A taste for success

Chris Jarosz overcame a rough upbringing to become Sacramento’s go-to restaurateur. Now he faces his biggest challenge: feeding the Capitol.

Chris Jarosz invites you to have dinner under the dome.

Chris Jarosz invites you to have dinner under the dome.

Photos by Darin Bradford

The cockroaches that inhabit the state Capitol weren't stopped by metal detectors or cops guarding the doors. They weren't impressed by the building's golden-poppy marble floor mosaics or the stained-glass goddess Minerva, watchful beneath her azure helmet. No, the cockroaches went for the starchy crumbs, the sweets, cold cuts and layers of grease around the dishwashing equipment. They feasted. They gorged themselves to death.

One day in December 2014, a Sacramento County health inspector poked around in the basement cafeteria and found what environmental-health professionals call an “active infestation” of omnivorous insects in “various stages of life.”

Red tags were posted. Exterminators were called. The infestation was severe. Two inspections were necessary before the cafeteria was approved to resume business. The cockroaches retreated to fight another day.

The Capitol’s basement cafe finally reopened in January after the state Legislature, which controls the building, found a new operator: a self-propelled tastemaker named Chris Jarosz.

Taking command of the Capitol’s dining facilities, Jarosz wants to satisfy sophisticated appetites in a monumental building that prohibits signage and requires customers to pass through metal detectors, a place formerly infested with cockroaches and surrounded by countless dining options, from food trucks to white tablecloths. If Jarosz can succeed at the Capitol, he can fortify his image as the hottest restaurant operator in Sacramento.

For Jarosz, signing a lease to run the Capitol’s basement cafe, catering operation and sixth-floor coffee lounge was a risky chance to position himself as a godsend, a genius or maybe a fool.

With a stable of restaurants and bars stretching from West Sacramento to downtown and Midtown, out to the suburbs and into the Bay Area, Jarosz and his kitchens seem to be everywhere. He can fire a cheeseburger, but he’s no chef. Rather, he’s a concept machine. Investors, developers and landlords call him with opportunities to fill vacant new spaces or revive deadened culinary tropes.

How Jarosz came to imagine himself as the latest guru of Sacramento restaurants is a story of self-creation. Eight years ago, he knew practically nothing about the food service industry. His kitchen experience was minimal. He had no money or business plan. But he was eager to learn, desperate and willing to gamble everything on a shopworn food truck he found on Craigslist.

Telling his story, he repeats one sentence again and again like a mantra: “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Invited to feed the powerful

Beyond his nonfood background, Jarosz brought little else to the table as a budding restaurateur. All he knew about food was that he liked to eat it. His upbringing was dismal. Born in Massachusetts, he moved with his family to western Pennsylvania after his father killed himself when Jarosz was 3 years old. His mother remarried, but domestic life was chaotic for Chris and his two brothers, Jarosz says.

For escape, young Chris turned to soccer. He loved the game and believed he could play at the top college level. The tease of a soccer scholarship ended when Jarosz was injured in a car crash. An itinerant life of failed prospects beckoned.

Jarosz arrived in Sacramento around 2000 and continued on a trajectory that was mostly downward. He spent money he didn’t have and was chased by creditors. He was sued multiple times in debt disputes. He drank too much and was arrested twice for drunken driving.

He’s spent most of his life, he says, trying to figure out who he is and running from what he doesn’t want to be.

“My upbringing was racist, sexist, misogynist,” he says. “People around me taught hate. As a kid, I became kind of a drifter. I moved around a lot. I’ve had no business plan, no structure. I’ve created a lot of financial problems for myself because I had no experience.”

Jarosz was able to pivot his deficient upbringing into full-fledged success. His presence in the state Capitol demonstrates Jarosz’s resilience, his endlessly magnetic pull and boundless capacity for risk. The lease he won to run the Capitol’s food services amplifies the definition of “sweetheart deal” and effectively requires him to pay zero rent for the next 20 years. His landlords, the Assembly and Senate rules committees, have minimal expectations and decline to comment on their agreement with Jarosz.

