Co-owner of famous ‘SUR’ Restaurant & Lounge in LA, featured on ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’, set for Bravo series ‘Vanderpump Rules’, home to many celebrities and some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Like most aspiring actors, Guillermo Zapata moved from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Hollywood to pursue his acting career. Whilst pursuing the dream, he also developed a passion for the restaurant business, investing in a small space in West Hollywood, which we all know today as ‘SUR’.
I recently had the great pleasure of chatting one-on-one with the multi-talented Argentinian born actor/model, turned famous restauranteur, Guillermo Zapata where he candidly shared his journey in such a raw and genuine way that is sure to resonate with many entrepreneurs, and remind us why we do what we do and what it all means at the end of the day.
We openly discussed where and how it all began, the many unexpected life-changing twists and turns he faced head-on, some of the most pivotal moments and events which altered his life path, going into business with Lisa Vanderpump and Ken Todd, how SUR Restaurant & Lounge became part of a hugely successful Bravo series, where all that passion, determination and strength came from, along with what it all really means to him.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Demi – So, tell me Guillermo Zapata – how does a born and raised Argentinian model/actor from Buenos Aires end up in the restaurant business in LA?
I was 22 years of age and already working as an actor in Argentina, but my dream was to go to Hollywood, see LA, and it was a goal of mine for a long time.
I applied for a tourist visa and much to my surprise, it was approved, that confirmed that I had to go. I booked a flight and came to LA with no expectations, other than to visit the city, check out Hollywood and go back home. But, what I found was a city that was so welcoming, gorgeous weather, with ocean and mountains nearby, I fell in love with LA and everything it had to offer.
I immediately called my parents to tell them I was staying in LA a little longer, they were shocked and asked me why as I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t speak English and had no money, but they respected my decision.
My first thought was I have to find a job and fast. I was down to my last $300 and my parents made it clear, if that’s what you want, you’ve got to make it work. I went out that day and found a job in West Hollywood as a dish washer and I was so excited. It wasn’t a job I ever considered, but language was a huge barrier and I knew I would have to take whatever I could to stay in this amazing city, so I did.
It was an important lesson. Life will put you in all sorts of situations and you have to work with what you have.
I found that I actually loved working in the restaurant business. I worked hard, but I was always thinking about what was next. With that in mind, I knew my next step meant learning the language, without that, I had no chance of surviving in this city. So, I spent my days at school learning to speak English and my evenings working.
This allowed me to move forward in my life with greater confidence and opened so many doors for me. I started being offered a range of different roles, exposed to all areas of the restaurant business and this built a great foundation for my career.
I just loved being around people, it’s what I was most comfortable with and although I couldn’t speak English well, my love for people still came through. That was (and still is) one of my strongest character traits and I used it to the best of my ability. I loved people, they loved me, I saw opportunities to grow and I took them.
Your energy attracts people into your life and if you do the right thing by others, doors will open. I was offered so many amazing opportunities and I took full advantage of every single one of them to expand my life experiences.
It’s not just about what you know, it’s who you are as a person that’s also very important, if not the most important factor. It’s one’s attitude, energy, willingness to learn, approach to work and passion for what you’re doing, it’s the total package that you present to others. People with big egos just don’t survive in this industry. If you can’t make people feel comfortable within your space, that’s both within your personal presence and your premises, you shouldn’t be in this industry, it’s not for you, and this goes for all staff working in the business.
Demi – You’ve just moved to LA, started working in restaurants and then you get into your own restaurant business. How did this all come about?
From dishwasher I worked my way up to Manager, I moved from one restaurant to another, always offered jobs and I never had to go for an interview. I then became assistant manager in a very popular LA restaurant, a small but very famous place with much activity and many celebrities, so at 27 years of age, I was already managing a restaurant. I was on a decent salary, bought an apartment, life was good, I was very comfortable and on my way. I had come so far and was quite happy, but in the back of my mind, I was still trying to figure out what my next step should be. I was always open to opportunity and on the lookout for the next thing, I knew I had to do something else, but I hadn’t figured it out yet.
At this point, ‘SUR’ was already up and running as an Argentinian Steak House by a lovely Argentinian family. I was introduced to the owners, and invited to have dinner at the restaurant. Being Argentinian, I had high expectations for the meal, but it was a disappointment.
The food lacked flavour, the atmosphere was average, business was slow, and so I offered to help them as I was familiar with the struggles of trying to make it in a new city.
