It’s a story of two self-described “outsiders” who attained their American Dream.
Guillermo Zapata, 51, is from Buenos Aires, a former actor who dreamt of Hollywood stardom before falling in love with L.A. in 1992 at the age of 23. Not wanting to return to Argentina, Zapata saw that working in restaurants was the way he could stay in the States. He began as a dishwasher, then bussed tables and worked his way up to host, server, then manager. First at Café Luna, then at Cynthia’s on Third, Zapata learned how to please finicky celebrities and hard-nosed entertainment industry VIPs.
“Yeah, it was an accident,” Zapata said of falling into the restaurant business, “but it was a good accident.”
Becoming a star lost its luster, and when 1998 came around he had the opportunity to start his own restaurant in West Hollywood: Sur (which means “south” in Spanish).
Parisian Nathalie Pouille, 49, worked as a marketing director in France. To advance her career in Europe she attended UCLA Extension to learn English in 2001.
“I came with my best friend to L.A. and we were always going out at The Abbey or at Rage,” she said. “Then one night we decided to get out of like really, really deep Boystown, and we came to have dinner at Sur.” Turning her head slightly left, she smiled at her husband. “And I saw this guy who was around….”
They married two years later, she added his name onto the end of hers, and today they are proud parents to two girls, 11 and 14. They also own and run Sur together, serve up to 2,000 covers per week, employ a workforce of 85, and offer the option of company-subsidized health insurance to those working full-time.
The pair divvy up the never-ending duties of running a popular restaurant. “Our jobs are really separated because, otherwise…we can’t be on top of each other,” Pouille-Zapata explained.
As the general manager on the floor every night, Zapata works when the restaurant is open. Pouille-Zapata does the “accounting, hiring, HR, communication and promotion…all the fun stuff” during the day, she added.
They also live in West Hollywood.
“So you walk to work?” I asked Zapata.
“No, I drive” he said, laughing. “I should try.”
Vanderpump Not Even Half the Story
Many people, when they think of Sur, picture one thing, one person, actually, and sound out five syllables: Lisa Vanderpump. While the star of reality TV shows “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “Vanderpump Rules, “ as well as the restaurateur behind Pump and Tom Tom Club, is part of Sur, she is not the sole owner or even the only cook in the kitchen. (Sorry.)
“We are partners 50 and 50,” Zapata said. “She doesn’t run the place. I do that.”
Her involvement began one interesting day in 2005, before Vanderpump was a household name.
“Guillermo called me and said, ‘I just met this couple. They are fabulous and they want to be our partners’,” Pouille-Zapata said. “’This lady even told me she has the money inside her purse right here on the patio.’”
They were looking for $300,000.
Given that the original ten $30,000 investors were not being found, it’s now easy to understand Zapata’s excitement that day. At 11 p.m. that night, after a seven-months-pregnant Pouille-Zapata wondered if they had just been invited to some sort of twisted swingers trap, she and Zapata stood in Vanderpump’s newly decorated Beverly Park home.
“It was hard to believe,” Zapata said, “but at the same time we had to believe that it was possible.” After convincing Vanderpump and husband Ken Todd, that with their single investment, Sur could expand into the space next door (what is now Sur Lounge), their partnership was inked.
There was only one stipulation. Vanderpump and Todd said: “We want to design the place ,and you have nothing to say about it.” Fine. “We were, like, looking around,” the Zapatas said, “everything was spectacular, beautiful.”
How do they describe that design? Not far off Sur’s menu, “eclectic with a lot of European inspiration,” said Pouille-Zapata. “A lot of flowers, it’s bright…a happy place.”
Celebrity Brought Success, Then Challenges
The Zapatas told me Vanderpump’s star did not start rising until 2010 when “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” debuted. How did that affect Sur’s business?
“For good,” said Zapata. “Popularity will bring you people…but you need to be ready and accept it and be lucky.”
That popularity “changed a little bit of the clientele,” he added.
Did it ever. My recollection of Sur in the early 2000s is of a quiet, casual restaurant with whitewashed walls and billowing white sheets in the windows. Dining there felt like visiting a tiny Greek island.
