San Diego’s Puesto is an expanding modern Mexican restaurant concept with locations at The Headquarters in San Diego, La Jolla and Los Olivos Irvine. Puesto offers a California take on Mexico City-style street tacos served in a fun and energetic atmosphere designed by famed designer Thomas Schoos. We spoke with Eric Adler, one of the owners of Puesto, and Thomas Schoos to learn what makes for a great partnership between a design firm and a restaurant.
As a designer, what do you like best about restaurant projects?
Thomas Schoos: When you work with different restaurants, they each have different philosophies. It’s a new palate and something new for us — and the client and the patrons. We never make any of them look the same. Even with multiple restaurants, we make sure every time it is fresh with different forms, colors, and fabrics that give you a sense of place and also some surprises.
What were the opportunities with Puesto’s San Diego location?
Eric Adler: The San Diego location is truly unique because it’s inside the old police headquarters that was built in the 1930’s. It was vacant from the mid-eighties until 2013. It has a lot of character and history, and Thomas really embraced that. He kept a lot intact. Having the limitations of a historic space, you need someone with a good eye to work with it because you want to make things look great.
TS: In San Diego, we left the heritage inside the old building when others took it out. We made the design cohesive with street food; it feels like Mexico. When this happens, it clicks and it becomes very successful. It gels.
What advice do you have for restaurateurs when working with a design firm?
EA: It’s important to be very involved in the process but also let the designer be creative and do what they’re best at. Keep open lines of communication and be honest.
Whatever your concept is — be it Mexican or Asian— you have to know where you’re going with it within that genre. Just being a Mexican or Asian restaurant isn’t enough. For us, it’s a modern high-quality take on Mexico City street tacos. We stayed true to that. I don’t think you can have a good vision and not change, but you do need to focus from the beginning. You can’t be evolving all the time. A lot of people go in one direction and then don’t give it enough time and move in a new way. It’s important for your restaurant to have a concept.
TS: I think you have to decide who you are and what you want. Look at design portfolios, but don’t try to copy a look. Be fresh. A lot of people think a look is applicable everywhere, but ultimately it fails. Clients may not be able to articulate it, but they will feel it if it’s not a fit. The story from the food to the plate to the lighting must be cohesive. Some people don’t want to do it all (uniforms, lighting, design, etc.), but that’s a mistake. It’s not a just decorative thing.
What made the restaurant and designer partnership successful at Puesto?
TS: They listened to us! They had the logo and colors, and we showed them why we chose certain patterns and materials. The food was vibrant — and the design needed to be vibrant, too. They listened, and we didn’t get into their food. They let us do our part, and we let them do their part.
Sometimes it’s head-butting, but it can be in a good way. We come in with strong recommendations, but we don’t put our foot down.
In what ways is a small firm better than a large firm?
TS: It comes down to numbers: fewer people, smaller overhead, more one on one. No cookie-cutter solutions. Big firms have to have lots of projects and the clients can get short shrift. Small boutiques are more hands-on.
Do you recommend working with the same designer for multiple projects?
EA: Currently, we’re expanding and working with the same designer — this allows us to move faster because we’ve developed a relationship and they know what we’re thinking and what we want. It all comes down to the relationship. It’s smoother; you’re never starting from square one. It’s basically about speed and speaking the same language.