I was happy to offer my time and knowledge to help them turn the business around as it was only a matter of time before the place went out of business. It was during this moment in time that the owners asked if I wanted to become a business partner.
I had a big decision to make – take on a restaurant that was going downhill fast or stay at my current job where I had security, flexible work hours, guaranteed money which allowed me to pay my bills and still have a life.
This was a tough decision, to own an established place where money was coming in, great. But, to own a place where there was no money coming in and a pile of bills, that wasn’t what I had in mind.
Logically one would have said, thanks but I’m out. But, I looked at it as a challenge, I was looking for a new venture and one was presented. I knew I would definitely have to start from scratch, I would have to rebuild everything. But on the upside, I would be a business owner and I could at least do my own thing, so I decided to take the offer. I set out my conditions which included keeping the business name ‘SUR’, completely changing the menu and re-doing the entire decor. I also convinced the Chef to stay on board and, thankfully, he did – I still have the same Chef today.
I was confident that the business would be successful if I had a great Chef on board and I was at the forefront of the business, and I was right!
My business partners and I worked really hard to turn the business around, eventually, more and more people starting visiting the restaurant. Past friends and acquaintances from all walks of life started dining with us. And, I was certain that I had made enough friends and contacts throughout my restaurant years to secure traffic at my new place. I also had the great pleasure hosting a birthday celebration for the late George Michael, it was a truly spectacular and memorable evening!
It took some time, but we did it! By 1998 we had built ‘SUR’ into a successful restaurant basically from nothing, ground up. It was so nice proving myself right. I had to start at the bottom once again, I put all those skills from my previous jobs to work and had to learn many more along the way. I was doing it all again, but this time it was for my own place, and it felt so good.
At this point, my business partners wanted to move back to Argentina and asked if I would like to buy them out, it was a definite YES!
I was now completely on my own, until my beautiful wife, Nathalie came into my life. It was love at first sight.
Meeting Nathalie, my gorgeous new love from Paris was exactly what I needed. This was the burst of energy I needed to go further and work harder. I found myself with a new life and business partner, it was an amazing time in my life and we quickly started making new plans for the restaurant and our future.
Together we created a business plan mapping out some ideas on how to expand the business and presented it to our lawyer in West Hollywood.
Our lawyer found it very interesting and mentioned he had a couple coming from London, who were already very well-known in the restaurant business over in the UK and looking to invest in the restaurant business here in LA.
He presented our business plan to the couple, which happened to be Lisa Vanderpump and husband Ken Todd, they were interested in the idea and asked to meet up. They absolutely loved the restaurant, and we absolutely loved them! We became business partners on the same day.
They were excited, we were very excited, we became business partners almost instantly and from there, business has skyrocketed, it feels like we’ve been living a dream.
People ask me why I didn’t just keep the restaurant for myself? But people don’t realise what an enormous challenge it is to do it all by yourself. It’s great having someone you can trust in the business and who wants to see the business grow as you do. It may be less money individually at the beginning, but it’s all worth it later on as the business grows.
My inspiration is definitely my father, Rodolfo Zapata. He’s so full of life, at 85 years of age, he still has the energy of a 40 -year-old. He is a brilliant man, from very humble beginnings he managed to become a successful singer/actor in Argentina. I learnt so much from him, he was very firm on staying grounded, keeping it real and always said:
Don’t pretend to be somebody you’re not! – Rodolfo Zapata
I believe it’s all about how one has been raised, and that’s why it’s so important for me to make sure I raise my two beautiful daughters, Miarose 8 and Lou Lou 11 on a solid grounded foundation.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t about money, it was all about building a solid family foundation.
My daughters are the greatest gifts in my life and for me it’s all about just showing them love, it’s the best gift you can give a child. It’s so important to be connected with your kids, I was fortunate to be shown a lot of love and I consider myself even more fortunate to be able to do that for my kids.
I’m a huge believer of positive thinking, I didn’t have time to be down and out. I had to keep moving and I didn’t look at things as hard or bad, I just wanted to try and do my best, that was it.
I grabbed life with both hands and doors opened for me. I was always prepared to take on challenges and try different things. I didn’t rely on others, complain about mistakes or missed opportunities.
It’s the American dream! There’s so much opportunity in this country!
