WATSONVILLE — Two Watsonville brothers — one a trained chef and the other a community organizer — plan to reopen a shuttered downtown restaurant to serve New York-style pizza and mugs of craft beer.
Watsonville residents Brando and Kristian Sencion hope to open Slice Project pizzeria in the summer, in the same location that held Fox Pizza and Grill, nestled into the long-closed Fox Theatres.
“We wanted to open a business we would both be able to be a part of in our hometown,” Brando said.
A UC Santa Barbara graduate, Brando came home to get a job at Santa Cruz Community Ventures, where he serves as program director.
With the organizational skills he has acquired in that position, Brando plans to handle the front-of-the-house part of the business, while his brother focuses on the menu.
“We want to integrate both of our passions,” Brando said.
Kristian graduated from Cabrillo College’s culinary program in 2012, and found an unpaid apprenticeship at Dio Deka, a Michelin-starred Greek restaurant in Los Gatos.
It was there he began to build his chops and got a taste for the octane-fueled world of high-volume restaurants. It was a surprising reality check.
“They told me, ‘this is your culinary school,’” he said. “‘Whatever you learned in school is not going to work in real life.’”
And so it was that he gained experience with such tasks as picking herbs and doing prep work, and got his first experience with baking.
“I helped whatever I could to get knowledge, just to get my foot in the door,” he said.
After six months, he accepted a permanent position, which lasted for one year before the commute over Highway 17 proved too much.
He switched to Lafayette Bakery in Carmel, and then to Jeninni Kitchen and Wine Bar in Pacific Grove.
After building his baking skills, Kristian launched his own business, called Niño Gordo, making donuts, pastries and cinnamon rolls he sold at farmers markets.
But he set all that aside to focus on the new business. He also recently celebrated the birth of his first child.
“That was my inspiration,” Kristian said.
Eventually, he said he wanted a change from a stressful industry and from waiting for a promotion that would never come.
“I thought, instead of waiting for it, I’m going to get it myself,” he said. “It was my motivation to do something that was mine.”
Kristian said his menu will be based on New York pizzerias, which serve large slices to a hungry lunchtime crowd. It will include a menu of locally brewed craft beers.
“For the school crowd, foodies and anyone who wants to enjoy a good slice,” Kristian said. “It’s going to be affordable for anyone to purchase but it’s going to be a really good product at the end of the day.”
While hoping to be open for the summer, the brothers are now readying the restaurant, applying for their food permit and alcohol license.
They are also taking the unusual step of asking for community help. Both are tapping into their savings and using loans from family to make the business possible.
Obtaining loans for startup businesses can be difficult, as banks look for collateral and experience running other establishments, Brando said. He said he hopes asking for community involvement will add “social value” to the business.
The restaurant at 300 Main St. has sat vacant since 2009, when it closed along with the adjacent Fox Theatres.
But its storied history stretches back to 1923, when the California Theatre was built in the place of an old saloon. It was there that people came to see “high class” vaudeville shows, according to Pajaronian archives.
An early day photo, most likely from the 1930s, shows the Fox Theatres on Main Street in downtown Watsonville. (Contributed photo)
The Fox Theatres reopened in 1931 after an extensive remodel. At that time, a Pajaronian columnist described it as “one of the finest theaters on the Pacific coast.”
The owner converted the theater’s lobby into a pizza restaurant after the building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
The Fox plugged gamely along through the years, increasing from a single screen to a triplex. It closed in 2005, and reopened in 2008, but the quickly evolving digital world proved too much for the little theater.
It is not clear what will become of the theater. But the brothers hope their restaurant will help revitalize the downtown corridor.
“We told the owner, ‘we hope to bring life back to the building, and we hope that really changes your idea of it,’” Brando said.
To make a donation, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/slice-project#.