Updated: Oct 28, 2021
INFI: I don't know if you've heard of 8A5E Cafe down in Bridgeport. But they're a pretty interesting concept. Boyu Li, one of the owners and co-founders was talking about the importance of starting a community business and how he really involves the community in his business.
And I think Casa Indigo is very similar. So why don't we start with that a little bit, like where did that come from?
Mer: So I mean basically, all of us that are here like Beto, Marcos, and I we all grew up here. I grew up a little bit on Taylor Street, which is just a couple blocks the other way.
But I mean, the main thing wasn't so much to open a restaurant; it was to open a place of business in our neighborhood. So we could be part of whatever is going on and also be a positive effect on us being in the neighborhood.
We sponsor a basketball team for the youth, we donate to the Pilsen Food Pantry every week on Mondays. Whatever we can do to be a part of helping anything out, we want to be a part of it.
And that's basically it, there's no complex thing of anything, that's what we want to do, and that's what we're doing. I wish we could do more, but you know.
The importance of working with people who serve the best ingredients possible
INFI: And I know that you collaborate with a lot of other businesses, restaurants, and otherwise on 18th street. How was that process? Were you met with a lot of skepticism or just fully embraced from the jump?
Mer: I mean, our whole thing is local. Our menu consists of almost all, or close to local ingredients, non-GMO, and organic as possible. We're basically giving you whatever is the best we can get, and we want to serve it.
So on that local side of it, all the vendors that we use, we want to try to use everybody that's as close as possible with us, or at least in Chicago or whatnot.
Our bread is baked across the street at two different bakeries and stuff like that. We buy all our meat and chicken from local farms in Illinois, Iowa, or Wisconsin. And so I mean it all starts from there.
Being local that way, that also includes being part of the community as well. But yes, it's hand in hand for us, like we don't even think about it, this is what we do.
INFI: Hell yes. And do you think that's kind of a different mindset than a lot of other restaurant owners and chefs in the industry?
Mer: Well, I mean, I would have hoped so that it would get to that point, where everybody that's in this area is trying to help some way or some short.
But with the struggle of the pandemic, I think people have shut off on that side of trying to help when they're just trying to survive.
It's difficult at this time to like even talk to other restaurants about, hey, what can we do to help people in our neighborhood? Everybody's so scared of losing their business right now that everyone's just fighting really hard to keep things going.
And the other thing is like we want to hire as many people as we can, so we try to do that as well. But pandemic times, it's just hard trying to do all that stuff.
How to find your identity as a restaurant
INFI: What are some struggles that you met even before COVID hit? And how did you navigate that?
Mer: At first, at the beginning was definitely like, hey, who are these guys, and what are they serving? Their place is called Casa indigo; I don't get it.
So, in the beginning, we almost had a whole different menu. But people would come in and start ordering something off the menu, so we just went with it, and we just changed our menu to fit our community a little bit.
Like we sell a whole lot of carne asada here, we sell a whole lot of fried chicken. And obviously, we sell a lot of tacos and burritos. But it's kind of like, that's why we add the global aspect to our menu as well.
You don't want to get people to get sick of your menu, so we try to throw in some random stuff here and there and just to play with them.
And I try to use all my influence and all the chefs I work for, all the restaurants I've worked at over the years, and try to bring out all the best of those flavors and into Casa indigo.
But yes, it's hard to find your identity in a place when I'm not a Mexican owner, but they're kind of like, what is Casa Indigo?
We found our niche and as you said, we get a lot of local support, and that's what helps us survive to this day through the pandemic and in general.
Make sure you "read your neighborhood" - Adapt and thrive
INFI: What are some of the lessons you learned before you started Casa indigo that you brought from those past experiences to where you're at now?
Mer: Number one thing is the concentration on food, flavors. Try to be unique a little bit, have something that not everybody else is selling.
But also like read your neighborhood, you want them to come to your place multiple times. So have stuff on your menu that excites people and gets things going.
We just added that birria quesadilla the last couple of weeks, and it's sold out every week, just because that's what people want because that's what you see on social media and other places selling it.
We adapted, and we started doing it too. But yes, you have to adapt to where you are and who's coming in. I'm sure I would love to serve a 16-oz rib eye, but nobody's going to buy it here, you know what I mean?
We have to sell things that people want to eat and can afford, and especially now in a pandemic with so many people not working. We just try to serve the best food for the lowest price we can possibly go, so we can keep going.
INFI: For sure, the pandemic has changed everything. I feel like you guys are well-positioned.
I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but because you guys are connected with the community and really have proven that you're community-minded, I think people have gravitated and stuck with you guys.
And then you mentioned the birria; I mean, I'm just throwing out there down here in Guadalajara like the home of birria if you need a research guinea pig, I’m down.
Mer: Send us your notes, send us pictures.
INFI: For sure, hell yes. And then you mentioned the importance of getting people to come back to your restaurant.
I mean it's a no-brainer, we talked about the importance of that first month and grabbing people's attention that first month, and getting them to come back within those first four to six weeks or four to eight weeks.
Would you say that is something that like you saw with your restaurant as well when you first opened up? Or like that really played a part in sustaining the business?