You can’t except the government or anyone else to hand it to you, you need to make it happen. You can do it, especially in this country – there’s no room for negative thinking!
Demi – What advice would you give others getting into business?
- My advice before getting into any business – is to work for someone and learn as much as you can about the business you’re looking to get into.
- Don’t’ jump into a business in an industry you don’t have any experience in, even if you have the money and resources to do it.
- Be willing to start early every morning, prepared to go all day and every day!
REALITY Vs THE DREAM
Demi – What are your thoughts on giving up a paying job to pursue an acting career or run a startup?
I lived it – and I still see it today with my current staff. Many of our staff are pursuing acting careers whilst trying to stay focused on their job at the restaurant, the role that’s actually paying the bills.
I totally understand where they’re at, that was me. It can be a real challenge staying motivated in a job when your passion is in acting or somewhere else. But as it was then, and still being today, it’s a very competitive industry/marketplace. The competition is enormous, and from my own experience, it’s extremely difficult to succeed long-term as an actor, so you better make sure you enjoy your day job in the meantime.
Keep your paid job whilst you’re pursuing the dream or building your business. It’s important to stick with what’s paying your bills for as long as you can or until your business or acting career starts making money.
Yes, it’s difficult to succeed as an actor in Hollywood, but it’s not impossible. One must stay determined as you may get your break in a month, or in twenty years, you just don’t know. In the meantime, you may get some small roles here and there, but that won’t pay your every day bills.
The same applies with a business startup, one must stay focused and determined on their vision whilst still bringing in some money to keep it all going, otherwise all areas of your life will suffer.
It’s a good idea to find a job you love to do whilst you’re preparing for your big break.
Demi – What advice would you give aspiring actors?
With regards to acting, you have to prepare yourself and then try to find an edge, your point of difference. Become a member of the acting association, get yourself a good agent, be willing to put in the work, turn up prepared for every audition, and be extremely patient, as it takes time.
Demi – Recruiting and retaining staff can be a huge challenge for any business owner. How do you select your every day and celebrity staff?
With ‘SUR’ being the centre of the Bravo Series, ‘Vanderpump Rules’ it’s become an internationally well-known restaurant and we have applications from all over the world, so we have to be especially selective about who we hire.
We are extremely customer focused, so regardless of who we hire for what role, our focus is always our customers. There is absolutely no space for attitude at work or with customers, and we make that very clear to all staff members. Most of the times we choose the right people with the right attitude for ‘SUR’, but sometimes, like any business, we do get it wrong.
Demi – What do you believe are the key things to look for in people when hiring?
- Personality – is key, people who are friendly with a welcoming smile.
- Well-groomed – neatly dressed and well-presented.
- Prepared – bring your resume (a picture is great, helps to remind the interviewer who they were talking with).
- HR – employ a HR person and make sure they know exactly what you’re looking for (especially at ‘SUR’, people are applying for any job mainly because they want to be on TV, so a lot of time is spent filtering through the applicants).
We also receive applicants who would actually be great for the series, but with no restaurant experience, so we break down our applicants according to what we need at the time. We also try to keep an open mind should we come across an applicant that would be great within another area of the business.
Demi – What’s the recruiting process when it comes to ‘Vanderpump Rules’?
It takes a lot of time to recruit the right people to be feature in the series ‘Vanderpump Rules’. In order to even be considered for the show, one would need to be working with us for at least 6-7 months prior to shooting. Our celebrity staff must also maintain all ‘SUR’ duties, if they don’t, they not only lose their job at ‘SUR’ but also their place on the show.
Demi – I noticed your ‘Vanderpump Rules’, staff have been fairly consistent, how do you retain them?
Yes, they’ve been great! They’ve been consistent and I must say I really admire them for being so brave and willing to put their private lives out there for the world to see. When one wants to be on a reality show, it goes without saying, they must be prepared to put their life on display, but it still takes a lot to do that. Fortunately, they are rewarded really well, which is great. Being on a show like ‘Vanderpump Rules’ opens doors for them, if they’re clever they will go far.
We’re all enjoying being part of the show and we’re currently filming Season 6, given how popular the show is, I think we have many more to go. It’s very exciting!
Demi – I was watching the episode where Tom & Tom were offered an amazing opportunity by Lisa Vanderpump to go into a business partnership, which was a great example of looking after your staff and doors opening with endless possibilities.
