Mexico City-based Grupo Hunan made a big splash in the US restaurant market for the first time with the opening of Alma Cocina de Mexico at The Grove in downtown Los Angeles.
The 10,000-square-foot Alma opened in stages, starting in May with a more casual taqueria and bar on the ground floor, offering tacos, cocktails, and a market called tiendita. There, the average ticket is around $40.
This month, the more upscale main dining room upstairs celebrated its grand opening, with 155 seats, two more bars and a terrace overlooking the bustling mall (owned by mayoral candidate Rick Caruso) , which is designed to look like a village square. .
With an average ticket of around $85 per person, Alma’s second floor is designed to present a more refined Mexican dining experience, with dishes like Filete Don Pepe, a center-cut tenderloin served au jus with onion , green chilli and mashed potatoes; Albondigas de Res, or beef meatballs with chipotle sauce; and desserts like Pastel de Tres Leches, a sponge cake soaked in three types of milk.
Founded in 1993, Grupo Hunan is a multi-concept group that operates approximately 26 high-end casual dining restaurants in Mexico across 14 brands, including two licensed establishments from American-born Nobu. The family business is run by brothers Pepe, Diego, Teresa and Santiago Cuaik.
Group CEO Pepe Cuaik said in an interview that moving to the United States was a natural next step. Grupo Hunan operates a restaurant in Los Cabos, for example, and about 60% of diners come from Southern California.
“California is a market we feel very comfortable with,” he said. “Children, we spend a lot of time there and have been looking for great properties there since 2017.”
Now the group is working at another US location at a Westfield UTC mall in La Jolla, near San Diego. The as yet unnamed concept will be Italian (Grupo Hunan operates three Italian brands in Mexico). It is a one-story restaurant of approximately 8,000 square feet, scheduled to open in March 2023.
And Grupo Hunan is also planning a third restaurant on Coronado Island in San Diego. A stand-alone location, this one will be similar to Alma, Cuaik said, and will offer stunning views of the San Diego skyline from above the water.
Cuaik, who along with his siblings was born in Houston, said one of the challenges of operating in the United States is work. The band would really like to be known for their excellent service or hospitality that “seems way above what you’re paying for.”
“Here [in Mexico]we are truly privileged. [If you] let’s say we’re going to open a restaurant, you have 120 applicants the next day. You don’t have to do job fairs. There’s this big market and culture around hospitality, with generations of waiters, cooks and line attendants. We really understand hospitality and food in Mexico,” he said. “That’s been our biggest challenge in LA, trying to communicate that culture of service.”
Jordi Ferran, the group’s chief financial officer, said the group is open to all kinds of real estate, but more than 50% of Grupo Hunan’s business comes from shopping malls. “We feel [malls] have the conditions we are looking for, they have security, common space, maintenance,” he said.
The pandemic years have been painful in Mexico — perhaps more so than in the United States, he said. “We haven’t received any type of plan or help. We were forced to close and be completely locked down for several months [in 2020]. And again, in January 2021, for another month,” he said.
But the group has recovered and now sees opportunities for growth.
Cuaik said he was targeting Texas next.
“We are aiming for triple A sites,” he said. “We are not in a hurry.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
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