It was the collision heard from Irwindale to Honolulu.
Picasso’s owner Vincent DeRosa was hurriedly whipping up a fresh ponzu sauce. At his elbow, executive chef Paul Vigil was hastily putting the final accents on a picatta sauce.
Then, the master chefs accidentally spun around and banged into each other, leaving the two dripping in sauce.
“I said, ‘You just ruined my ponzu sauce,’ and he said, ‘You just ruined my piccata sauce,’” DeRosa recalled. But in that same “I Love Lucy” moment, they realized they had just created the world’s first Ponzu Picatta Sauce, a tasty fusion of citrus, soy and classic French flavors.
The mash-up was well worth it, however. Putting their two heads together once again, Vincent and Paul started serving their serendipitous sauce over ahi tuna for lunch at Picasso’s. Then one day, unbeknownst to them, some Costco executives, in town to visit their Azusa Costco warehouse, ordered the dish and loved it. They asked to speak with the owner, and, as they say, the rest is history. Today Picasso’s Ponzu Picatta Sauce is sold exclusively in Costco’s Hawaii stores.
“They chose the Hawiian market because the sauce goes so well with fish and chicken,” Vincent said.
The timing also couldn’t have been better. The nasty recession was digging in its heels and severely impacting Vincent’s corporate catering business that he and his wife Mary, a highly respected educator and accomplished pastry chef, had lovingly started from scratch in 1989 in the city of Irwindale.
“We were very blessed,” Vincent said. “To get that deal during the recession kept us going.”
Now its thousands of customers and scores of corporate clients are the ones who are blessed to eat the seared ahi tuna from Picasso’s or one of its other dishes they serve up, each skillfully crafted and customized like a work of art.
Indeed, when Vincent started his cafe, bakery and restaurant a quarter century ago, naming his enterprise, Picasso’s, seemed like the only logical choice.
“We were true lovers of art,” Vincent said, “and Picasso was very close to our heart.”
The name also made for a great business plan that practically wrote itself.
“Conceptually we made it work because great food is a work of art, and that’s still how we approach our business today,” Vincent said. “It’s very simple. We market our food based on eye appeal, flavor profiles and price, in that order.”
When the AllBusinessJournal.com sat down for lunch in the Partido private dining room, we were immediately dazzled by the presentation and plating of our afternoon repast. Our orders — Lasagna alla Picasso, The Perfect Philly Cheesesteak Wrap and Chinese Chicken Salad — equally shimmered.
The lasagna was the perfect symphony of ricotta, ground sirloin, spice, sweet Italian sausage, marinara sauce and locally grown organic herbs; the wrap was an opus of choice shaved midwestern steak, caramelized onions, sauteed bell peppers and sharp American and smoked provolone cheeses; and the salad was a harmonious composition of fresh breast of chicken, crisp Napa cabbage, red cabbage and shredded carrots tossed in an Asian sesame ginger dressing and garnished with diced sweet red bell peppers, Mandarin orange segments, water chestnuts and crispy rice noodles.
It’s easy to wax musical when describing Picasso’s. The overtones would not be an exaggeration. In his youth, Vincent trained as a concert pianist to the delight of his parents. However, when he learned that “great pianists are a dime a dozen and end up teaching at USC or one of the conservatories back east,” he changed his focus to food, another passion of his.
His parents weren’t amused, but they reluctantly agreed to support their son under one condition.
“My father said, ‘It’s very simple, if you want us to bless this, you’re going to go to business school to learn how to be a businessman before you become a chef.”
Now looking back over his 25 years as the founder of Picasso’s, Vincent said it’s the best advice and guidance he could have ever received. “My business background has been the most important part of my success,” he said. “To marry my vision of art and business has made all the difference.”
There was another difference-maker entering Vincent’s life. A young woman, Maria, caught his attention, but when she heard he wanted to be a chef, she wanted no part of a lifestyle that promised seven-day-a-week work schedules, even longer days, and skipped holidays.
