J.C. Sanabria is the owner of a neighborhood restaurant called T’Kila Latin Kitchen and Bar. I’ve met J.C. several times on our visits dining with him, and also have worked with him when planning a few of our family events that we opted to host at his restaurant.
T’Kila offers very traditional Southern Mexican style cuisine, with Latin influences, all developed fresh from scratch. Literally everything that they serve is homemade. J.C. says, “That was very important to me when I developed the concept and business plan. I wanted our guests to have a really great experience, just as if they were having a family get-together at home or celebrating an event.” T’Kila caters to all kinds of guests: families with kids, lucky folks sharing a date night, or groups celebrating an occasion. That’s how J.C. created the foundation of the restaurant and, after establishing their storefront six years ago, they continue to see the business grow. (That’s what we like to see!)
When J.C. took over their current location, he was moving into an established restaurant footprint, but one that had previously been a Japanese steakhouse. To get the doors open as soon as possible, J.C. came in and did a quick fix on the restaurant’s interior. About 3 1/2 years in, they were finally able to put some money aside to remodel. He shares, “When we came up with the idea for the remodeling, we did kind of a funky, Day of the Dead thing. Guests seem to really enjoy it.” Inside the restaurant you will find Day of the Dead sugar skull masks and mural and a super cool cluster of star pendant lights. (My favorite and my daughter’s favorite.) A real Book of Life kind of vibe. He shares, “We definitely wanted to do something very different.”
Admittedly, life for J.C. before starting his business afforded him a lot more of a social and personal life. He says, “Being a business owner is a big commitment. You definitely have to be passionate about it. You have to have the passion to really want to do it.” He adds, “If someone asks me for advice, I’ll tell them, don’t just do it for the money. Don’t expect to make millions of dollars. Do it because that is what you love to do and that is what you see yourself doing.”
Prior to the opening of T’Kila, J.C.’s background consisted of 15 years in the restaurant industry. After graduating from high school, he went off to college and started working at a bank as a teller. While there, he was approached by a friend who managed a restaurant in D.C. Their business was looking to open new locations in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area. They asked if he had ever thought about changing careers and suggested that J.C. give the restaurant industry a try to see if he liked it. Says Sanabria, “I did try it and have been working in restaurants ever since. That’s what ended up paying for college.” He started getting promoted within and gaining more and more experience. J.C. says, “My last restaurant experience before I started out on my own, was with Mexican cuisine. I had the privilege of doing a little bit of traveling internationally, specifically Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. I did a lot of research and found that Oaxaca possessed one of the best cuisines worldwide in terms of the spices; chilies; flavors that they have.” This regional cuisine became the restaurant’s launching off point for developing the different dishes that they serve.
J.C. is currently researching different areas within Loudoun County, and is in talks with a couple of shopping centers, to enable T’Kila to expand and add an additional location. He says, “It’s very exciting; a lot of work, but very exciting. “ He explains, “That’s the goal. To be able to grow and to serve the community and other communities as locations become available.” Since T’Kila is a family run restaurant, J.C.’s long-term goal would be to eventually have his kids run the business. He says, “That was another big reason to do something on my own. It was a long-term project where I want guests to see that this is really a family run business. And generation after generation, hopefully, we’ll get to stay around for a while.”
I asked how the reality of owning and operating his own restaurant differed from his dream. He laughed, “Big difference. Reality versus the dream; it can be stressful at points.” He adds, “I compare the restaurant to a football team. It’s offense, defense, and in the middle. It involves so much in terms of training employees, making sure your overhead costs are met… every little detail can definitely cost you a lot if you are not cautious about them.” He goes on, “Once again, you have to be passionate about doing it.“
People often ask him, “How come you’re here [at the restaurant] almost every day? Why don’t you start letting somebody else run it?” He explains, “I do have a full time manager, but the way I see it, and I could be wrong, but being a business owner, you are the face of the business. If you are not there, guests start to notice and say, “Where is he [J.C.]?” You start developing relationships. Customers get to know you by name. You definitely want to be available to them when they come in and have a question about anything.” He understands that customers like to put a face with a place. (I agree. As a customer it’s reassuring to see him there. It sends the message, loud and clear, that he really loves what he does and is truly invested.)
On a personal note, J.C. says, “I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit as a team. I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. I have my employees, my wife, my family. That definitely keeps the momentum going for me.“
If you have not dined at T’Kila Latin Kitchen and Bar, definitely give them a visit. J.C.’s goal as a business owner, and the goal of his team, is to not only meet, but exceed expectations from every guest that comes in. He wants every guest that visits to feel like they are family. Says J.C., “My goal is to make everyone feel welcome, regardless if they live locally or outside of the area. We definitely like to cater to everyone.”
T’Kila Latin Kitchen & Bar: 42010 Village Center Plaza, #170, Aldie, VA 20105