When husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Ellen Chen and Mario Del Pero—owners of Mendocino Farms Sandwich Market, which opened its first Sacramento location at the Ice Blocks in December—were dating, Chen asked her boyfriend an unusual question. She asked if she could work for him.
Del Pero, a Yuba City native, was hard at work developing a food concept in Southern California (where he and Chen had gone to school) when Chen’s consulting business was acquired. Instead of taking a well-earned vacation, Chen decided to complete a “stage”—the food world’s version of an unpaid internship—at her boyfriend’s restaurant. What this unusual arrangement yielded was nothing short of life changing.
“I happened to be looking for a business partner,” Del Pero says. “Ellen’s process-oriented way of thinking and aesthetics were very similar to mine and we shared a massive passion for food. It was the perfect match.”
After Chen completed her stage, the couple sold Del Pero’s food concept and used the proceeds to start a new business that could merge both of their strengths. Del Pero was determined to recreate the dining experience that first piqued his interest in food: David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods, the beloved gourmet eatery and wine shop that held court at the Pavilions shopping center for 25 years.
“Every time I flew home, I made my parents take me to David Berkley,” Del Pero says. “I went religiously. I shared it with Ellen and she saw how cool it would be to replicate. We wanted a place with a similar aesthetic—inspired by wine country but approachable. No one can afford to eat a $16 sandwich every day.”
In 2005, the couple launched the first Mendocino Farms—named after a wine country location Del Pero considers the perfect mix of high-end and approachable—on Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles. Since then, they’ve spread the sandwich love to 24 locations in Orange County, San Diego and Northern California, with plans to expand into Texas this year.
The Ice Blocks location opened Dec. 6 as one of the development’s first anchors. The 2,645-square-foot restaurant features a cool mix of interior styles, with rustic beams sharing space with industrial light fixtures, sleek white chairs and ornate tiles. A playful blue-and-white cow stands sentinel outside the front door. Kids are welcome—they even have their own tiny table and an area for foosball and cornhole—as is lingering on the spacious outdoor patio.
And then there’s the food. Though the restaurant’s motto is “We don’t just sell sandwiches—we sell happy,” that happiness stems from the immensely tasty seasonal menu that features ingredients sourced from regional farms.
“Most people will try anything if you put it in a sandwich,” Del Pero says. “We have a culinary team of chefs that help Ellen and I create the menus and we make everything from scratch. The pickles, the protein—no deli meat here—the spreads, the dressings, all from scratch.”
The couple also collaborates with farmers to come up with rotating menu items that star specific ingredients. This past summer, for example, “Mendo” featured a peach marmalade mustard made from fruit grown by Del Pero’s best friend from high school, now a farmer in Live Oak.
“We’re adventurous,” Del Pero says. “Chefs know they can pick up the phone and we’ll work with them. We even have special chef sandwiches that benefit charity. We have an enormous amount of fun with it.”
That sense of fun mixed with community involvement has already made Mendocino Farms a favorite fixture at the Ice Blocks, which Chen credits to the welcoming spirit of Sacramento.
“Sacramentans have such a strong sense of community,” Chen says. “They appreciate where their food comes from. At first, we wondered if people were going to perceive us as ‘too Southern Californian,’ if they were going to get us. But they got us. We’re so grateful that we’ve been embraced so quickly. What brings a restaurant to life isn’t the architecture or the food—it’s the people.”
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com.