There was a little hesitation from one of the guys, which was totally understandable, as it would be an
huge enormous responsibility but on the other hand, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Given your experience, what advice would you give to someone in a similar situation?
Well, you saw what I did. When I had the opportunity to work with Lisa & Ken I took it and ran with it immediately! But I was in the restaurant business already and wanted to expand within the industry.
I would personally take the opportunity because you don’t know how long an acting career will last, but at least you’d have a long-term plan for your future. That’s exactly what I did and it worked extremely well for me. Hmm… let’s wait and see what happens in the next series.
Regardless of the business, if you start thinking about all that can go wrong, it just won’t work. Don’t be negative, always stay positive and you will figure it out. And, don’t listen to people, listen to your heart and decide what you want for YOU!
With the business doing so well, it’s allowed me to go back and revisit my original passion, which is acting. I’ve always done some acting and modelling outside of my restaurant business and I’ve always really enjoyed it. I never really left the acting and modelling world and it was also a great source of additional income in the early days of ‘SUR’.
Demi – Where does your passion and drive come from?
My passion for acting comes from my dad, I must say. He’s been in the acting business for 55 years, he loved singing and acting, and he always had so much passion for what he did.
I grew up in a mid to upper-class family, my father was an actor and my mother worked at home, a family of 5 children, 2 sisters and 2 brothers.
Like I said, it always goes back to family and how you were raised.
My father made a point to teach us a variety of skills including acting, but he also taught us how to do day-to-day jobs like painting, gardening etc. He wanted us to be resourceful, be able to get things done without relying on others and these skills proved to be very resourceful over the years.
Demi – There’s a lot of talk today about work/life balance. What’s your take on this topic?
Keeping any relationship healthy is work, it’s not always easy. It’s important to work on your private and business relationships, you must be on the same page and be able to make decisions together.
The right business and life partnership is very important as if affects all areas of your life. So when one finds the right life partner that they can also share their business with, that’s a bonus. The fact that Nathalie works at ‘SUR’ every day, is perfection for me. She is my right hand and helps me balance out my work and family life. We both work extremely hard but the rewards are there, we get to live a comfortable life, own a nice home and travel as a family, it’s lots of work, but it’s all worth it.
NEXT GENERATION ADVICE
Demi – What advice would you give your two gorgeous girls?
I wouldn’t tell them not to do this or that, or how to live their life. I think the best advice is to just be you and hopefully your kids learn from what you do.
For me it’s all about showing my kids as much, if not more love that I received as a child. I make time to hang out with my girls, expose them to different things in life, travel as much as possible and try to enjoy simple everyday things, like taking them to school, it’s all important.
Demi – You’ve accomplished so much; would you say you’re now ‘Living The Dream’?
I love what I do and I’m proud of what I have accomplished. But, if I’m being honest, my dream has been and still is to this day, to star in a movie. My heart has always been with acting. I’m working whilst working on the dream and I don’t believe it’s a matter of luck, I think it’s more about years of preparation meets opportunity.
Although I run a very successful business, I still dream, and why not? Everyone should dream. I’ll keep dreaming but I’m also realistic!
I have been preparing for a long time and I’m not stopping any day soon. I’m going to keep going, taking on new opportunities till the day I am physically not able to. I also know my time as an actor will come, it’s only a matter of time. I am a dreamer, I will always be a dreamer, it’s who I am!
Demi – Do you have any plans to expand ‘SUR’ Restaurant & Lounge?
People always ask if we’re going to expand, and my answer is, no. We have one very successful business and we are pouring all our efforts and energy into it. We will not franchise because it’s just not who we are.
In a way, the series ‘Vanderpump Rules’ was the expansion.
Demi – Were there any concerns about featuring the restaurant on a reality show?
This was a hard decision, not so much hard, but another challenge let’s say. It was more a concern about how the restaurant would be portrayed and how it would come across to viewers. It also meant exposing many aspects of the business and that could have been either a really great thing or it could have gone terribly wrong. It was a gamble, we knew that doing the show would either strengthen the business or destroy it all together, it was a tough call.
We finally decided to go ahead with the show, but I chose not get too personally involved with the show as an actor. However, as a producer of the show, I make sure everything is perfect for filming. Fortunately, the show has been a big hit and it was an extremely positive move for the business.
See, that’s the amazing thing about being a business owner. It’s an amazing feeling for me, being able to make decisions about which direction my business and life will take. I feel like the pilot of my journey, in total control of where I go, I love it!
