Under the savvy guidance of Javier Acuna, cinco and seis may soon be added

There’s a reason Javier Acuna named his business the Hakuna Hospitality Group. And, yes, it is a subtle play on his surname.

More important, the Swahili word, which means “no worries,” accurately describes the approach Acuna has taken to putting his Santa Fe restaurants on a steady growth track, and poising the business for another round of expansion.

Hakuna is a positive word, he says, “one that puts a smile on people’s faces.”

Acuna, 38, got a modest start in restaurant ownership, buying the old Picnic Mexitacos on Newark’s Main Street in 2003 when it was a four-table operation focusing mainly on takeout orders with a menu of both Mexican and Latin American dishes. He renamed it Santa Fe and built it into a 150-seat restaurant.

It was a logical first step for the native of Bogota, Colombia, who had come to the United States less than four years earlier, hoping to continue the study of industrial engineering he had begun in his homeland.

While taking classes at Delaware Technical Community College and Wesley College, Acuna, like many students, found the hospitality industry offered the opportunity to earn the money he needed to pay his tuition and other bills. Working in several restaurants, he gradually moved up the ranks, from waiting on tables, to expediter, to cocktail server, bartender and assistant manager. Along the way, he studied the trade carefully, deciding what features he liked, or didn’t like, about every place in which he worked.

Acuna, who grew up in a family whose members took great pride in their cooking, chose to emphasize Mexican food in his restaurants because of his love for that country’s history and culture. “The Mayans and the Aztecs, they were two of the most wonderful cultures that ever walked the earth,” he says.

And, he adds, Mexico’s geographical diversity, with its Gulf and Pacific coasts and plateaus and mountains in between, is reflected in regional variations in its cuisine. “Mexican food is one of the richest food [cultures] in the world, and every region has a different technique,” he says.

Besides, he adds with a smile, although he appreciates the cuisine of his native Colombia, “nobody knows what it is.”

Whatever he has learned, Acuna has applied successfully.

He opened a second Santa Fe grill in Wilmington in 2010, and then launched the La Bodega catering and events operation at the same location on Pennsylvania Avenue, just west of Union Street.

In July, Acuna added another restaurant on Main Street in Newark, Del Pez Sea Mex, focusing on fresh and sustainable caught seafood, local and organic produce, all served with a tropical Mexican flair.

The Wilmington grill is the largest in the group, with seating for 250, while Del Pez is the smallest, with 76 seats.

By early October, he will have opened La Taqueria Santa Fe at Wilmington’s Riverfront Market, giving the lunch hour crowd a chance to get a quick sample of the main courses offered at the Newark and Wilmington restaurants.

His next step, he says, is to try to open two new Santa Fe locations a year. He’s not sure where the expansion will take him, but says he is looking both north and south—at the Philadelphia area and Sussex County.

Rachael Richardson makes a diamond margarita at Santa Fe in Wilmington. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Rachael Richardson makes a diamond margarita at Santa Fe in Wilmington. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Acuna won’t discuss revenue figures for his privately owned company, but he says the three locations now open are serving about 9,000 customers a week.

His talk of expansion may sound as though he wants Hakuna Hospitality to build Santa Fe into a restaurant chain, but one of his most important tactics is to make each of his restaurants a little different from the others.

The restaurants’ logos use the same typeface, but each one is branded with the image of a different animal, drawn in a native Mexican style. The Newark logo features a jaguar—“aggressive and strong,” Acuna says—while Wilmington’s image is a fun-loving monkey. For Del Pez, the three brightly colored fish are a natural, while a frog—“small and quick-thinking,” he says—captures the vibe he’s seeking at La Taqueria.

When restaurant chains open new locations, “they are looking for a specific type of demographic,” Acuna says. “We don’t go for the demographic. We want to be part of the communities we go into, and we adapt to it.”

As an example, he describes the differences between the Santa Fe locations and clientele in Newark and Wilmington.

“Newark draws a younger crowd, and a little of everything—professionals, young people, University of Delaware students and faculty—while Wilmington has a more professional crowd,” he says.

Interestingly, the difference in the customer profile has not triggered a parallel variation in the menus. While about 90 percent of the menu is identical at both locations, where there are differences, the selections in Wilmington tend to be more diverse, more aggressive, than in Newark, and they often cost a dollar or two more.

In Newark, he explains, to satisfy a broader audience in an environment that is faster paced, the menu has to stay more middle of the road. In Wilmington, the pace is a little slower, the diners somewhat more adventurous.

While Acuna does not say Santa Fe patrons in Wilmington are more sophisticated than those in Newark, the implication is clear. “In Wilmington, we experiment with different types of ingredients. In Wilmington, we can add different dishes. In Wilmington, we have scallops. In Newark, it’s harder to sell scallops,” he says.

At each of his restaurants, Acuna makes a commitment to use locally grown produce as often as possible. Among his suppliers are Vincent Farms in Laurel and Fifer Orchards in Wyoming.

Running three restaurants, preparing to open a fourth and exploring two more sites is enough to keep Acuna running six days a week. He has been spending two days a week at each location, keeping Sundays as family time with his wife, Sarah, and his son, Mateo, who was born in March.

Having known success throughout his career, Acuna has learned that careful management is the best way to prevent failure.

“I don’t worry about failure,” he says. “I worry about not taking the right steps, about modifying things that aren’t working at the right moment.”

Failure, he says, “is the absence of doing the right thing. It is not something that happens overnight. It comes when you neglect to make the right changes over time.”

Adhering to that philosophy means that Hakuna Hospitality and its more than 130 employees must be innovative and flexible.

Acuna wants to keep his menus “edgy,” with meals prepared by “chefs who are willing to experiment.” Most important, he wants all his employees to be passionate about the company and to appreciate the meals they serve every day.

“We are about change,” he says. “We are about improving. We are about bringing people back day after day.”