Sonoma entrepreneur Sal Chavez builds bridges

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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.

“I love trying to help,” he said.

Chavez married his longtime girlfriend, Kina, in 2010. The couple now has two sons, Salvador Picazo Chavez, who shares his name with his father and grandfather, and Maximus.

“Sal has always been ambitious,” Kina said. “He’s a hardworking, smart guy, but he used to be shy. Now, he is not shy at all — he’s unstoppable — but he’s still Sal. That’s why I love him.” She said that when he’s at home, he puts everything else aside and is 100 percent husband and dad.

As Picazo Cafe’s business continued to grow, the family brought in a partner, Aiki Terashima, and Chavez’s mind began churning on what his next venture would be. He read a news item about mezcal’s status as a fast-growing liquor category in the U.S. and knew it was a perfect fit. He would start a company distributing mezcal made in Michoacán, Mexico, his parents’ homeland.

“I liked the idea primarily because it’s so rich with culture,” he said.

Chavez credits his parents for raising him with an emphasis on education and hard work, and he has also had the advantage of meeting people of influence who have recognized a spark in him. Picazo has become a cultural crossroads of sorts, a place where the Latino community is embraced and wealthy residents stop by from their homes up the hill. One of those people is Marcelo Defreitas, a Picazo regular who is the chairman of the La Luz board but knew Chavez long before he joined the board.

When Chavez shared his mezcal idea with Defreitas and his husband, Scott Smith, a prominent San Francisco investment banker and venture capitalist, they were impressed enough with Chavez’s savvy that they invited him to present his business plan to a group of potential investors at their Sonoma home. The guests liked Chavez’s proposal, and the necessary capital was raised.

Chavez started a spirits distribution business, Puente Internacional, traveling to the mountains of Michoacán to find a mezcalero who produces what Chavez calls “the smoothest” organic mezcal available, and securing all the other details of starting the new business — including devising the tagline: “When the stars are out, reach for La Luna mezcal.”

He’s added Michoacán-made Gustoso Aguardiente rum to the product line, and Puente now owns a 50 percent stake in Gran Dovejo tequila, which is made in Jalisco. Responsible for two companies and serving on two boards, he works about 65 hours a week.

Recently Chavez sent a status report on Puente to his investors, full of good news. One of the investors who has taken a personal interest in Chavez is Les Vadasz, an engineer and retired Intel executive who was part of the team that started the powerful high-tech company.

“Les came by after my update went out and asked me, ‘What needs to be fixed?’ ” Chavez said.

Vadasz told him he should send two sentences about what’s going well, and then focus on the problems and how he’s addressing them. Vadasz also mentioned that if he knew what wasn’t on track, he just might have some advice for Chavez.

The value of listening

Chavez knows the value of listening to those who are older, people who have learned from life and are willing to share their knowledge. His mentors and their advice have fueled his trajectory.

In June, Chavez was the commencement speaker at his alma mater, Sonoma Valley High School, the first Latino speaker at the largely Latino school. He told graduates that success means waking up every day and loving the work you do. He also told them to be willing to work hard, ask questions and be grateful to those who help them, be ready to encounter hindrances and be resilient enough to overcome obstacles.

Chavez’s parents were surely top of mind as he spoke those words, given what they overcame to become U.S. citizens so they could pursue the American dream — and help their son and his young family carry that dream forward.

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