Napa Latino family making it happen at new restaurant La Cheve, started during pandemic

When Cinthya Cisneros opened her restaurant in Napa’s oldest building, she not only invited the public to celebrate its Mexican cuisine and beer, she welcomed her family.

In May 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic response, Cisneros, 30, opened La Cheve, a restaurant that also makes its own beer, in the Old Adobe.

La Cheve, which means “the beer” in Spanish, brings everyone on board. This includes Juana Cisneros, Cinthya’s mother, one of the two bakers on staff; and Felipe Bravo, who develops the beers with Cinthya and repairs in-house equipment. Angel Aguirre, Cinthya’s maternal uncle, is the head cook. Carlos Calderon, one of Cinthya’s nephews, is a member of the front of the house team.

“It's like a dream to be here working with my family. I can't believe it,” said Juana Cisneros.

Popular items include tacos al pastor, chilaquiles boozy pastries made with different liqueurs, cronuts in flavors like mango and champagne, and vegan and gluten-free pastries.

“We started realizing how hungry the community was for our cuisine when we began selling out of birria tacos before lunch. Now we’ve more than doubled the amount,” said Cisneros.

Birria is beef marinated in a sauce of vinegar, dried chiles and herbs, and then cooked in a broth.

Welcome to La Cheve

Bienvenidos to your cozy casita Fam. We can’t wait to host you under our historic 1845 roof where you can even bring your abuelita for a beer...or two. ¡Salud! • • • #ilovelacheve #visitnapavalley #supportsmallbusinesses #toosmalltofail #familybusiness #outdoordining #indoordining #takeout

Posted by La Cheve Bakery and Brews on Thursday, September 3, 2020

From Michoacán to Napa, by way of Sacramento

Cisneros came to Napa at the age of 4, immigrating from La Piedad de Cabadas in Michoacán. She graduated from Vintage High School with an interest in chemistry. Yet she was concerned about funding.

“In high school, I took a lot of Advanced Placement classes. I wanted to have as many college credits as I could,” said Cisneros.

Fortunately, the Napa County Hispanic Network offered Cisneros scholarships. These scholarships supported her earning a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Sonoma State University.

Through college, Cisneros volunteered as a science tutor at Rancho Cotate High School, Vintage High School, and Napa High School. After graduation, she worked as a pathology assistant at the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office. Later, Cisneros changed her career path to become a chemistry teacher.

Cisneros earned a single subject teaching credential at Sacramento State University. She then joined the faculty at River City High School in west Sacramento.

“I loved the students, who were ethnically diverse and hard-working. They were making an effort to overcome obstacles, just as I was at their age. Yet I wanted to come back to Napa,” said Cisneros.

She did in 2018, leaving her teaching position and taking a part-time job in hospitality at Stone Brewing Company in Napa.

“I came to Stone because I knew I wanted to learn more about beer. Around 2013, I developed a passion for beer. I started learning how to brew and joined the Sacramento chapter of the Pink Boots Society, an organization that supports women in brewing. In addition, I took classes in brewing at UC Davis,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros spend her days off brewing her own beer with her father. The two engaged in contract brewing, developing their own recipes and having local facilities brew small batches for them. Cisneros also used her free time to look for spots for La Cheve.

That same year, Cisneros started working with a mentor, business adviser Carolynne Gamble of the Napa Sonoma Small Business Development Center.

“In 2018, Cinthya enrolled in NxLevel, an 11-week boot camp for entrepreneurs. NxLevel helps business owners develop strategic thinking and good writing skills,” said Gamble.

Gamble said Cisneros was her “rock star.”

“She had the passion, the purpose, and the follow-through. After she finished the program, she entered Napa Valley College’s business plan competition and won $1,500 in cash prize money. She started developing social media content, telling her story on Facebook and Instagram. This helped her attract customers before the restaurant opened,” said Gamble.

Preparation + patience = success

As Cisneros scouted out locations, she watched the revival of the Old Adobe, built in 1845 as the home of Californio settler Don Cayetano Juárez wife, María de Jesus Higuera. Justin Altamura, owner of the property on a prominent corner in Napa, started renovating the 1½-story former family home into a commercial property in 2017. He completed the project by 2019.

