By Doug Karlson
Before Kyle Parker and his wife, Danna, opened Guapo’s Tortilla Shack, they turned to their community. It’s a community of friends, neighbors, and customers, as well as a community of mentors collected across the country over many years.
The couple opened the first Guapo’s, a popular Mexican eatery with a Baja-style, surfer-shack vibe, in Brewster in 2005. A second, larger location soon followed in Orleans. It was a business venture that was a long time coming. Kyle’s career as a successful restaurateur began years ago while he was still a student at Nauset Regional High School. He worked part-time at Chillingsworth in Brewster.
“I was really drawn to it at an early age. Chillingsworth’s inspired me to be really good at it,” says Kyle.
But after graduating from Nauset in 1990, Kyle realized he had to get off‑Cape to gain business experience. He embarked on restaurant career – both as a chef and a manager – that would take him from New York to Las Vegas, with stops in Biloxi, Vail, and the Bahamas.
“If you want to grow in this industry, you have to leave for a little while,” he explains.
Along the way, he collected a dedicated network of restaurant industry friends and mentors – and a life partner, too. While working for China Grill Management, a restaurant group based in the New York City, he met his wife, Danna, who was working in the corporate office while Kyle was busy setting up restaurants.
“It wasn’t just a job. It was a life adventure. My niche was I can go into any size operation and quickly identify the issues and challenges and implement controls and procedures to help them straighten it out,” he says.
That expertise and reputation resulted in his being recruited by Steve Wynn of Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts. He helped open the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, often referred to as the “Bellagio of the South.”
After getting married, Kyle and Danna realized it was time to put down roots. They began considering where to settle down and raise a family. “It was clear we had to start up our own business,” says Kyle. New York City, Las Vegas, and Biloxi weren’t the places for that. They decided to move back to Cape Cod.
“It was very important to me to stack the deck in my favor. What better place to do that than where you’re from? For an entrepreneur, it’s important to be located where you have a community of people who will support you and help you stay the course during the tough times. Cape Cod and the community there is the biggest piece of the puzzle.”
When it came to deciding on the type of restaurant they would open, Kyle drew upon his experience.
“As we were kicking around ideas, the one thing I remembered most fondly was cooking in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas. I had so much fun there. The food was vibrant. I really connected with the culture. And my wife suggested, ‘Why don’t we do burritos and tacos, something you love doing?’”
Kyle travelled to Virginia and spent three weeks in the kitchen of a friend’s resort developing the menu.
“Friends and mentors are essential to help you reach your goals,” says Kyle.
Also essential, according to Kyle, was being one of the first in the area to offer fresh Mexican food. “Being first to market is a big deal,” explains Kyle.
Customer response to their first location was strong, but it was only open during the summer season. Luckily, Kyle still had one foot in the restaurant consulting field, and during the off-season, he would travel off-Cape to help former colleagues with their restaurants, often serving as a troubleshooter.
It’s consulting work he still does occasionally, mainly to help friends in the industry.
Recently he travelled to Vancouver to help friends Elizabeth Blau, a renowned restauranteur, and her husband, chef Kim Canteenwalla, open restaurants that are part of a large restaurant/hotel and casino project called Parq Vancouver.
Though the Brewster location was highly successful, Kyle and Danna realized they would have to increase revenue by opening a second restaurant.
“It became clear to me that Orleans was the right place to go.” Once again, they felt strongly that they had to be the first to market in Orleans. That meant opening in November.
“Opening during the start of the slow season gave us the opportunity to take a closer at look at what our bigger purpose was in opening a business. Kyle firmly believes that giving back to the community is the role and responsibility of the small business owner and, thus, the Guapo’s Gives Program was born,” says Danna.
The restaurant partners with local nonprofits usually once per month, to generate fundraising, raise awareness and promote social action.
Local nonprofit partners have included the Animal Rescue League, Latham Centers, Inc., Cape Abilities and Cape Cod Children’s Place.
“Growing up on Cape Cod, I understand the value of keeping kids busy, keeping them engaged. It’s really important to give these kids an opportunity.”
“Our giving averages about $25,000 per year which includes a pledge of $20,000 a few years ago to Kyle’s alma mater, Nauset High School, for their Turf project,” says Danna.
For the future, Kyle says, they are looking to expand, but as to details, he’s keeping mum. He’s very interested in plans to redevelop the commercial area in Orleans, and recently joined with real estate developer Todd Thayer to purchase Dr. Frank ‘n’ Swine, a company that operates a food truck.
They’ve up-fitted the trailer and located it on the site of the former Nonnie’s Country Kitchen in Orleans.
While Kyle credits the local community for his restaurant’s success, he said it wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t left home first.
“It’s really hard to find yourself and your identity in business if you have limited exposure. To be successful, you have to expose yourself to a lot of different environments. That also helps you grow your network and develop mentors.”
“It was really important to me to hitch my wagon to people I believed in, and I was lucky enough to find them,” he says.
Kyle’s advice for other entrepreneurs? “The number one thing that I would say to is to make sure it’s something you really believe in. The biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make is they quit too soon.”