If you know anything about Santa Barbara’s food scene, you know about The Lark. It’s either at the top of your wish list or you can’t wait to return. One thing you may not know about is the woman behind this coveted dining destination. Sherry Villanueva is the creator of The Lark, as well as other local hotspots like Les Marchands, Loquita, Lucky Penny, Helena Avenue Bakery, Santa Barbara Wine Collective, Notary Public Wines, and her newest addition, Tyger Tyger. All located within blocks of each other, Sherry’s collection of food and wine establishments have revitalized the Funk Zone, making it one of the city’s most sought-after sections of town.
A true trailblazer with a natural entrepreneurial vision, I’m honored to be featuring Sherry as the 11th edition of our Pillow Talk series. We caught up recently and chatted about her entrepreneurial upbringing, life long passion for volunteerism and sleeping super power.
When you were in school, what was your favorite subject and what did you want to “grow up” to be?
My favorite subject in school was math which is ironic because now it’s not exactly my strongest suit. I always liked that with math you knew exactly where you stood because there was a right and wrong answer at the end of the problem. I also loved learning to look for mathematical patterns in nature.
I was a dreamer as a child and had many grand plans for what I would be when I grew up. I recently found an “essay” at my parent’s house that I wrote when I was in the second grade on the same subject. My “essay” in its entirety was, “When I grow up I want to be genius. Like Michelangelo.” I suppose that was an indication of the times I was growing up in. Girls in my generation were constantly reminded, “You can do anything that boys can do, only better.” I try and teach my girls that too.
What contributed to you becoming the businesswoman that you are today?
I was groomed from a very young age to have a strong work ethic and to be creative and resourceful with my time and energy. When I was in elementary school, my mom and I had a traveling crafts show which was my first introduction into entrepreneurial life. We would hit the road at 5am in our burnt-orange VW van loaded with the holiday ornaments we had spent all year painting. We would work the crafts circuit until we completely sold out or fell over with exhaustion. I am grateful for that time with my mom and for the early seeds of entrepreneurism it planted in me. When I look back, there is something valuable from every chapter of my life that has been instrumental in my current business. And that includes successfully raising teenage daughters!
Which entrepreneurs do you admire?
While there are many well-known entrepreneurs who I deeply admire (Danny Meyer being the most obvious hero to me), there are numerous others immediately nearby who have the most impact on me. I am constantly inspired by the small business owners I see every day in Santa Barbara working tirelessly to keep the doors open while serving their community. Many come from immigrant families who have made a life here in this beautiful city through their sheer determination, resourcefulness and grit. I have tremendous respect for them. I admire those who jump in the ring and take chances and have little patience for the whiny complainers on the sidelines.
What was your inspiration behind starting the food and beverage concepts in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone?
In 2011, I was hired by a local real estate developer to concept properties he owned in the Funk Zone. Through that process it became clear that a restaurant at the center of the neighborhood could be one of those unique businesses that could shift the culture while honoring its historical roots. I always wanted to open a restaurant and when I saw this as an opportunity to follow that dream, I jumped. The timing was key as my youngest daughter was weeks away from heading off to college. I spent the next year writing my business plan and became totally immersed in teaching myself everything I could about construction management and restaurant operations. I wanted to create an “elevated” experience where the food, beverage, service and environment were comparable to more sophisticated urban offerings you might find in big cities to the north and south. Because I had spent the previous 12 years doing trend research for Target stores, I had an understanding of current food trends and I wanted to put that to work. Santa Barbara was hungry (no pun intended) for something original and innovative and that is how The Lark was born.
What has been your favorite part about creating a business?
My favorite part of creating a business is the interesting people I get to work with. There is so much talent in Santa Barbara and beyond and I love to bring inspiring people together around a shared vision and then get out of their way and watch them soar. It’s also really fun to create something out of nothing. To start with an idea and then slowly pull together the resources and people needed to make it come alive is a pretty exciting process and one I’m grateful to be a part of.
What’s the most challenging part of your professional life?
The most challenging part of my professional life is the interesting people I get to work with! People are people and sometimes that can be hard.
What do you think is the single most important ingredient to success?
Tenacity. Showing up day in and day out and never giving up. I also think it’s important to know when to pivot.
Your passion for volunteering and supporting nonprofits is inspiring. How did you get started?