“We were all anticipating what it would look like. When it opened, it was gorgeous. I thought it was way beyond my means,” said Cisneros.

Yet she was in luck. Altamura liked her plans for the restaurant.

“Justin wanted a tenant like us, someone who had love for the site and really cared about it,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros signed the lease in April 2019 and planned to open the restaurant in March 2020. She had her final county inspection just as the pandemic arrived. Cisneros delayed opening by two months to make the necessary adjustments.

“Despite that, business has been steady. We’ve gotten skilled at taking orders online and over the phone. I have worked with Carolynne to share advice with current NxLevel participants,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros has found ways to give back as well.

“I joined Napa County Hispanic Network and donated to give high school students college scholarships. It is amazing to be able to do this for an organization that helped me,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros also supported a member of Napa’s at-risk youth by providing a scholarship for an undocumented student through If Given a Chance, a Napa nonprofit that helps local high school students continue their education.

“This scholarship, called ’American Dream,’ will go to a Dreamer student,” said Cisneros, referrring to a student protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, federal policy.

Cisneros has partnered with If Given a Chance on events.

“Every year, If Given a Chance does a big gala. They had a virtual celebration this year. We made all the meals for ticket holders to pick up,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros also joined the Napa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and assisted this organization with planning events.

Vanessa Castillo, a front-of-the-house employee at La Cheve, said Cisneros encourages restaurant staff to complete their education.

“Cinthya is flexible with our hours, which helps us prioritize our success. I am currently finishing my senior year in economics, with a minor in business administration, at Sacramento State University,” said Castillo.

Austin Komarek, a chiropractor at Blossom, The Art of Life and Healing, in Napa, said the positive atmosphere at La Cheve extends to the customers.

“There’s a feeling of shared space at La Cheve. The service is wonderful and they have something for everyone. My wife loves the portabella mushroom tacos. Their big quesadilla, which reminds me of a Philadelphia cheesesteak, is also delicious,” said Komarek.

Genaro Bautista, a Napa resident who has been coming to La Cheve since it opened, said he enjoys everything from the pastry to the beer.

“I came to know Cinthya in 2019 after she gave a presentation in one of my business classes at Napa Valley College. That raised my curiosity. I’ve kept coming back because the food is outstanding,” said Bautista.

Cisneros said she looks forward to experimenting with the menu to honor her family’s creativity and traditions, as well as the history of Old Adobe and its former residents.

“Our porter is called Un Arroz con María Juárez. It has an alcohol-by-volume percentage of 6.3, with notes of cinnamon, coffee, and chocolate. It’s an ode to the original (co-)owner of Old Adobe,” said Cisneros.

La Cheve’s most popular beer is “American Dream,” a Mexican lager with an ABV of 4.3%. Cisneros said this beer is the star of La Cheve’s house-made Micheladas.

“The name refers to what I and my family have worked for. It also is a nod to how good it feels to achieve your goal,” said Cisneros.

Juana Cisneros said she sees the family’s effort as “humble work,” adding La Cheve’s staff make an effort to pace themselves.

“Day by day we are creating new things for our community. Something that cheers them up and gives them an extra little thing to smile about,” said Juana Cisneros.

Cinthya Cisneros said the pandemic has changed everything she learned about the restaurant business, from cleaning to delivery. She is still glad she opened La Cheve.

“We (family members) are talking, in touch, and listening to each other. No matter how stressed or happy we are, we are making it happen,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros added the experience of opening La Cheve has helped her see her parents in a new light.

“I always knew my mother and father were resilient and hard-working. Seeing it in action shows me just how strong they are,” said Cisneros.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to correct the selling of the last name of Carlos Calderon, a member of the La Cheve front of house team. Also, instead of Ezequiel Cisneros, Felipe Bravo, a friend of Cinthya Cisneros, assists with brewing. In addition, River City High School is in west Sacramento.

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