Sonoma entrepreneur Sal Chavez builds bridges
As Sonoma entrepreneur Salvador Chavez grows his business, he gives back to the community — and never forgets his roots.
At the age of 30, Chavez has already launched a restaurant and a spirits distribution business and has been elected board president of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. But even as he builds on his success, he never forgets what it took to get here.
“I am the son of immigrants whose intention, like so many other parents, was to come here and make a better life for their children,” Chavez said.
He takes his parents’ goal seriously, and as a first-generation American he’s using both his entrepreneurial spirit and his belief in public service to lead the life they envisioned for him.
In 2009, while completing his economics degree at Sonoma State University, Chavez collaborated with his parents to open Picazo Cafe, a hot spot in Sonoma Valley where business is bustling and locals frequently bump into someone they know.
“There was a ‘for lease’ sign on the door, and we had a hunger to do something,” he recalled.
He wrote a business plan that turned out to be on target. In the early days the entire Chavez family worked at the cafe, greeting everyone with a genuine warmth that made those getting a takeout latte or an eat-in burger feel like guests, not customers. Friendliest of all was Sal, and his enthusiasm and hard work did not go unnoticed.
The genial nature and drive for success he showed to those who walked through the cafe doors began to open doors for him. One customer he became friendly with was Camerino Hawing, a Sonoma County architect and native of Mexico who was resigning early from his post as a trustee on the Sonoma Valley school board.
Hawing encouraged Chavez to apply and fulfill his hope that a Latino would replace him representing the El Verano school area. Chavez had attended the school as a boy and still lives in the neighborhood.
Chavez was taken aback. But in 2012, at age 26, he took the leap and applied for the appointed position to replace Hawing. He interviewed with the board and was chosen over a man decades older, with a lifetime of experience in the business world. When his term expired in 2014, Chavez ran unopposed as an incumbent and retained his seat. He was chosen as board president last year.
Engaging parents on education
He is passionate about helping parents understand they need to be seriously involved in their children’s education in order for them to succeed. He encourages parents to get to know the teachers, check that homework is complete and understand that it is not just the school’s responsibility to ensure their children are learning.
“Once I was on the school board, I was approached by five or six nonprofits to serve on their boards,” said Chavez.
He chose La Luz, an advocacy group that helps Mexican immigrants establish successful lives in their new country. He was part of the team that established a Family Resource Center at El Verano Elementary, which helps parents by offering classes in parenting, English and exercise, as well as mental health services.