Volunteerism is something I grew up with as an integrated part of my life. My mom was a nurse and was always caring for broken bodies, hearts and souls. She taught my siblings and I to take action in our communities and that no matter how much of anything we ever had, we always had enough to share. My husband Jim and I raised our daughters with the same integrated sense of giving back and it has been a central principle throughout our family life. Jim has dedicated his career to improving the lives of millions of people throughout eastern Africa and his commitment to this work still inspires me after all these years. It’s thrilling to watch our girls, now as young adults, continue that spirit of philanthropy in their own lives. They are both generous, compassionate, and engaged young women who consistently take initiative to help others less fortunate. I am blessed and beyond proud.
How do you try to manage your work/life balance?
My work and my life are a big, gigantic, intertwined jumble. I love working and I’ve never had more fun working than I do now. Because I am in the hospitality business, I often see so many of my friends who come into the restaurants, so although I’m at work, it feels like play. I also love to host my friends and family at our restaurants to share good food and good stories and to simply celebrate life together. My husband is really helpful at making sure I keep balance with walks on the beach, loads of live music and carving out time to travel and spend time together as a family.
What do you see yourself doing next to express yourself professionally?
I don’t know but I’m dying to find out.
How do you manage the fear and doubt that inevitably creeps in when you’re paving a less trodden path?
Fear has not served me well so if I feel it creeping in, I generally just get down to work. It’s there I find the most comfort when I know I’ve done everything I possibly can to mitigate a risk I might be taking. I am a very optimistic person and don’t allow myself to go down negative rabbit holes worrying about things outside of my control.
What have you been most afraid of trying in your career, but you did it anyway?
The Helena Avenue Bakery is the scariest business I’ve opened. Notoriously low product margins, high labor costs and a challenging production environment are all factors that directly impact a bakery’s ability to succeed or fail. I was committed to the Bakery because in my heart I believed it was good for the neighborhood which in turn would be good for the community. The Bakery allowed us to bring a wholesome, family-friendly concept to the Funk Zone that attracts people of all ages and enlivens the neighborhood during the morning and midday hours. While we were successful with that, it still remains our most challenging concept for profitability.
Was there any opportunity that you had in your life that you didn’t take?
I had an opportunity to go to Business School at UCLA and despite working my ass off to get in, I turned down the offer. I could really use the skillset I would have received there and find myself having to learn those concepts on my own. My husband has an MBA so I’m lucky to have an in-house advisor but I’m sure the constant questioning and spreadsheet analysis wears thin on him. Ironically, I am a regular guest speaker at the UCLA Anderson School for a class on business plan development. Go figure.
Any sleep rituals that you use to help quiet the mind after a long day?
I am a power sleeper and generally out cold within seconds after turning off the light. Sleep has always been easy for me and I can catch a few winks in most any appropriate situation. My family often teases me about the average time it took me to fall asleep, as tracked by my Fitbit over six months. It was zero minutes.
What’s the biggest gift you give yourself to recharge?
Sleep. It’s honestly my favorite thing to do.
What’s your favorite food to indulge in?
Freshly baked warm bread and butter.
What’s the first thing you do after you wake up?
I check the overnight reports from each of the restaurants so I can understand what I’m walking in to that day. I like to get up slowly and generally stay in bed for at least a half hour reading the daily news and getting ready for the day’s challenges ahead.
What’s the last thing you do before bed?
I make sure the pets are all inside, get cocooned under a mountain of down covers and then I am out like a light.
How do you make your bedroom a sacred space?
We live out in the country so I like to leave the windows open no matter what the season so I can I hear the night sounds and feel the cool breeze. I also leave all the blinds up so the sun can wake me up in the morning. That simple connection to nature helps me end and begin each day peacefully. My bedroom is a sacred place because it contains of all the critters I love. It gets a bit crowded with my husband Jim, our dog Dixie and our two cats Fred and Ginger but we all love snuggling up together. When our girls come home, they snuggle in too and that’s when I have a truly perfect moment. We have an expression in our family that says, “there is always room in the featherbed.”
Sherry, you embody a true entrepreneurial spirit and your vision is an inspiration to me. Dining at your restaurants is always such a delicious treat and experience and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
To learn more about Sherry’s boutique food and wine concepts, visit acmehospitality.com.
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