Under the lease, Jarosz “shall prepare and serve wholesome, palatable, and nutritious meals of quality and variety.” The state covers all utilities. Rent is 0.5 percent of gross sales over $500,000 per month—an epic number no restaurant in Sacramento can count on reaching, industry professionals say. Which means Jarosz pays nothing.

But Jarosz has big plans. He wants to make money at the Capitol. He wants to build his reputation. He wants to transform the basement cafe and sixth-floor coffee lounge into iconic sites worthy of their surroundings—hot spots for tourists, lobbyists, legislators, staff, the governor.

“At the Capitol, you get to be in front of people who make the rules,” Jarosz says.

Ultimately, he sees the Capitol as one tributary in a delta of unique restaurants and bars that flow across Northern California. He wants to reconfigure how people eat, luring them away from chains and franchises and into places with bespoke local narratives of his own invention.

But there are big hurdles to overcome—starting with those demons from his past. His history is filled with promises and failures, bright ideas, solid opportunities, poor decisions and circumstances spinning out of control. The Capitol project will showcase his skills and erase the demons forever, Jarosz believes.

“We’re going to be different,” he says. “The Capitol is the coolest building in the state. But this is a far more complicated project than what’s been in there before. We face challenges to keep the quality up and to pay our labor costs. There are a lot of variables. It’s going to be hard.”

Failing toward success

Opportunity brought Chris Jarosz to Sacramento after failure drove him from everywhere else. He knocked around the country, up to the Northeast, down to Texas, Florida, out to Los Angeles. Then a friend needed help running a bar in Sacramento. Jarosz came north, went to work and quickly put down roots. He met a woman, had a daughter and got married. The marriage soon ended, but Jarosz found a home. There was something about Sacramento, he says, a nonjudgmental quality that distinguished the community from the weary, class-burdened cultures of the Rust Belt where Jarosz was raised.

“If there’s a place I want to call home, it’s Sacramento,” he says.

Jarosz knew many homes. Between Pennsylvania and California, he took and left various jobs and tried several careers. He promoted music acts and took community college classes in art photography. He joined the Marine Corps, trained as a military cop, but quit when his commitment expired. “Taking orders wasn’t for me,” he says.

Back in civilian life, he tried sales. He hustled mortgages. A gifted salesman with a soft persistence and sly confidence that never becomes obnoxious, he finally began to make some money. Then the housing mortgage bubble burst and the economy collapsed. Such was the story of his life.

“I was doing pretty good for once,” he says. “I didn’t love the mortgage business, but I was good at it.”

By 2008, with the Great Recession bearing down hard, he had to become good at something else. Food would become the next frontier for Jarosz.

Today, the former drifter, who turns 49 in April, writes concept menus, hires chefs and creates restaurant themes across Sacramento. Beyond the Capitol building, his budding empire includes a Broderick Roadhouse in West Sacramento, Midtown and Walnut Creek. Broderick will soon extend to Howe Avenue, Folsom, Roseville and beyond. Jarosz says he hopes to build 50 Brodericks under licensing deals and corporate ownerships, but for now the number is just a goal and the franchise concept is in pre-alpha phase.

Jarosz plays a starring role at Milagro Centre, the new dining and entertainment complex in Carmichael that celebrates local chefs. Jarosz will run the Patriot at Milagro and partner with Mesa Mercado. A food shop called Hunt and Gather is also set for Milagro. He plans to sell coffee and bicycles in Township 9 off of Richards Boulevard. There are ideas for a movie festival on Del Paso Boulevard.

Amid the flurry of openings, Jarosz knows how to reverse direction quickly. He sold Localis, an S Street restaurant, last year. He closed Saddle Rock on L Street in February after just seven months. The glass windows are papered over, awaiting the next restaurant concept.

He may look like your server, but actually he owns the place.