Mer: I think we were probably the other way around on that. It was kind of slow for us in the beginning because, again, people are trying to figure us out.
Eventually, as we got our niche going, it finally like, when we changed our menu to more suit the neighborhood, then we started seeing regulars come a couple of times a week.
Then we started getting articles written about our food, about having the best steak torta and having the best wings list and all that stuff, that sort of just happened. We had to adapt at the beginning, I didn't have that mindset in the beginning, and I should have.
I was going to let me just make my food that I want to do my way. It's not like you can't do that, you got to do a little bit of yours, and you got to do a little bit what people want. And I didn't realize how big social media is in the restaurant world.
The other restaurants that I worked at before Indigo, always had somebody that did all their social media. So that's not something we ever talked about, and said, oh, we need a good picture for social media; nobody ever said that in the meeting. It was just done that way.
But now that I'm in the business as an owner, an entrepreneur, social media is where things are. And us sending pictures of our specials every day, that's what helped bring us closer to our community and our clients and our customer base, even if they're not in the neighborhood.
INFI: You said it, like the importance of social media and maintaining that consistency, because like I'm not bullshitting, I really do wait at noon for those specials to see.
Mer: Yes, totally. Yes, we have a lot of people that will call and be like, hey, I didn't see the specials yet, what are the specials? We know how important that is.
Use social media to grow your restaurant and learn what people want to eat
INFI: Yes, so you talked about not just cooking your food, but cooking what people want. How did you go about finding out what people want?
Mer: In the beginning, we never had steak tacos on the menu, we've never had carne asada tacos on the menu. And I would tell the guys if we have it, just say you can make it. We had steak, obviously, so we would make it, then I was like we need to adapt. Because people are coming here very confused, wondering what we’re serving.
We had avocado toast on there, and stuff like that, like all these little things that nobody really cared about here. I was like yo dude, bring us some real flavor. And so we just positioned and went even more hardcore on Mexican flavors and adding in our global influence.
And that's what people like. Any time we do an Indian special, it usually always sells out. Chicken masala sells out all the time.
But that's the kind of the way we're going now. We're just going to put food with a good variety of diversity on our menu, and that's what people respect about us.
Instead of just having the same old stuff that a couple of other restaurants on the street have as well. We don't want our menu to match anybody else's.
Uniqueness as a driver of success
INFI: And so what's the biggest lesson you've learned in this journey in the last three years?
Mer: Don't give up, like if you've got your plan and you know it's going to work, just keep going at it. Trust me, in the first like three or four months; I was like fuck, this sucks.
I'm like we weren't as popular as we thought we were going to be. But magically, it just all started coming together as we started adjusting and adapting to our neighborhood and our community and our people, and what they tell us.
Like just this week, we had a couple of NBA prospects come here to eat, and then the next day, they got drafted.
So you know what I mean, it's kind of cool like that happens. You have to fit into where you're going to be.
You can't just be like, oh, I have an awesome idea; I'm just going to put it in the hottest neighborhood in the world. That doesn't always work. And saturation and uniqueness is huge in the restaurant world, especially in Chicago because of how highly coveted we are as a restaurant city.
We have one of the best food cities in not just United States, but the world. We're probably top 10 in terms of diversity and the kind of restaurants we have, and all the higher end avant-garde and all that stuff.
We have all kinds of stuff. But we want to be part of it; we want to have our own stake and have our own uniqueness recognized.
How to get your restaurant noticed by critics
INFI: How did you guys get that notoriety in those really coveted publications?
Mer: Honestly, it probably all came from our Instagram, Casa Indigo on Instagram. As a new restaurant opens in any neighborhood, especially a popular one like Pilsen, people are going to start being, oh, I'm going to follow, I want to see what these guys do, and it just carries from there. And then random critics always want to try new restaurants, and we hit a chord with some of them, thank god.
They said we had the best of certain things, so just having it work out that way. But yes, man like social media for restaurants, especially in this city, is pretty crucial, and you got to really have something.
I don't want to say something that people want to follow, but people want to see that oh, these guys are a little different, they're doing things a little differently. But it all comes from social media and all the attention we get on that.
But yes, like from when the pandemic started, before the pandemic, we were at like 19% on gratuity. After the pandemic, it has been in the range of 20 to 29%. So we're getting the love, we're getting the love that people want us to stay, stick around, make food, and all that stuff. So that gives us the confidence to expand and go on to broader horizons.
INFI: Nice. And INFI, we are a restaurant tech company, so I would be remiss if I didn't ask you a restaurant owner. What are some helpful pieces of tech?
You mentioned social media. But is there anything else that you rely on as an entrepreneur and as an owner that makes your life easier?
Mer: Obviously, social media is a big thing because we get a lot of questions coming from that. But I don't know, so that's how big social media is; it affects your business that much.
But like I said, just adapting and never just being old, we're only going to go this way, there's only a direction we're going in for a restaurant.
You got to adjust; you got to change things around, you got to make it affordable for people to eat, especially now. But just in general, be adaptable.
Don't just stick with your one plan, it's not 1980 anymore. There are so many restaurants, especially here, that you got to find your way to be different. Concentrate on that, and make you stand out.