Chef. Owner. Local. Jon Melendez is a lot of things; a quitter isn't one of them. Out of the blue, he took his career down a different path and forged a duo of businesses in the process. But it wasn't easy. My original focus was on his original concept, CIVIC. However, I quickly learned that you can't discuss one without the other.
One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
Don't get me started . . . but the idea that food at restaurants is overpriced. How people even begin to come up with that assumption blows my mind. People think because we are a restaurant, we get food so much cheaper than they do at the grocery store, which is not the case at all (at least for smaller, non-chain restaurants). It usually ends up being the same price and sometimes more because we have to pay to have it delivered to us in the quantities that we need. Now factor in labor, prep time, the cost of the place we cook it, what we serve it on, and don't forget the cost of ketchup, hot sauce, napkins and forks that people ask for in endless quantities that we end up seeing in the trash unused.
Yeah, I'm not "raking it in" on that $10 grass-fed beef cheeseburger with no cheese and extra everything on the side in separate containers, that you asked to be remade because you didn't tell me that you wanted it well-done after you ate half of it and found out it was medium. Really, everyone should have to work in this industry at least once to really have an appreciation for what we do for you [Editor's Note: Agree! I did, and learned how difficult things like cost controls were.].
What was your most recent meal?
Bacon cheddar fried rice.
Let's talk about the origin of the name.
CIVIC came from being originally on Civic Center; short, simple and had a ring to it, so it stuck.
What do you recommend for first-timers?
At CIVIC, Chorizo Breakfast Burrito. One of my favorites any time of day.
At MAR, All In Bowl. You get poke, fried seafood, fresh veggies. It's sweet, salty, spicy, fresh and crispy. All at the same time.
Indispensable tool used in your kitchen.
Blender. I'm all about sauces and dressings, and making them from scratch.
Could you please explain how the original CIVIC concept ended, what prompted MAR, and why you decided to do CIVIC again?
Never worked a day in a restaurant or fast food place ever. Never owned a business before. All I had was the good food. By the time I learned the business side, it was a bit too late. I was already going under. Fortunately, before that happened I had already been setting myself up for the next project, MAR— but the idea was to keep both. But it was a bit too late and a dollar short, so I had to choose.
MAR showed more promise at the time, so I cut my losses and went all in with MAR. I applied everything I learned from CIVIC to MAR and it hit. CIVIC was still always in the back of my head; that was my original passion project, and I always wanted to do it again, knowing what I know now. Fast forward two years later, and she's back. They always come back . . . .
Biggest challenge in opening a storefront:
Staffing is always really difficult. Finding reliable people that you can trust. There is a lot of turnover in this business, despite how good you treat your employees.
Favorite places to eat.
Lola Gaspar DTSA. I've really liked everything I've ever had. BRING BACK THE DUCK FRIES . . . .five years late.
Taco Maria. If you haven't done lunch or a Taco Tuesday at Taco Maria, treat yourself; you're worth it.
Where did you grow up?
I've lived in Santa Ana almost all of my life, from kindergarten at Madison Elementary to my AA at Santa Ana College. I have a love for this city that I really can't explain, but I feel tied to it and proud of where I come from. I really can't see myself anywhere else.
Your favorite childhood memory:
Cooking in the kitchen with grandma.
Favorite meal growing up:
Arroz con Salchicha, a traditional Puerto Rican dish.
One food you can't live without:
Rice. Plain old, white calrose rice. I could eat rice every day, any time. It's so versatile. Add a fried egg for breakfast, avocado for lunch, and veggie stir-fry for dinner. Any time is a good time for rice.
Last thing you looked up online:
Airbnb in La Paz, Mexico. It's time for a vacation.
With a focus in accounting, why work in a law firm?
Kind of just ended up there. I really liked the job, but neither accounting nor law was something I saw myself doing the rest of my life. I just always thought that it would be a stepping stone to take me into owning my own business. But at some point I just figured there's no better time than now, and jumped in.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Most days something light. Eggs and avocado, some type of scramble. Or Kodiak protein pancakes when I want to splurge. The secret is to make sure your batter is really watery and cook them in a mix of coconut oil and Kerry Gold butter.
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Your best recent food find:
Butter chicken from Tandoori Indian Cuisine.
What career would you like to try if you weren't in the industry?
I was always interested in law enforcement. I like the idea of being a public servant, assisting people in the community and keeping our streets safe.
Hardest lesson you've learned:
You can know everything, read all the books, do everything right. And it could still go wrong. Stop wasting time, go out and work for what you want NOW.
CIVIC and MAR are both located at 4th Street Market in Santa Ana. 201 E 4th St, (714) 552-0208; www.4thstreetmarket.com.