It’s been a long time in coming, but Chef Justin Perez, who started refurbishing the old Wilson’s Jewel Bakery in Santa Clara way back in the summer of 2010, has finally moved his Restaurant O Catering company into that site.
As of last Thursday, his catering company, which had been operating in Los Gatos, was up and running in the new site with a huge 4,000-square-foot kitchen, cobbled together with equipment he refurbished, scoured at auctions and purchased new with scrounged funds. The restaurant portion of the space is still to come. But the fact that his team is finally in its new facility is a huge achievement, he says.
“It feels amazing,” Perez says. “It’s all just been unreal.”
When his longtime cooks saw the finished space for the first time, they had tears in their eyes. It’s easy to understand why when you know the horrific and shocking events that came before.
It all started in 2005, when Perez was relaxing with his family at their San Jose home, when a hysterical woman came running up, screaming that her husband was going to kill her. Perez and his family took her in and called police. This tale of a good Samaritan soon turned nightmarish, though, when Perez’s house was later fire-bombed and bricks hurled through his front windows. The husband’s brother was later convicted of those crimes, but not before Perez’s wife and their young children were deeply traumatized.
A year later, with his life back to normal again, Perez renovated his Restaurant O (then located in Campbell), doing all the work, himself, with the help of a few friends, only to discover that his landlord intended to sell the property. On top of that, Perez says he soon discovered that his best friend, who was his former director of operations, had allegedly embezzled about $750,000 from the restaurant. Perez was adrift with no restaurant, as well as the IRS on his back for business and payroll taxes that his director of operations never paid.
Perez managed to climb his way out of that and to find a new beginning in this Santa Clara location. But it hasn’t been easy. Permit approvals delayed the project for a year. Because of that, the planned restaurant portion of the project is behind schedule. But Perez is adamant that the 150-seat restaurant will open by September.
The restaurant will serve up New American cuisine with global influences, similar to the concept at Restaurant O in Campbell, but at a more pocket-friendly price point so that no alcoholic drinks top $10 a glass and a couple can enjoy dinner for about a $45 tab for food.
A focal point will be the pizza oven, which is already installed. Eventually, a garden will be planted on the roof, too, with herbs and tomatoes for the cooks to use in dishes.
A new pastry chef also has been hired — Meg McGraw, who has had her own baking company, Modified Margaret, for the past year and a half. She’ll continue to run her own business, but out of Restaurant O’s kitchen, where she’ll also be creating its desserts for both the catering company and the planned restaurant.
Like kids in a candy store, Perez and his crew are still in awe about their new digs. There are eight offices for accounting, sales, events and management — the first time any of them have had offices to call home. They even get giddy over the pot fillers over the new ranges — the first time they’ve had those, too.
Over the next few months, Perez hopes to host some fund-raising dinners in the kitchen. After already taken on his electrician, plumber and construction company owner as partners in his enterprise, he’s still short one investor. But he’s optimistic about the future.
His only regret?
“I haven’t been able to cook in my new kitchen yet,” he said last Friday as he gave me a tour. “I am dying to do that.”