“He has lots of energy,” says Sotiris Kolokotronis, a Sacramento developer and Jarosz’s landlord at Saddle Rock. “He has talent for identifying and hiring chefs who can execute his vision.”

It’s a manic juggler’s pace that sometimes makes even Jarosz wonder how he does it. One key ingredient is the relationships he builds with investors and developers, people like Kolokotronis who control site locations, square footage and rental terms. Jarosz is a hot name right now, and local investors and developers seek him out.

“I like his attitude, the way he comes up with ideas, works hard and gets after it,” says Allan Davis, a Sacramento developer and owner of Milagro.

Many Jarosz projects suffer delays, but that’s common in the restaurant business. Inevitably, he pushes ahead, working with investors, landlords and vendors, stamping his brand on kitchens and bars and banquettes.

The urgency may be driven by fear and familiarity with the reverse side of success. Jarosz has been broke. He has lived on maxed-out credit cards. He has been pursued by creditors and sued at least eight times since 2004 for small-dollar contract breaches and failures to pay, including four vehicle agreements. There was a tax lien in 2007. In 2005, he was arrested for drunken driving and failed to appear at his hearing. The oversight bought him a sentence of 16 days in jail. A second drunken driving arrest came in 2014. He showed up for court, pleaded no contest and asked the judge to delay the mandated incarceration because his restaurant business was hanging by a thread and needed him present and accountable.

When pressed for details about the lawsuits and drunken driving arrests, Jarosz turns silent. He hangs his head in acknowledgment of the two DUI convictions, which both occurred in Sacramento. Of his credit problems, he says, “I didn’t understand the business. I’ve worked hard to pay everyone back, and some people have been more patient than others. I’ve learned you have to work seven days a week, 16 hours a day. I had no role model, no mentor, no one to educate me.”

He doesn’t announce his history to investment partners, but they seem to understand Jarosz has seen his share of trouble.

“I don’t know much about his background,” says Davis, the Milagro owner. “But I know he works hard.”

Gambling on a food truck

Hard at work with new investors, partnerships and equity positions in his multiple restaurants, Jarosz maintains the somewhat bewildered look of a person whose comfort zone is still under construction. As he slips into middle age, he wraps himself in the costume of nihilistic youth: black T-shirts, tattooed arms and pale, nightclub-gray skin. His favorite motif is skulls. Compared with other restaurant executives his age, who fixate on scalability, food costs and labor, he looks like a guy who might run a food truck.

And that’s what he is at heart. A food truck called Wicked ’Wich became Jarosz’s ride to success. When he launched the business, it was not an auspicious time to take on such a risk. It was 2008, and the recession was crushing him. His mortgage sales work had been hammered. His credit was shot. Loan payments were due. Adding to the pressure, Jarosz had a wife and children to help support. After his first marriage ended, he soon remarried and became the father of two more daughters. All three children live with the couple today.

Food trucks were becoming popular in Sacramento, evolving from their roach-coach origins into moveable street feasts with hipster vibes. Jarosz found a rusty 1975 food truck on Craigslist, but it was parked in San Luis Obispo. There were food trucks for sale in Sacramento, but Jarosz, a believer in serendipity, was determined to own the San Luis vehicle. There was no reason, he says. He simply had to have it. He borrowed nearly $20,000, enlisted a friend to help convoy the investment home and headed south.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I could have found a food truck in Sacramento. The seller thought we were crazy to drive it home.”

The truck came with a trailer. Near Kettleman City, the hitch broke and the trailer flipped. Jarosz and his friend pushed the trailer to the side of the road and continued their journey.

In Sacramento, he stripped the mobile kitchen and cleaned as best he could. The truck had issues. It featured a stick shift. (“Not good for hot grease in the back,” Jarosz says.) Without professional kitchen training, he imagined a basic menu and began to cook practice dishes. His learning strategy was trial-and-error. He focused on stuff he liked from his childhood, food he knew well, western Pennsylvania simplicities: french fries, sandwiches, soft-shell crabs and a sea bass dish.

