The Agents of Innovation podcast Guatemala series officially kicked off with Episode 101, which features an interview with Jake Denburg, the owner, operator, and chief flavor engineer of Jake’s Restaurant, which has been located in Zone 10 of Guatemala City for over 34 years.
Jake, however, is not a native born Guatemalan. He was born in New Jersey, a grandchild of hard-working, entrepreneurial immigrants from Holland and Russia, with a Jewish culture that extends to Eastern Europe.
Farming and baking have been a part of his family for more than a century. Around the turn of the 20th century his grandparents made $3.50 a month. They saved their money and bought a farm. Another of his grandparents had a bakery, Jacob Denburg’s Bread — Jake has even seen photos of his grandfather driving a delivery truck with his company name on it in 1905.
The entrepreneurial mindset must have been instilled in Jake from an early age. At 11 years old, Jake wanted to buy a $40 leather jacket. After his father refused to do so, “I got a job and bought it myself.”
That job was at a Chinese takeout restaurant. He didn’t last more than a few days but perhaps his curiosity about running a Chinese restaurant never left him either. About fifty years later, in 2008, Jake opened his own Chinese restaurant, JK Ming, in Guatemala City’s Plaza Fontabella.
While a teenager, Jake lost both of his parents. However, he had the good fortune to attend a private visual arts high school in New Jersey. And, at the age of 17, he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, on scholarship. While there, he lived in an apartment building in the Lower East Side, not far from SoHo, that was dedicated to people with a connection in the arts.
From an early age, Jake was passionate about art. And his ambition was to have his work be in the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art in New York City. At the age 23, that dream was realized when a photography book he had put together was entered into the permanent collection, where it remains today. On the wall in Jake’s Restaurant in Guatemala City, he has a framed letter that recognizes this achievement.
While an artist at heart, Jake has always had “two palettes.” He also said two remarkable talents he has always had are a great “color memory” and a great “taste memory.” Once he sees a color or has tasted something, he can quickly figure out how to replicate it.
“Cooking was always a part of my life,” said Jake, as he recounted the meals served to him and his family by his Jewish grandmother, an incredible Russian cook, and the meal their family shared each week on the Sabbath.
Jake later moved to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he operated two restaurants. After losing two chefs, he was forced to takeover the role of chef.
He finally decided to leave St. Thomas. Due in part to his parents early death, he had not seen either of his two brothers in about a dozen years. He learned they were in Antigua, Guatemala. Today his brothers still own a very successful textile company, making rugs and other items.
In 1983, Jake went to Guatemala to see his brothers.
“And that’s it, I never left.”
So, he went back to his artistic passion and started painting. Then, in 1986, he opened an 8-table restaurant named Jewels & Jim. It lasted 4 months.
Later, he opened Jake’s Restaurant in an old farm house in Zone 10 of Guatemala City, three blocks from where it is today in the new and modern La Estación shopping plaza, which opened in early 2020.
He opened the original location of his restaurant for $17,000. At the time he had one female chef, a dishwasher, and 2 waiters. Today, between his high-end Jake’s Restaurant and his two locations of Jake’s NY Pizza & Burgers, he has around 70 Employees.
Jake reflected on the many changes he has seen since arriving to Guatemala in the early 1980s. “It was pretty rough here,” he said, describing it as “rustic.” As for the food scene, the best you could do was go to the market and make your food from scratch.
“But Guatemala was pretty exciting,” he said, as he reflected on the great times he had with friends, driving their 4-wheel drive vehicles on rural roads in the countryside, which included a few run-ins with the guerrillas fighting a civil war.
In addition to the success of his restaurant business, Jake has had a great impact in Guatemala’s culinary scene, introducing fusion to the restaurant scene by “bringing other cultures into Guatemala.”
“There was not much going on in the culinary scene so I started bringing in my experience from all over the world, which at that point many people didn’t have in Guatemala.”
1996 brought an official end to the civil war that plagued Guatemala since the 1960s. After the peace accords were signed, foreign investments started coming in. “I think it was the most prosperous time in Guatemala,” said Jake.
More recently, the biggest challenges to the restaurant industry has been the COVID19 pandemic and supply chain issues. Prior to the pandemic, Jake had become accustomed to importing salmon from Alaska and other products from the United States, Spain, and other parts of Europe.
