A year after closing his downtown restaurant and resigning from his namesake brewery, Darwin Santa Maria is back with a new eatery — and outlook.
Darwin Santa Maria looks relaxed. He’s in mid-buildout of his new Siesta Key Latin-seafood restaurant, CeviChela Latin Street Food, and he just learned his grand opening is going to be pushed back a week. The usual minor setbacks — nothing to worry about.
Right now, he’s sitting in a nearby coffee shop, waiting on a refrigerator delivery. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he takes a sip of his iced tea and leans back in his chair, seemingly unfazed by the stress that comes with opening a new business.
Maybe it’s the island. Maybe it’s more than that.
Nearly a year ago, Santa Maria surprised Sarasota foodies, beer lovers — and his employees — with an announcement that appeared to come out of nowhere.
After building his Rosemary District restaurant, Darwin’s on 4th, into an award-winning hot spot for top-tier Peruvian cuisine and leading his Bradenton brew-pub, Darwin Brewing Co. into the national spotlight, he announced he was closing the restaurant, effective immediately. A few months later, he tendered his resignation from the brewery.
The decision spurred widespread speculation and left a lot of people confused, Santa Maria being one of them.
He pulled back from the public spotlight, spending the next year traveling back and forth from Sarasota to Washington, D.C., and Miami, consulting on restaurants, spending time with family and traveling to his native Peru. It was a chance to clear his mind and take a break from the stresses of fast-tracked success in a high-pressure industry.
But more than anything, he says, it was an opportunity for reinvention.
Now Santa Maria, 40, is back in Sarasota, the place he considers home, and he’s ready to get back to doing what he loves most — creating innovative food and craft beer. But this time, he says, things are going to be different.
“Walking away from something you’ve dreamed about — something you’ve worked so hard to build — it’s hard,” he says. “It’s really hard. I’m still the same chef with the same passion for cooking and craft beer. I have the same drive I had 15 years ago. But as an entrepreneur, I made a lot of mistakes. I’m a smarter businessman now; I know where my priorities lie. And I’m reinvigorated.”
A NEW APPROACH
Santa Maria’s plan was to stay in Washington, D.C., and continue his restaurant consulting. But eating Latin-American street food and stopping in hole-in-the-wall eateries along the way, he says he was inspired and rediscovered his true passion. It was time to return to Sarasota and start something new.
“You don’t realize you’re living in paradise until you leave,” he says. “My kids and my family love it here; I love it here. I wanted to come back, but open something smaller, where I can really focus on the concept.”
The idea began a few months ago, when he teamed up with Tom Harris, former head brewer at JDub’s Brewing Co., to host a series of pop-up food and craft-beer dinners across the state, called CeviChela Project. Now, the operation will have a brick-and-mortar home at 5110 Ocean Blvd., formerly Señor Siesta.
His vision: A grab-and-go Latin street food eatery with a focus on his signature dish — ceviche — and on-the-island delivery. He’s partnered with Señor Siesta, as well as another local company to offer bike and scooter delivery to the beach, hotels — even homes.
The menu has expanded beyond Peruvian cuisine to include food from a variety of Central and South American countries — items like pupusas, baleadas, build-your-own tacos and ceviches and a rotating list of specialties. But the operation is a small one, with 45 seats (Darwin’s on 4th had 300) inside and out, and five employees.
Santa Maria saw a lot of success with his previous ventures — and quickly. And success doesn’t come without pressure, especially in the restaurant industry.
“I’m really passionate about this business,” he says. “But passion can be dangerous. Everything grew so fast. So many people are depending on you. There’s a lot of pressure. My name was on the building, for God’s sake. It became too much for me. My family comes first.”
Overall, he says he’s happy with the way things turned out. He’s learned to better manage stress, to take things a little slower and ease up on his perfectionism.
Island life looks good on Santa Maria. His three kids join him after work on the beach to watch the sun set. He feels at home.
But he’s still thinking big. If the CeviChela model is successful, he says he plans to expand it to locations around the state. He also has plans to work with Harris to open a new brewery. He’s given himself a year deadline.
“I’m still ambitious,” he says. “But I’m building things one brick at a time. After everything, I learned that what I love is to put a smile on a customer’s face. If I’m not happy, I can’t do that.”