MY BUSINESS ADVICE
Demi – What are your tips for creating a successful business?
- Be Smart – Take calculated risks (do your research).
- Persist – Stay focused and motivated (don’t give up).
- Start – But don’t expect immediate results (it can take years of hard work before you start seeing results).
- Watch Finances – Even if someone hands you money, they will expect a return on their investment at some point.
- Take Your Time – Don’t go too Big – Go Small and Dream Big.
- Make sure you spend your dollars wisely, remember how long it’s taken to earn that money.
- Find a good location.
- And, work hard.
I’m very excited about the current producing and acting projects I’m working on. I promise to share it with you as soon as I have all the details finalized.
I’m very passionate about this project and loving every minute.
With the huge success of the show, people always come up to me and chat about the show and I always make myself available. I’m so grateful that people go out of their way to come and talk to me, I love it!
I also love chatting with upcoming entrepreneurs, discussing what they’re up to and sharing my knowledge as I was in their place at one stage and totally understand what they’re going through, and if I can help in anyway, that’s great.
Demi – Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?
YES! I would like to invite all Heels Agency friends to come in and say ‘Hi’. I’m at SUR most evenings and would love to meet you next time you’re in LA!
Determined, persistent and passionate about everything he does, Guillermo Zapata shares some insights about work, life and play.
I love what I do because… It allows me to live well with my family in this beautiful town.
My greatest talent is… Social skills, I love people!
Never underestimate… Yourself and your abilities.
Do you believe in luck… It’s not about luck, it’s just opportunity.
My biggest challenge was… Not speaking English.
I overcame that challenge by… Putting in the time and effort to learn how to speak the language.
When starting a business one must… Be persistent and work hard.
SUR secrets to success… We offer great food, a fresh menu and a magnificent atmosphere.
SUR stands for… Sexy – Unique – Restaurant! (Demi – and, that it is!)
On business partnership… Do it! But with the right people!
SUR partnership… The first day we met with Lisa Vanderpump and Ken Todd back in 2005, we became business partners.
I always… Wake up early to make the most of the day.
I hope to one day… Be on the big screen and fulfil all my acting dreams.
In my spare time I like to… Enjoy time with my family and friends.
On styling… How you present yourself is very important. One must always look good regardless of the occasion.
On Fashion… One of the most important things in my life, is dressing well. Whatever you wear, wear it well.
Fashion Inspiration… I love GQ Magazine! I like to check out what’s trending.
I really enjoy… Music! I love good music and I play all my favourite tracks from my travels at SUR, it’s great!
Most rewarding career moment so far… This is the moment that’s most rewarding. The restaurant is almost fully booked every day and we’ve achieved what we set out to do.
Living the dream means… Being present and enjoying every day.
Happiness is… Definitely my family!
My greatest dream is… To see my daughters grow up healthy and successful.
Influence on Lulu Mila & Mia Rose… Kids are constantly learning by what we are doing, if we don’t do the right thing, they won’t do the right thing.
Never be afraid of… New opportunities and a challenge.
My mission… Right now is to pursue my first love, acting!
Success means… A healthy and happy home.
What’s next… Lots of acting! I’m working on it.
When starting a business, one must… Be persistent and patient because it can take a long time to get where you want.
Wait for… The right moment, work hard, be prepared and take risks.
On attitude… You have to be HUMBLE! Don’t think you know it all and are above it all. Being humble will attract the right people into your life. If you come across as knowing everything, there will be no need for people to come into your life to teach you anything and you will miss out on many opportunities in life.
Remember… You’re always learning, there’s never a time when you know everything, so don’t assume you do. Things change and you have to keep learning. Don’t let ego take over. So when you think that you’ve made it, it’s just the beginning of a new learning phase.
Stay connected with Guillermo Zapata through the following links:
I consider myself very fortunate to connect with many impressive entrepreneurs each and everyday, and today I was especially inspired by Guillermo Zapata’s story. He’s not only blessed with good genes, a stunning wife and two gorgeous daughters, Guillermo has also achieved success beyond most entrepreneurs’ dreams. And, the thing that stood out the most for me during our chat, was he’s attitude about life and grounded take on things. Proving one can have it all and still keep it real. An awesome journey – love it! – Demi Karan – CEO/Founder, Heels Agency
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Podcast – Highlights
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