An appreciation for authentic Mexican cuisine and culture has brought together the leadership of El Thrifty, the Mexican cantina and social club at 25 Delano Drive that will open in the coming weeks.
Charleston-based chef Robert Berry, vice president of El Thrifty Hospitality, along with his Greenville team, managing partner and general manager Andrea Ciavardini and executive chef Justin Serwetz, will bring to life the hospitality group’s vision of providing true Mexican cuisine in a fun atmosphere in the 7,300-square-foot renovated warehouse along the Greenville Hospital System Swamp Rabbit Trail.
Reid Olsen, president of El Thrifty Hospitality, lives in Atlanta and is leading the business development and financial operations of the group, while Berry, who spends much of his time in Greenville, leads conceptual development as director of operations.
The full-service, 230-seat restaurant with indoor-outdoor bar, patio, and 2,000 square feet of green space will eventually serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, with a focus on authentic Mexican dishes and craft cocktails created with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Management is planning on a tiered rollout of service — first lunch and dinner and a full bar, then breakfast and brunch once they feel like the new staff is ready.
And while fun and entertainment are a clear goal, with about a third of the indoor space dedicated to high-end gaming such as foosball, billiards, Mexican feather bowling, pingpong, and shuffleboard, education about the cuisine and agave spirits is a key aspect of the concept.
“I think the American perception of Mexican food is, there’s so many chains and stuff, it’s all beans and rice, tortillas, melted cheese, and that’s kind of the extent of it,” Berry says. “It all seems soggy and kind of a day old. And that is absolutely not what’s done in Mexico. Mexican food and drink, which is equally as important, there are so many flavors and so many different methods and techniques. These people — one of the reasons I enjoy Mexico — is they eat and drink all day. All day. You can be on the street and have 15 types of fruit, 15 types of juice. Something’s available to put in your mouth all day, and it’s bright and it’s vibrant.”
Berry’s passion stems from his time working long hours in kitchens in New York City.
“All of the people I worked with in New York were Mexican,” he says. “I spent a lot more time with my kitchen guys and gals than with my wife, so I ate their food, spoke their language, kind of integrated into their culture, and found it to be fascinating. I started cooking them food, and we started trading ideas, and it just became another page in the book of different cuisine to explore. I started traveling [to Mexico], trying to meet people and understand what they were doing. [I] read about the history of it — very rich culinary traditions.”
Those experiences eventually led Berry to open Pancito & Lefty in Charleston, where he hired Serwetz, who had previously worked with chef Sean Brock in his Mexican concept Minero.
Serwetz’s experience with Mexican culture began at birth, living in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California.
“I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a taqueria some days,” he says. “It’s part of the culture. You have to take Spanish since you’re a little kid in school. It’s just much more integrated. You don’t even think about it. It’s just kind of naturally part of the culture in California.”
Serwetz and Berry plan to roll out a menu at first that is more recognizable to the public, and then start adding more adventurous items as guests are receptive. And that means more than just tacos, since true Mexican cuisine, such as from Mexico City, represents a melting-pot variety of flavors, techniques, and ingredients.
“Mexico City is like New York,” Berry says, referring to the wide variety of cultures represented in the large city.
Berry says as his team continues to look for kitchen staff, they want cooks who are curious and want to learn.
“Justin is a great teacher,” he says. “Mexican food might seem not so familiar to some people, but it is fun to learn and fun to be taught, and you can walk away with some valuable knowledge that can up your whole cooking game. It’s definitely not based on traditional French-style cookery. There’s lots of open fire. There’s lots of roasting.”
Ciavardini, who moved to Greenville to open Husk 18 months ago, also shares similar memories of traveling in Mexico and dining on the freshest street food in Guadalajara. She will manage the restaurant, with a main focus on the front of the house.
“Guest experience is first and foremost,” she says. “That’s always how it’s been for me. We’re in the business of hospitality, and that’s the business of saying ‘yes.’ We want people to have a great time.”
The idea is for El Thrifty guests to feel welcome and comfortable at any time of day or night, she says.
“To get there at 8 in the morning, you can sit at the coffee bar, drink Methodical Coffee, work on your computer, have a pastry, have a breakfast burrito, whatever it may be, and work your day through there,” she says. “Or a group of co-workers want to do a team-building event at 12 o’clock on a Tuesday, and come in and play feather bowling, and go straight into happy hour, dinner service, and late night. It offers everything.”
El Thrifty is hiring for all positions. Visit elthrifty.com for more information, and follow their progress on Instagram @elthrifty.