"I told my dad I’d go into business with him, but we have to do it my way,” says Juan Vergara, leaning against the industrial paneling of Barroco Grill, the Colombian concept in Lakewood that he co-owns with his father.
A rust-red painting clings to the wall above him. It’s his own work, hanging directly across the room from a mural he also composed of two instantly recognizable Latin American figures, Frida Kahlo and Cantinflas. It’s fitting for a restaurant that has built its popularity on an unfamiliar cuisine that’s creatively executed, just as it’s fitting for a proprietor who is an artist first and a chef as a natural second.
Vergara’s experience in Cleveland began at age 11 when his father relocated the family from Colombia. “It’s the American dream — you grow up wanting to come to the U.S.”
Odd jobs at mom-and-pop restaurants helped him work his way through a graphic design degree, but that’s where he intended his hospitality career to end. When his dad told him he was planning to open his own eatery, Vergara offered to help with the marketing and branding, but that was it.
“In the mess of planning it just became my idea and his put-together,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “It worked out, ever since we’ve been here, me and dad just grinding.” Though the senior Vergara had been heavily involved in the food-cart culture of his native home, he proposed an Americanized restaurant. It was Juan who brought the idea of Colombian-themed fare to the table after a trip back to visit family.
“I thought, ‘This would be the bomb back in Cleveland!’” he says. “It’s taking the things we grew up with and making it in a way people understand it. Everything me and dad come up with, it’s basically as if we made it back at home in our country — but with a little twist. He gives it that authentic spin and I deliver it.”
The father-son team might strike a perfect balance, but it’s not without its ups and downs. “You have to learn how to work as a business partner and as family and you have to learn how to tell those apart.”
Despite his early hesitation to give up chasing art, his background in graphics has since come full circle. In college, Vergara was like many young designers eager to cut their teeth with pro bono work. Today, many of the Latin bands he donated his services to now come by regularly to perform. The sensation overload, which Vergara admits is by design, has been so successful in turning Barroco into an authentic destination that one of the main renovations in the works is adding more floor space for dancing.
It’s not the first (or last) of Barroco’s expansion plans. Earlier this year, the restaurant opened a quick-serve outpost in the Warehouse District. As Juan lays out aspirations for the future of a restaurant he had never planned on being part of, his composure veers to one of a zealous mastermind, scheming the next grand plan.
“I did not want to do the restaurant thing,” he reminds us. “But once I started, I fell in love with it.”