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July 31, 2014

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With perseverance, restaurateur’s dreams solidly on track … and expanding

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Desyree Alberganti and Felix Arellano are seen in Arellano’s restaurant Viva Las Arepas Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Arellano and Alberganti are partnering to open a gelato store next door.

Viva Las Arepas

The half chicken platter from Viva Las Arepas, seen here with fried plantains and black beans. Launch slideshow »

Map of Viva Las Arepas

Viva Las Arepas

1616 Las Vegas Blvd S., Las Vegas

It takes a strong stomach to be in the restaurant business. The challenges of turning a profit are enough to give the heartiest owner balance-sheet indigestion.

Felix Arellano, owner of Viva Las Arepas, Las Vegas’ sole Venezuelan restaurant, was born into the food-service industry. Yet, even he has previously filled his pot too high, and it boiled over into bankruptcy before Arellano was able to pinpoint a recipe for success.

In 2006, Arellano bought a restaurant in Las Vegas, his dream after years of working in restaurants in Strip resorts. In 2007, however, he had abandoned the business, selling it at a loss after struggling to turn it around. By 2008, he filed for bankruptcy after real estate investments during the valley’s boom years soured.

Arellano’s faith in himself, and desire to cook his own food, never waned. Today, the 40-year-old chef successfully has parlayed a food stand into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and he is partnering with two chefs on two new projects. Along the way, he has learned a number of lessons about the restaurant business and is now helping his partners navigate the maze of zoning regulations, health inspections and supply lines.

“If you make something good, you can be successful. That’s something that I love about this country,” Arellano said. “If you put in the effort and work hard at whatever you do, you can make it.”

Arellano was born in Tachira, a small coffee- and pineapple-producing state on Venezuela’s border with Colombia. His family owns a restaurant that serves typical Venezuelan fare. By age 14, he had opened his first food stand, selling hamburgers and hot dogs.

In 1995, he immigrated to the United States alone and found work as a dishwasher in Redondo Beach, Calif. He went to school to learn English and later landed a job as a cook in an Italian restaurant.

In 1999, the Venetian opened and Arellano brought his training from Los Angeles’ Italian kitchens to Las Vegas. He worked two jobs at Valentino, one as a cook and one as a food runner, putting in 70 to 80 hours per week.

Arellano had a craving to be on his own, cooking his food. He saved his money and in 2006, he bought a struggling restaurant, Miami Beach Creole House, for $70,000.

“That was a really bad experience,” Arellano said. “The restaurant already had a bad reputation, and I worked really hard for a whole year, but I never made it. It was impossible to turn it around. I had to close the restaurant. But, you learn from your mistakes.”

He sold the restaurant and swallowed a $30,000 loss. He returned to the Venetian and became the maintenance manager for Mario Batali’s restaurants there; B&B, Carnevino and Otto.

In 2004, Arellano married and started a family. He has two daughters and has had to balance his dream of going out on his own with responsibilities to care for them.

He and his wife invested in real estate, and by 2008 they were underwater and filed for bankruptcy. Arellano kept his eye on his ultimate goal, however, and that year he purchased a small food stand for $5,500 on Craigslist. He parked it in his backyard for another day.

In May 2011, the family emerged from bankruptcy and Arellano was ready to try again.

“It’s very hard to open a restaurant, and it can take $100,000 to $150,000 or more to open a place,” Arellano said. “I started the arepa stand with $25,000 to $30,000. … I quit my job to go on my own and basically try to make it. It was like 50/50 if you are going to make it or not make it. It was a leap of faith.”

He worked out a deal to lease a corner of the Dino’s Lounge parking lot at Las Vegas Boulevard and Wyoming Avenue. He quit his job at the Venetian, took a small loan from a friend and opened the Viva Las Arepas stand with $900 in his pocket. This time he would make his food, Venezuelan food.

Click to enlarge photo

A sandwich at Viva Las Arepas Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

Arepas are flat, circular cornmeal patties that are fried and then stuffed with a range of fillings such as beef, chicken, ham, cheese, beans and shrimp. Everything at the stand was handmade, and he imported the right ingredients from South America.

“My wife was scared because we really had a bad experience with the first one,” he said. “She was scared about me quitting my job because it was a steady paycheck, and then to go out on my own was risky. … And then we didn’t have insurance for the babies, so I had to pay out of pocket.”

At first, business was slow. The stand made less than $200 per day, while Arellano toiled for long hours in the spartan surroundings. There was nowhere to sit during his 12-hour days, and during summer, temperatures inside the stand hit 140 degrees.

“I was thinking in my mind: It doesn’t matter what it takes, if I have to work 20 hours a day, I will do it,” he said. “Whatever it takes. I wanted to be on my own. I was tired of working for somebody else when I knew I have the knowledge and the potential to be better. I was sure I could make it.”

After three months, traffic at the stand started to grow steadily.

“It took some time, but business picked up. It was all word of mouth, because we didn’t put any money into publicity,” he said.

By the beginning of 2012, he started to see the potential for expansion. He leased a space across from White Cross Market and spent six months renovating the interior. On Jan. 20, Viva Las Arepas restaurant opened just a block away from the original stand. Arellano added new menu items, such as wood fire-grilled chicken. His staff expanded from two to 10 employees.

But Arellano always keeps several pots going on his entrepreneurial stove. He also leased a smaller space next to his restaurant, and now he is partnering with a pastry chef he knew from Valentino, Desyree Alberganti, to open a gelato shop called Art of Flavors.

Alberganti, like Arellano, came from a culinary family, emigrated from Venezuela in the '90s and spent years working on the Strip. She beamed with excitement as she talked about the gelato shop, which will also sell artisan pastries and other treats when it opens in a couple of weeks.

“Having Felix has helped a lot in terms of opening a new business,” Alberganti said. “There are so many things you have to think about, from how much the new wiring for the shop will cost to health- and fire-code inspections. He has been like a guide. Working in the hotels is all about volume, and I’ve always dreamed of going out on my own.”

The old arepa stand is still in Dino’s parking lot, and Arellano is partnering with a Mexican chef, Sergio Galvan, on turning it into a taco stand. Both the taco stand and gelato shop are scheduled to open in August.

Arellano wants to grow, but he doesn’t want to lose sight of quality control. When he turned to concentrate on renovations for his restaurant and left his staff to run the arepa stand, reviews of it on Yelp.com became more inconsistent, he noticed.

Investors have come to him, hoping to open franchises of Viva Las Arepas in San Diego, Los Angeles, Utah and Texas, but he is loath to lose close oversight of his creation. So far, he has turned down the overtures.

He is currently converting an old school bus into a mobile kitchen, Viva Las Arepas on Wheels, which he will use to cater parties and other big events.

Arellano still logs an 80- to 100-hour workweek and he has not taken a vacation in three years, but having ownership of his fate fuels him.

“The one thing I would tell people is not to be scared and to follow their dreams,” Arellano said. “It takes a lot of hard work. But there are so many opportunities, and this is just the beginning of something big.”

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