Chef Johnny Hernandez has been building a food and beverage empire in San Antonio since opening a catering business in 1994.
The latest venture from the nationally celebrated chef and president of Grupo La Gloria is a vibrant Tex-Mex concept serving tacos and bowls from the former Steak ‘n Shake counter in Terminal A at the San Antonio International Airport. It’s his third restaurant at the airport in nine years.
His first tacos-based concept called Super Bien — something he’s “wanted to do for years” — is possibly the last new concept he’ll develop.
“I’m done creating concepts for the most part — I’m trying to discipline myself,” said the 1994 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and native San Antonian.
What Hernandez is not done with is staying nimble in a notoriously fast-paced and fickle industry. Whether it’s opening new restaurants in his hometown, resolving uncertainties over others, relying on his keen sense for spotting when something isn’t working or knowing when to seize a new opportunity, Hernandez is a smart businessman who’s willing to try new things and pivot quickly.
Being a good chef rarely equates to being a good entrepreneur, said Louis Barrios, president of Los Barrios Family Restaurants. But Hernandez is the exception.
“To know Johnny and to know our culture, and to know what we do as entrepreneurs, and to see his work, you just have to stand up and give him a standing ovation,” Barrios said.
As Hernandez works to perfect his mix of restaurants, it’s clear he has played a significant role in making San Antonio a city that Conde Nast Traveler magazine called a culinary destination and one of the 23 best places to go in the U.S. in 2023.
“You start off as a chef and then as an entrepreneur and then you become a business owner and you have to evaluate all these things,” Hernandez said. “That’s why we’re successful for the most part.”
State of the industry
Hernandez was one of the first restaurant owners in San Antonio to find a creative way to keep the business going and his staff employed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In March 2020, when restaurants were ordered to shut down, the dining room of La Gloria at the Pearl was transformed into a grocery store stocked with essential items like toilet paper, fresh produce and to-go meals.
But the impact of closing down dining rooms to customers was felt long after restaurants slowly reopened. The National Restaurant Association estimates restaurants lost $120 billion in sales during the first three months of the pandemic. Hernandez’s catering business, True Flavors, still has not fully recovered.
In January 2022, as the pandemic began to subside following the rollout of a vaccine, Hernandez foresaw another difficult year ahead, this time mostly due to the tight labor market.
“In 2021, the food industry was talking about the workforce shortage,” he said. “In 2022, it became everyone’s conversation. Everyone was short employees,” driving up wages and slowing the economy.
But Grupo La Gloria has managed through what Hernandez called a roller coaster of profitability and the chef’s predictions for 2023 are brighter.
“I’m trying to find stability,” he said. “I’m trying to make some really smart decisions for the company. We are aggressive, we want to continue to grow.”
Hernandez recently gave the San Antonio Report an update on his restaurants and other projects in the works.
La Gloria brand
Hernandez is perhaps best known for La Gloria, the casual restaurant that opened in 2010 at the Pearl serving Mexican street-style foods.
The River Walk restaurant has spun off several other locations, including sites at the AT&T Center, Toyota Field and the airport, introducing new customers to the brand and diversifying the business.
Despite its long run at the Pearl, Hernandez is uncertain of La Gloria’s future among the growing number of eateries at the former brewery development.
“La Gloria continues to be very successful, probably one of the most successful restaurants there,” he said. “We bring thousands of people there every week [to a place] where there was nothing there before.”
He is a big fan of the Pearl itself and lauds the vision for it and how the development has inspired other developers to invest in food and beverage.
Hernandez leases the La Gloria site from the developers of the Pearl and his longevity in the space also means there is some deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed.
“Our future at Pearl, I really have no idea,” he said. But if not at the Pearl, La Gloria would have a flagship location somewhere in the city, Hernandez assured.
Building on its success, in 2014, Hernandez opened a second La Gloria on Interstate 10 near the Dominion neighborhood on two heavily treed acres of land in far Northwest San Antonio.
That restaurant recently closed, a victim of ongoing highway construction, the pandemic and expansive growth in the area, he said. Hernandez has not yet decided whether to sell or possibly redevelop the property.
Previously, during the pandemic, he also closed the La Gloria restaurant in Las Vegas.
These days, Hernandez is occupied with a third La Gloria site that opened at Brooks in September.
He wants to expand the wood-fired grilling side of that operation, similar to El Machito, his restaurant in the Alamo Quarry Market that closed in 2017.