“I just kept my head down and cooked,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Everything to lose

Despite Jarosz’s self-professed ignorance and inexperience, the timing was good. Customers hungry for quick, cheap meals flocked to food trucks, and the Wicked ‘Wich became a crowd-pleasing attraction on Sacramento streets. But the truck did not bring complete salvation. In 2011, the refrigeration failed. The truck flunked its health inspection. Jarosz’s cash flow dried up. He had no money for fresh supplies or repairs. He was headed back where he started.

But luck was with him. Ever the salesman, Jarosz became known as a local spokesman for food truck operators. He was someone who could describe food truck ambitions in a way that reduced the fear among restaurant owners—a group that saw food trucks as mobile bandits hogging public parking spaces, stealing customers and paying no taxes.

Jarosz helped make peace between trucks and restaurants. The Sacramento chapter of the California Restaurant Association, representing brick-and-mortar operators, later would elect him as its three-term president, after he opened the West Sacramento Broderick.

While trying to organize a food truck event in 2011, Jarosz discovered an abandoned building on Sixth Street in West Sacramento. At first, he thought the place might serve as a commissary for food trucks. Looking deeper, he figured the rambling structure was suitably seedy to succeed as a location for rock bands, allowing him to keep the place busy day and night.

He knew the name Broderick described an old neighborhood in West Sacramento and was more recently the identifier of a West Sac street gang. He did some research and learned the original David Broderick was a corrupt California politician in the Gold Rush era, a U.S. senator and instigator of an 1859 duel against a former friend in San Francisco.

At the duel near Lake Merced, Broderick’s one-shot pistol fired prematurely into the dirt. Defenseless, he faced his adversary and was shot in the right lung. He died three days later. Bloody history gave Jarosz an inspiration. Broderick Roadhouse was born.

“It’s my story, too. There’s no adversity that’s going to stop me,” Jarosz says. “Before long, the place was filled. We started serving food, and people started coming for that. The food was so popular we stopped booking bands.”

The Broderick Roadhouse experience created the road map for the culinary path Jarosz would follow. He would source local ingredients and have his cooks make many products from scratch. He would introduce hot spices and sandwich items with an East Coast flavor, recalled from his travels and days in western Pennsylvania.

Some of this could be chalked up as marketing gimmicks. But in Sacramento, where many chefs have worked and trained at the same restaurants, Jarosz was able to present himself as something original.

“Sacramento needs more outside influences,” he says.

Now Jarosz faces his biggest challenge. With his expanding Broderick network, Milagro, Midtown locations and Capitol obligations, he’s spread thin. Soon, his “custom blend” hamburgers and homemade barbecue sauces will cease to be novel.

“He does have a lot going on,” Milagro owner Davis says. “Time will tell how he manages everything.”

Even Jarosz wonders whether he has taken on too much too fast. Restaurants are notoriously tough to run and transitory. With low margins, high labor costs, complex permits and inspections, relentless competition and mercurial audiences, they demand tight management.

“Some days, I think I can do everything,” Jarosz says. “Other days, I realize I take on too much.”

The juggling of new restaurants requires Jarosz to perform an elaborate dance with investors, landlords and inspectors as he hopes to avoid the financial problems that dogged him in the past.

“It’s been all about, ’How do I keep the doors open?’” he says. “It’s been an interesting shell game, but people are supportive. 2017 is the year I’m going to make it.”

From his first days with the food truck, Jarosz plowed ahead with the belief that he had nothing to lose. Soon, from the state Capitol to Carmichael and chasing the ghost of David Broderick, he will have everything to lose. Accountability and expectations increase each time Jarosz opens a new restaurant.

His bank statements have improved, but Jarosz says there are still days when “I don’t have a lot left to pay the bills.” He knows the pressures of his trade and the chaos that can be created by one cockroach. He survives those days with a glance at his right wrist. A tattoo in Latin translates the phrase, “Without fear.”