It took Juan Tapia and Elvira Rodriguez nearly half of a year to get Vivi’s Sweet Tomato Pizza up and running.
But ever since they opened at the beginning of July, the response from the community and the Google reviews have been overwhelming for the first-time restaurant owners.
Tapia knows it’s going to take a few months to build a solid customer base and sometimes all it takes is being nice, and perhaps a little generous.
“I greet my customers. I give them free beers, free sodas,” he said. “I’m about treating people right.”
Tapia also believes in delivering a fresh product, which means the dough is made the day of and he uses high quality products from meats to veggies.
So far, they’ve been getting slammed with customers. Tapia said he’s especially lucky to have his family supporting him throughout the process.
The husband and wife duo have their two children Janelle (32) and Johnny (22) along with their grandchildren, Nayana (13) and Isaiah Frank (14), working at the pizza shop.
Tapia wants people to see that the business, located at 696 4th Street in Hollister, is family oriented. It’s important to him because he grew up on a berry farm and they worked as a family to run the business.
“To see my kids working together, it’s a joy,” he said. “It kind of runs in the family, I guess.”
The goal for Tapia and Rodriguez is to have their kids take over and run the restaurant themselves.
In the meantime, he’s been searching for extra help and Tapia posted a “Help Wanted” sign on the window facing Fourth Street. He stressed that it’s not hard to make pizza but he has a firm belief that customer service is a top priority.
“I will find the right workers,” he said.
Tapia, 56, was born in Mexico and moved to Watsonville when he was 3 years old. In 1988, he married Rodriguez and they bought a house in Felton, where he continued working in construction and gained his citizenship in the United States.
He also has experience in buying property and leasing it to aspiring business owners who want to make their dreams into a reality. Tapia said he believes in giving people chances but he also knows when it’s time to move in a different direction.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Tapia and Rodriguez had a five-year lease with a separate tenant that used to operate Lorena’s Kitchen Restaurant, which is where Vivi’s Pizza currently stands at 696 Fourth Street.
The business owner couldn’t pay the rent and she was looking to get out of the lease agreement, which the couple allowed her to do. They took a hit by losing out on nearly $140,000 in rent money but they still held onto the property.
Tapia was hesitant to rent out the space, especially after going through a different situation that involved going to court.
“If we rent it out again we’re going to have the same problem and maybe even worse,” he said.
One day they sat down as a family and agreed that a pizza restaurant was the best option. Tapia got to work by writing up a business plan and getting a visual of what it would look like.
He got an estimate and things were running smoothly until he had to deal with the San Benito County Health Environmental Division.
Tapia said he tried for months to obtain a health department approval and license to move forward in opening the restaurant. But the process was fraught with delays, and he said county staff were “unprofessional.”
The first time he spoke to a county staff person on the phone in mid-March, Tapia said he was limited to asking just two questions when he had a lot more than that.
The Free Lance was unable to reach county staff for a response.
Tapia said the county inspected the property and sent him an email stating that they needed a permit to update appliances, fix the plumbing and add a fresh paint job because it was considered a “remodel.”
“You don’t need a permit to paint a house or paint inside,” Tapia said. “If your sink is messed up and you replace a pipe, you don’t need any permits for that.”
Tapia sketched a blueprint of the restaurant’s setup and everything was approved except for a commercial stove because it wasn’t included in the layout. For now, he’s without the stove and continues to improve his craft of pizza making.
His advice to anyone that wants to start their own business is to do some research and ask if they don’t know something.
“That’s not the way you run things,” he said. “If you’re an agency and you want people to cooperate with your regulations, you don’t suppress them.”
Vivi’s Sweet Tomato Pizza
Where: 696 4th Street, Hollister
Phone: (831) 313-0778
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the address and phone number of the business.