Chef Johnny Hernandez and I recently sat down for an interview a little before 6 p.m. when many of us are otherwise wrapping up our workday. He had been at it since early morning, but his day was nowhere near winding down.
“It’s been busy,” he said, “I have a great team, but there is so much that I personally need to be involved in. I think I need a CFO…” He might need a clone. Hernandez’s hectic schedule is no surprise. His business has seen explosive growth over the past several years, and he’s not slowing down.
What began as a catering business run out of a small restaurant kitchen is now a fast-expanding regional culinary empire. The catering business is still thriving, and the flagship La Gloria at the Pearl, opened Cinco de Mayo 2010 on the banks of the Museum Reach, draws a nonstop crowd. Then there’s the soon-to-open La Gloria along I-10 across from the Dominion, El Machito at Quarry Crossing, and Fruteria on South Flores Street. Texas travelers will find Hernandez venues at both the San Antonio International Airport and Houston Intercontinental.
Hernandez also is a partner now in the RK Culinary Group and is handling food service contracts at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center.
But the latest news is his entry into the hot culinary scene in Las Vegas. La Gloria at Caesar’s Palace officially opens June 26-28.
“It’s about strong partnerships,” Hernandez said, describing his approach to business. “I’m aggressive about the brand, quality, and standards. Early on, I learned the importance of like-minded partners and what it means to have a partner that understands your philosophy, approach and level of quality and service.”
It’s this sense of a strong partnership that’s driving Chef Johnny’s latest venture in Las Vegas. Hernandez said he worked directly with Gary Selesner, the president at Caesar’s Palace, a foodie who loves the new flavors and authenticity La Gloria brings to the city.
Las Vegas has few Mexican restaurants and a small Latino population, so La Gloria has the chance to stand out in an entertainment capital with seemingly endless culinary choices.
“Las Vegas has great culinary talent,” Hernandez said, “and is home to some of the biggest chefs … Every chef I know and respect is in Vegas. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”
La Gloria, as we San Antonians know and love it, had to be adapted to the Las Vegas market.
“San Antonio is ground zero for Mexican food,” Hernandez said. “That’s not the case in Las Vegas. We had to figure out how to communicate with and express authenticity to a different type of customer … one who might not have been exposed to Mexican food.”
While Vegas has a significant Latino population, most are workers who do not frequent casinos or casino restaurants. Outside the casino bubble, there are plenty of local Mexican restaurants, but not inside the casinos.
As such, the Las Vegas La Gloria is a quick-serve concept featuring some of the most popular items imported from San Antonio. Diners will find authentic tacos, nachos, ceviche and quesadillas, plus La Gloria’s margaritas and mangonadas. For the pool season, a Fruteria-inspired cabana is open to serve Caesar’s eight massive resort-style pools. High rollers and other hotel guests will soon be able to enjoy a poolside margarita, San Antonio style.
As any Fruteria customer knows, Hernandez has a keen palate for tequila and mezcal, and a depth of knowledge about the culture and industry to match. Vegas customers will come to appreciate the fact they aren’t drinking a business-as-usual cocktail.
Countless chefs who find success in a single venue try their hand at expansion, but not many have the business acumen and drive to achieve what Hernandez has achieved in a relatively short space of time. His passion for food and flavor is the foundation of his success, but it’s his feel for business that has helped him achieve such impressive growth.
Hernandez said his sense of business can be traced back to his boyhood when he worked at his family’s Westside restaurant. In past profiles and interviews, Johnny shared a story about himself as a youngster. Not only did he help his parents with cooking and restaurant chores, but Johnny would save money he earned by helping manage the candy sales display near the cash register.
But it’s his trademark fresh and flavorful food that is the foundation of Chef Johnny’s Johnny brand. “Street foods provide a strong central theme for people to connect to,” he said. “I brought my favorite tastes from my travels through Mexico to San Antonio. The foods are authentic, accessible and easy to understand.”
Hernandez, a 1989 graduate of the Culinary Institue of America, has since become a leading ambassador for the CIA campus in San Antonio, This won’t be Johnny’s last foray in Las Vegas and he expects to expand into other Texas cities, too. There could be a fine dining concept down the road.
“The dream has always been to grow something successful and watch it thrive,” Johnny said. “I’ll continue to evaluate and decide what to do when opportunities present themselves. San Antonio is home. It will always be home.”
The official Grand Opening of La Gloria at Caesar’s Palace will be June 26-28. The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has partnered with La Gloria on a fun-filled weekend. Reduced rate hotel room blocks available. More information here.