In Her Element is a photoseries by Delegate featuring inspiring women in Singapore who excel in their various domains. For our latest issue, we sat down with Sarissa Rodriguez-Schwartz, Co-founder and Director of SJS Group, at their latest venture – Papi’s Tacos.
7 years ago, Sarissa and Joshua Schwartz left New York to help launch Pangaea in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. In 2014, 3 years later, the husband-and-wife duo opened the doors to Bang Bang. What began as a nightclub has now grown into the restaurant and nightlife company, known as SJS Group, with 5 ventures to its name. Outside of work, the couple live with their dog, Charlie; enjoy travelling, diving and exploring.
“We’re not retail therapy people. We like to go out, see new things, experience new cultures and be inspired by what we can take back to Singapore.”
At the age of 14, Sarissa was already getting acquainted with the F&B industry. Her very first job, she recounts, was at an Italian bakery in New York, where she spent her days filling cannolis and making espressos. Eventually, she went on to take up various roles in the industry – waitress, hostess, bartender; you name it, she’s done it. She continued to bartend while studying International Business and Marketing at a university in Washington, D.C. in order to finance to her education.
“Everyone was out spending their parents’ money on bottles, alcohol and partying, but I didn’t have fun doing that. I had fun being the one everyone gave their money to.”
Upon graduating, she knew joining the rat race was not something she wanted to be a part of. The F&B industry was something close to her heart; something she was meant to pursue.
Sarissa considers herself lucky to have found a business partner in her husband, but she acknowledges that having someone who’s equally invested in the business has its ups and downs. Living with her business partner means they don’t ever really clock out of work, and drawing the line between work and play is a challenge in itself.
“We look at each other and we say there’s no way we could’ve done this on our own. I don’t understand how anyone can be under that amount of stress on their own.”, she says.
To her, having a partner that cares as much as she does; who is there during the tough times, is essential. She likens it to raising a child – having someone by your side makes you better. Honesty and transparency play a big role. It’s being able to call each other out on their mistakes, accept responsibility, and work towards their shared goals.
Prior to moving to Singapore, Asia was uncharted territory for Sarissa. It was a huge risk, but one that paid off. She describes it as a life-changing experience in many ways; it was completely different from living in the US. Leaving her comfort zone led her to become more open as a person, and helped her understand different cultures. It’s this new perspective that has re-shaped how she’s come to see the world and her approach towards life.
Owning an establishment of her own was something Sarissa had always dreamed of. Breaking into the scene in New York was a challenge, due to the high barriers of entry. The accessibility of entrepreneurship made it an entirely different ball game – everything happened so fast. Before she knew it, she didn’t just have her own place; she was the proud owner of four. With success, came confidence and the courage to take more risks. But Sarissa sees more to the business than just churning out project after project. For her, it’s about finding the meaning in these projects, creating something that matters, something she can be proud of; that is her ultimate goal.
“I woke up today and I asked myself – what do I want out of this new project? What do I envision it to be? What does it mean to me? And if it doesn’t mean anything to me, I’d rather not pursue it. I just want good places that I’m proud of; to give back to the community; a place where people can create really great memories.”
Their latest venture, Papi’s Tacos, is a taqueria, envisioned as a taco truck without wheels. The idea was to have bar seating where customers could see everything happening in front of them. However, the project couldn’t have come to fruition without Mauricio Espinoza, formerly a chef at Employees Only. One day, he expressed interest in owning his own venture. Although the idea he had was very different from what Sarissa and Josh initially had in mind, everything fell into place and Papi’s Tacos was born.
When Sarissa starts building a venue, she creates a persona behind the venue, whom she looks to as a guide when making decisions. She imagines Papi to be an older Mexican man. Keeping Papi in mind helps guide her when she looks at things like branding, the website and social media etc., which explains the nostalgic decor. Likewise, when choosing a perfume for Lulu’s Lounge, she thought about what Lulu would like as opposed to what she liked.
“It’s not about what I like, and it’s easy to get lost in the opinions of what other people like, or what you should do. But as long as you go back to what ‘Lulu’ would do, coming from her culture and personality etc.”
As a leader, Sarissa describes her style as one that is hands-on, one where she leads by example. It might be hard to believe, but she does not exempt herself from tasks such as cleaning the bathroom.
“No job is too much, and saying it’s not my job is not what I expect. I expect everybody to take ownership of the venue even if they’re not an owner. I expect everyone to take pride in what they’re doing, and understanding that the entire venue is a representation of you and your role.”
Empowerment is a major aspect of her leadership style – she wants her employees to feel empowered to make their own decisions, and to know that it’s okay to make mistakes. By letting them in on her thought process, she hopes it will help shape the decisions they make in her absence. She and Josh regard themselves as strict parents – they want their employees to succeed and grow, and they’re willing to teach them along the way.
Being in the restaurant and nightlife business, there’s often a misconception that it’s an easy business, that doesn’t take much to succeed. To Sarissa, challenge is a failure, and at times, it’s made her question her instincts. It’s made her more measured when it comes to making decisions. Josh and her approach new concepts by pitching them to each other; to convince the naysayer. While it makes them very tough people to get something past, it’s proven to produce remarkable results.
Looking forward, scalability is one of the things Sarissa has on her mind. She’s always on the lookout for overseas partnerships, opportunities to maximise what they do and to build on the team to expand internationally. In the next 5 years, she hopes to move into other parts of Asia and beyond, with Europe ranking highly on the list.
In a business where the highs are high and the lows low, it can be hard to live in the moment, and to enjoy it for what it is. For Sarissa, to see her customers enjoying themselves is a wonderful reward. Internally, she celebrates success by taking a step back, taking a breathe and just enjoying it. Occasionally, she rewards herself by taking the weekend off or enjoying her Friday night.
“Going to Lulu’s and Bang Bang and seeing the crowd, the people that have come… I love it! I like to be dropped off there because I like to look. It’s nice to see people having fun. I’ll go behind the DJ booth and look at everyone’s faces and see if they’re enjoying the moment. If they’re not in the moment, then I’m not doing my job.”