Today, Sur often feels like what some people might call a “scene.” And, in fact, they do. When I asked three WeHo locals, two men and one woman, if they go to Sur, each independently said they didn’t. When asked why, all three of them used the word “scene.”
Perhaps due to Vanderpump’s fame and the restaurant being featured on television regularly (a video crew for “Vanderpump Rules” arrived when our interview concluded), Sur has become a destination for tourists.
I live two blocks away. What I regularly witness in front of Sur are young women, mostly, decked out in high heels and low-cut dresses. They gather in groups, snapping photos in front of a red neon sign displaying the restaurant’s name. This visage makes me, and perhaps other former customers (i.e. locals) feel like Sur is no longer for them.
The Zapatas are keenly aware of this. While they don’t want to lose the valuable customer segment TV brings them, they do miss the old days, particularly mid-week when the place is less busy.
“I want the community to come back,” Zapata admitted, referring to his original customer base: locals.
Promotions and Pectorals
To help achieve their goal, Sur has hired a publicist to come up with a series of promotions, quite a few of them targeted at the well-established LGBTQ customer base West Hollywood is famous for.
For example, Wednesday nights were slow. According to Zapata, “The three bartenders that were working said, ‘How about we do a little dance? How about we come up with a show?’”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the “SURpendales” dancers (think Chippendales), bartenders who remove their shirts at a certain hour, climb atop the bar and do a little choreography. Supported by an ad campaign last fall, it worked. Bar sales rose and bartenders got so busy they couldn’t do a floorshow and mix drinks.
SURpendales starts again mid-March and will occur every Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. New, professional dancers will be hired. How will Zapata find them?
Putting fingers up to his mouth, he said, “I can [dog whistles] and the boys will come.”
“Ooh la la,” Pouille-Zapata joked.
It was clear Zapata said this with a wink and a nod. He has felt himself to be a member of the LGBTQ community since the ‘90s, when it was he and David Cooley, founder of The Abbey, who were trying to make their then-new businesses succeed south of Santa Monica Boulevard, something entrepreneurs did much less often back then.
“I’m very grateful for the gay community…they were my original customers,” Zapata said.
But that’s not all. Mondays will be $7 martinis, Sundays will offer half-off sangria pitchers, and brunch will serve “bottom”- and “top”-less mimosas.
On the food side, Sur’s “Locals Dine IN Night” launches March 24 benefiting Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles . And its “Dine OUT” evening begins March 19, which will benefit a different LGBTQ charity each month. Both will be monthly events with 10 percent of food and beverage sales being donated.
A Need for Constant Reinvention
Asked what is the most challenging aspect of running Sur, which the couple sees as two businesses, the restaurant and the lounge, Zapata said, “You cannot relax. You always have to be creative…always think ahead of the game.”
Vanderpump brought television and national exposure. But lunch wasn’t profitable so investments into weekend brunch and the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. after-dinner crowd were made.
“People want to brunch,” Pouille-Zapata said. “And there are never enough places, so that’s how we switched around…like from lunch we developed this brunch, which is quite nice.”
In terms of late night, Zapata acted like any smart businessperson: by luring patrons to stay after dinner at Sur Lounge. “Why should you want to go to The Abbey? Or why do you want to go to Cahuenga and Hollywood when you have a great dee-jay, a great bar and a great atmosphere?”
Which is why Sur feels quite residential inside, like someone’s home. “Yes,” Pouille-Zapata said. “That’s the feeling we want,” her husband added.
“You always have to reinvent yourself,” Pouille-Zapata added. A lot of restaurants look “gorgeous” when they come onto the scene, but somehow only last for a couple of years. “You’ve got to always think about, like, ‘Okay, How can we attract new clients?’”
So, why West Hollywood, in the first place and still? “First of all, I want to be in this area,” Zapata said. “I don’t want to be in any other area.”
Pouille-Zapata chimed in. “The community is so different. It’s a mix. That’s why it feels great, West Hollywood.”
Zapata agreed. “Yeah, different. You go to Beverly Hills, I feel like I’m safe. [Here] I’m challenged. I’m surrounded by the people I want to be. I bring in customers from all over the world.”
He paused and looked at me like he simply had no other choice: “I have to be here.”