To meet her demands, he opened Picasso’s in Irwindale on a Monday through Friday basis, leaving family time for the weekends. It wasn’t long, however, before he discovered he couldn’t pay his bills just serving breakfast and lunch. And dinner really wasn’t an option because Irwindale is mostly a commuter city, swelled by a drive-in population during the day and left deserted at night.
“That’s when we decided corporate catering was going to be our niche,” Vincent said.
That niche has made him rich. While his cafe does a bustling breakfast and lunch trade, “80 percent of our business goes out the back door,” he said. Also, the cafe, with its complementary private dining and conference rooms, serves as the perfect showcase for businesses and corporations to sample Picasso’s many food stylings and parings.
“Here our clients can meet the chef and receive a full consultation, and our storefront, located in the hub of the San Gabriel Valley and so close to the 210 freeway, gives us another strategic advantage,” said Marissa DeRosa, Vincent’s daughter and the company’s executive vice president who oversees marketing, sales, operations, corporate accounts and special events.
Vincent’s son, Chris, is also instrumental to the success of Picasso’s, as are Picasso’s 38 permanent employees, all of whom Vincent refers to as family.
It’s a family that sticks close together, with some employees’ years of service rivaling those of the founders. “There’s very little turnover,” Marissa added. In fact,when a job opening occurs, there’s no shortage of applicants seeking a position with the company because of Picasso’s artful and highly respected way of doing business.
That way of business includes giving back to the community in a number of creative ways. For example, when consumers purchase their trademarked sauces, a portion of the proceeds goes to support various nonprofit organizations.
In particular, Picasso’s is well known for Operation PAINT (Picasso’s Assistance in Necessary Things). “All of us at Picasso’s are committed to be active responsible leaders in the community and to support the personal and professional growth of the underprivileged of all ages,” Vincent said.
Locally, that mission translates into donating food to Pacific Clinics’ TAY (Transitional Age Youth) center in Irwindale, including serving complete meals with all the love-laden trimmings at Thanksgiving.
For Picasso’s, “complete” isn’t just some advertising buzzword. They don’t cut corners, according to their customers’ ability to pay. Somebody at TAY is going to receive the same quality as a corporate hot shot at Avery Label.
“We just don’t offer anything on the menu that is not first-cabin,” Vincent said. “Being able to give that first-cabin quality at an affordable price point is a huge challenge, but we’ve never compromised our standards.”
Perhaps, the best evidence of Picasso’s commitment to quality is the recurring law of supply and demand. If you want to book the company for an upcoming event — an intimate affair for five or a fiesta for 5,000 — be prepared to be wait-listed.
“We are booked until fall of next year,” Vincent said. “Our holidays are pretty much sold out at this point.”
Another testament to Picasso’s quality is the drumbeat of city personnel, leasing agents and the like who march into Picasso’s hoping to persuade Vincent to open a Picasso’s in their community.
“I hope it doesn’t sound like bragging, but there isn’t a week that goes by without a city official coming in here — San Marino, La Canada, Glendale, Arcadia — and asking us to open in their town, and they’re willing to give us money.”
But Picasso’s isn’t about the money; they’re about the food, and they love sharing it. They’ve seen their menus copied verbatim, and they don’t seem to mind. “We laugh about it,” Marissa said.
They view culinary spies as a sort of standing compliment that they’re doing things right. “If someone wants our recipe for a Bolognese sauce, we’ll give it to them,” Vincent said.
“We don’t believe in keeping good food a secret.”
Picasso’s Cafe, Bakery and Catering Co.
6070 N. Irwindale Ave., Suite A-D, Irwindale, CA
Picasso’s gift cards are also available at Costco, where you can buy two $50 cards for $79.95. If you show Picasso’s your receipt, you’ll also get that day’s lunch for free, up to a maximum value.
COME FOR THE FOOD, STAY FOR THE ART! Picasso’s has one of the largest collections of Picasso prints anywhere, so enjoy! The collision of colors, symbols and geometry are amazing.
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