food truck. While flattered, Juan says that it is way too soon to entertain such offers.
"This is such a great concept," he says. "We can see why lots of people are interested in it. But we're still too young. We're still figuring things out ourselves."
The Vergaras are a close-knit family, notes Juan, who shares a house with his parents and two younger brothers in Brooklyn. It's clear that Juan appreciates the struggles his father endured to provide a better life for the entire family. It's a favor he's more than happy to attempt to repay.
"I want this business to do well," says Juan. "Not for me, but for my father. He works his ass off to make sure everything is right. And he is happy. Me? I am learning to love it."

Photography Bob Perkoski
- Images 1, 5 & 8: Juan Vergara
- Images 2 & 4: Carlos Vergara
- Image 3: Barroco Chili & Pulled Pork Arepa
Image 9: Kent Mesnard & Sara Zines enjoying lunch at Barroco Grill
Image 10: Cheesy Corn 

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
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