“All the prices are going up,” said Jake, and he realizes this will affect people’s decision to go out to restaurants. “Besides the pandemic, the political fallout of the pandemic is just terrible for entrepreneurs.”
However, it has also forced him to look inward to Guatemala and other nearby Central American nations and what he has found are incredible resources. He gets his meat from a cattle farm in Nicaragua; a local mom & pop dairy farm provides butter. And, he now sources trout and other fish from Guatemala’s south coast.
For entrepreneurs, challenges always arise, but problem-solving is key. “It’s a lot more problem resolution where my clients never feel it,” said Jake.
During the pandemic, he also installed a state-of-the-art air condition system with HEPA filters and fixed up the outside patio area since more people now want to sit outside
Finding solutions allows entrepreneurs like Jake to put their fate in their own hands.
“No, we [entrpreneurs] are not lucky,” he said. “We go to work … never stop, always innovating, always looking for a better way, better experience with the clients, that’s been the core of my business, hospitality. We take care of our clients, we try to keep at least one step ahead of everybody.”
One of his favorite books is The Power of Moments, which provides a lesson for him and others in the hospitality industry about customer relations. To be successful, you should be “creating a moment they don’t forget.”
“Giving is receiving,” said Jake. “There’s no difference in the act of receiving or giving. Going deep philosophically, you can’t have one without the other.”
He trains employees to understand that: “The boss is the client or guest. If they are not happy with our work, they are going to fire us.” He added, “everybody is concentrated on taking care of our guests … they are receiving for what they are giving.”
Jake has invested in his employees. “We take care of them like a family .. we are concerned about their well being, the well being of their families.” Some of his employees have been with him for over 20 years.
In many moments, including through the pandemic, Jake provided his employees with great access to private health care. He also never had to lay off an employee because of the pandemic, keeping pretty much everyone.
In April 2020, his kitchen remained opened and working. His waiters transitioned into delivery guys.
“Guatemala never stopped,” said Jake. “We are very industrious people here.”
His advice to those with affluence in Guatemala is not to leave. “Everything they need to do to have a great business in the world is right here in Guatemala.”
He also believes that continuous investments in Guatemala will create a situation where they eventually will not have a situation with migrants leaving the country for some other opportunity. He also believes that as people’s standards of living continue to rise, more and more of them will become clients.
Guatemala “is an incredibly wealthy country,” said Jake. He referenced it’s incredible natural resources, such as agriculture; and the culturally rich lifestyle of the indigenous populations.
“Guatemala — it will be changing,” said Jake. One way people are learning is through greater access to technology. “Guatemala will indeed be much wealthier, in a sense, it will trickle down.”
Of course, as a native born U.S. citizen, Jake has a high esteem for the United States, particularly for its dedication to education, hard work, and tolerance of a variety of people and cultures.
For Jake, one of the biggest challenges he sees in Guatemala is mental poverty. “It’s a mental poverty which is what we have to conquer.” He believes “We are wealthy here in Guatemala, but also believes that “being wealthy is a mindset.”
One of his other favorite books is the 7 Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. “The more you learn about metaphysics, or how the universe actually works, the more you can glean from it.”
Jake attempts to get in touch with that universe every day. He typically rises around 4:00 AM, drinks some Guatemalan coffee, reads, and does personal meditation. He just turned 70 years old, but he started this routine when he was 18.
“It’s the only time of day I have to myself, is the wee hours in the morning, because once I get to work, my time is not mine.”
Jake encourages others to instill a sense of self-confidence. “Realize what you possess internally, never give up, keep learning, keep reading.” He talked about how reading is not a part of the culture here in Guatemala, especially among the young people. And he hopes to see more people here read more.
He also urges aspiring entrpreneurs to not give up. “There’s no such thing as failure. You keep trying. You figure it out. And eventually you’ll hit upon it with the deduction of heart and mind and soul.”
For those who want to connect with many of the entrepreneurs featured on the Agents of Innovation podcast, you can join our entrepreneurial community, Fearless Journeys, where we include group coaching sessions, connections with over 45 Featured Innovators and other members of the community, a book club, and group travel experiences. Learn more at FearlessJourneys.org.