El Machito was the most difficult concept he’s ever operated, Hernandez said. “We made a lot of adjustments and I think it took us about a year and a half to get to a point where we were doing well,” he said. “But we never thrived.”
Southtown burgers and more
The Frutería Southtown, a fresh tapas and street fare restaurant at 1401 S. Flores St. reopened in August following a months-long renovation and menu revamp. Its hours also got slashed to dinner only.
“There’s not enough lunch business in the neighborhood yet,” Hernandez said. “I think part of it is all the construction downtown. It’s really taxing. Lunch used to be our busiest [time].”
In 2017, Hernandez opened a burger joint inspired by the flavors of Mexico, also in Southtown. Burgerteca, which also serves ice cream, is located at 403 Blue Star in the Blue Star Arts complex and at the AT&T Center.
In February, he plans to open a cantina serving botanas and cocktails from behind a bar fashioned from the base of a tree trunk at Casa Hernan. The former venue for private events is located at 411 E. Cevallos.
True Flavors catering
“That was my first business, True Flavors,” Hernandez said, adding that his brother and brother’s wife have run the catering company for the last eight of its almost 30 years.
True Flavors provides food service to the Henry B. González Convention Center, having partnered early on with Rosemary’s Catering, now part of The RK Group.
“Catering is more than half of my business … and people don’t know that,” he said.
Margaritas and tortillas
During the pandemic, Hernandez added a mobile service to his portfolio with La Gloria-branded food trucks serving margaritas. He also partnered with H-E-B to supply customers with pre-packaged fresh foods from his restaurants.
The trucks are still operational for private events but the H-E-B meal project has been phased out. After the coming spring and Fiesta seasons, Hernandez said he plans to reevaluate the booze truck business. He’s currently in talks with H-E-B to supply seasonal items such as tamales and tortilla chips.
Though not open to the public, Hernandez also owns a commissary with a mill where workers grind the corn for the tortillas used in his restaurants. “We buy it locally, working with local families and farmers from Castroville,” he said.
La Villita eateries
In August, a city panel gave conceptual approval for plans to build a Mexican restaurant that would be built on the south edge of Maverick Plaza in La Villita and a smaller restaurant in the historic Faville House.
Both restaurants are part of a partnership between the City of San Antonio and Hernandez. The restaurants would be a showcase for San Antonio’s culinary legacy, recognized in 2017 by the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, which named San Antonio as a Creative City of Gastronomy, raising the city’s profile as a foodie destination.
“It’s going to take what Texas is and what Mexico del Norte is and it’s going to be a concept based on those food influences that shape San Antonio,” he said.
Construction was scheduled to start in October 2020. Again, the pandemic changed those plans.
Now with COVID-19 subsiding, road construction is set to start on South Alamo Street, further delaying the start date on restaurants in Maverick Plaza, Hernandez said. He is unwilling to take the risk to move forward until he knows the exact timeline for the road project.
Instead, because Hernandez is a host chef for the U.S. Travel Association’s annual conference for travel planners in May 2023, he is planning to host a food-focused event in La Villita for conference attendees.
Día de los Muertos and the future
Grupo La Gloria has organized a River parade coinciding with Day of the Dead celebrations since 2019. Some attendees called this year’s Spiritlandia-branded event a big “disappointment,” a situation Hernandez blamed on the rainy weather and a manpower shortage.
“Every year it grows and every year, we learn more things about the project … and it continues to be a very important cultural event for our city,” Hernandez said, adding that he’s still committed to producing future Spiritlandia parades.
He is also devoted to strengthening the nonprofit he founded in 2014, Kitchen Campus. The organization and its commercial kitchen at The Neighborhood Place on the West Side is designed to connect youth to hands-on culinary training and educational opportunities.
Kitchen Campus is primarily funded through the annual Paella Challenge event in which guests watch celebrity chefs and high school teams square off against one another to make the most impressive Spanish rice dish. The next event is scheduled for March 18.
“Kitchen Campus exists because of Memorial High School,” Hernandez said of the school he attended before graduating from Kennedy High School.
Hernandez visited Memorial’s culinary program several years ago and decided he wanted to give young people what he once had as a developing chef: a place to learn the organizational skills necessary for the profession.
The program is going through a transition. He needs to raise money for the foundation that supports the mission, he said, and like any number of projects in his culinary kingdom, that could be a full-time job: “I need to dedicate time to it.”