F&W Game Changers: Eric Rivera
The contrarian chef has found success in refusing to run a traditional restaurant.
Eric Rivera never makes the same dish twice. The one exception? His mother's flan recipe. (Why mess with perfection?) To say that Rivera's approach to running a restaurant is untraditional would be an understatement. Addo, his restaurant in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, doesn't offer a single fixed menu. Instead, Rivera runs multiple concepts simultaneously out of the same space. On a given day, it's not unusual for him to offer a vegan tasting menu, a meal for those with the munchies featuring a "big-ass bean-and-cheese burrito," one-off riffs like cacio e plantain (a cacio e pepe enhanced with caramelized plantains, recipe below), and a meal centered on wild game. Just one of these concepts would exhaust most people. But Rivera feeds off of the constant change.
The outspoken chef (check his Twitter feed) likens his approach to a "doomsday prepper episode." His willingness to constantly introduce new ideas makes his perpetually shape-shifting business challenging to pinpoint but is also the root of its brilliance.
The traditional restaurant model is riddled with issues of inequity, with would-be restaurateurs stymied by hefty startup costs and restaurant operators hamstrung by limited income streams. Rivera's approach is a mix of whatever the hell he feels like cooking and close attention to data: Trend forecasts and a series of meticulous spreadsheets allow him to predict what his customers, most of whom are locals, are looking for. He relies heavily on a preordering system, which allows him to cook the exact amount of food he needs and to cook the food of multiple concepts from the same space. Taking most orders online and ahead of time gives him room to plan out the order in which things are cooked, instead of trying to run a kitchen that is firing dishes in real time. It's a model that enables incredible flexibility and minimizes waste. It also allows him to constantly adapt.
Rivera didn't grow up wanting to be a chef. At the age of 25, he was running a successful mortgage business, but it fell victim to the 2008 financial crisis. "Basically overnight, I was turning in my house to the bank," he says. "I was returning my car; everything gone. I moved into a studio apartment with nothing and started from scratch." Depressed, he turned to cooking and launched a food blog. A friend suggested he turn it into a profession, but he was unable to find restaurant work until he enrolled in culinary school. He eventually found himself working with chef Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago.
After three and a half years, he realized it wasn't the path he wanted to be on long-term. "I have no aspirations to have three Michelin stars," he says. Rivera moved back to Seattle and started doing 15-course tasting menus out of his tiny apartment for two people at a time, eventually holding pop-ups around the city until he found a more permanent spot. Rivera knew that he didn't want to open a concept that required heavy investments and funding. His streamlined approach, which requires minimal staff and overhead, has worked in his favor.
During the pandemic, Rivera shifted his concepts to takeout. His model also allowed him to turn Addo into a commissary of sorts, launching several pantry staples including Puerto Rican spice blends that he sells nationwide. Though he has seen success with his business model, Rivera's plan is not to open several Addos. He sees the restaurant as a stepping stone to a bigger calling: breaking the model when it comes to consumer packaged goods. The chef wants to open an accelerator to help other people-especially those from marginalized communities-launch their food businesses. "They want to see their products on a shelf at Costco, but they don't understand the logistics behind that. We do, though. I want to help people do that."