When I first spoke with Sopa's owner Lucho Freyre two months ago, the 32-year-old was up-front about an unsuccessful restaurant venture he'd launched at the age of 19 that taught him "how not to run a restaurant."
His father, owner of the Manitou Pancake and Steak House, and his uncle, a gourmet-restaurant stalwart now behind Joseph's Fine Dining, backed Freyre at that time. This go-round, he's generated his own capital and designed an eclectic concept that deliberately has "franchise" written all over it, from the tan-and-lime-green walls to the colorful menu depicting largely healthy items.
The main problem: I'm not so sure Freyre learned all his lessons back then.
Lesson #1: Man up. With only one cook, Freyre has to tackle the register, some food prep, drink-making and food-running alone. This leaves him asking for patience while looking a bit flustered during small rushes. We were particularly concerned with the absence of gloves and tongs at two of the stations clearly visible in the open kitchen, and also whether enough hand-washing was happening between tasks.
Lesson #2: Be patient, yourself. This goes beyond waiting for enough capital to open with three employees. It also means not pulling items like the chupe de camarón (shrimp chowder) because they're selling slowly after two months. You're new — give it time. And if you do choose to pull it, update your menu so folks aren't requesting a dead item.
Lesson #3: Help the customer. Place a menu at the counter, rather than out-of-sight on a wall 8 feet away, which forces guests to step back and shout their orders. Direct them to the silverware bucket and explain the menu when necessary. For instance, my Thai salad (all entrées $8.50; $9.50 combo options available) arrived without half the listed ingredients, and I was never offered a protein choice, as promised. I inquired and received chicken, but was told the peanuts and cilantro were by request. And the mango never appeared. (Once finally assembled, it tasted good under a nice house-made peanut vinaigrette, the first of several good salad dressings.)
Lesson #4: Rock the item after which you name yourself. Sopa's soups haven't quite found the right balance. The Thai veggie has an odd Italian thing going on that doesn't entirely work with the coconut milk base. The Caldo de Res (more Poland than Mexico) has a weak broth, and the giant beef and cabbage aren't easy to eat. The chicken tortilla soup came with only two sad chicken pieces and a handful of beans; I had to request cheese, chips and sour cream. (At least Freyre gave us a tasty, complimentary strawberry shortcake for our troubles.)
The good news is that many things work really well here. Breakfast (all items $6 to $7) at Sopa's brings decent biscuits and gravy and breakfast burritos; thick, lovely French toast; and a standout egg sandwich — bacon, sausage or ham with two eggs and American cheese on buttery, toasty bread.
Smoothies, milk shakes and fruit waters (smoothies minus ice; all $2.50 to $5.25) are textbook and generously sized. The Colorado cheese steak kicks the crap out of local Philly sandwiches. And the nut and fruit salad achieves creative fusion, where somehow a bite of banana and tomato together under ginger-soy dressing actually works.
But until everything does, Sopa's franchise dreams won't materialize.