The restaurant and hospitality industry in El Salvador is unique (and relatively small compared to neighboring Central and South American countries), says Juan Matamoros FCSI, a seasoned marketing expert turned foodservice consultant, who has dedicated over a decade to revolutionizing the region’s dining landscape. “You can drive across the country in around five hours; it’s about the size of Texas,” he says.
This has helped Matamoros enjoy a free and clear runway for his hospitality business to take off when he started it 10 years ago. Plus, as it turns out, clients in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America need just as much as foodservice operators and owners need around the globe, but they tend to have a more streamlined group of players on a project.
That has helped Matamoros define his consultancy, Food Gurus Central America, as a “one stop shop” offering MAS work in concept and menu development as well as market research and financial support, franchise, operational and staffing support, kitchen design, equipment specification and sourcing, installation plus architecture and interior design.
Today, Matamoros has a roster of over 150 projects and 15 team members, split across his physical offices in El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. He helps clients in all segments of the industry, from major fast-food and fast-casual chains to franchises, full-service and fine-dining restaurants, major hotels and resorts, and non-commercial operators in the college/university sector (Central American University/Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, or UCA is a major client) as well as the K-12, healthcare and corporate dining segments. He’s also worked with foodservice processing plants and large-scale bakeries.
“We have people who specialize in branding and name strategy; people in finance to explain how to realize costs; operations people; inventory and warehouse people; kitchen designers, and even our own team of architects for front of the house design,” he says. Matamoros has even branched out into conference hosting and job search engine management (more on that later).
The early years
Matamoros’ foray into the foodservice industry began 27 years ago when he joined Yum! Brands, one of the world’s largest restaurant companies. Starting as a marketing professional in El Salvador, he ascended the ranks and worked for 10 years across multiple countries, including Guatemala and Mexico. During this time, he contributed to the successful opening of hundreds of restaurants in the region.
Matamoros embarked on the consulting path in 2007, leveraging his extensive experience in marketing to assist restaurants as their trusted advisor. Over time, he deepened his knowledge of the foodservice industry, eventually specializing in providing holistic solutions for his clients.
Early on in his consulting work Matamoros had a transformative meeting. “I met Bill [William] Taunton from Chile, and he became my mentor and introduced me to FCSI, which I joined in 2014,” he recalls. “He explained everything about the foodservice industry to me. I attended one of the FCSI symposiums and I saw the whole market in front of me.” He credits Taunton with helping him to add non-commercial segments to his portfolio.
As Matamoros has expanded over the years into different “arms,” he has most recently combined them under one holding company called Zentra Group. The new holding company encompasses Food Gurus Central America as well as Datalisis, his research/reporting arm; Surplus Internacional, a franchise support business; and Empleohoreca.com, a hospitality job search engine for Latin America.
Through Datalisis, which he started 17 years ago under a different name, Matamoros offers services including mystery shoppers, quantitative studies, consumer insights, demographic studies and more to help restaurants and operators make the best decisions in terms of concept design, real estate, menu planning and more.
“Sometimes we’re hired just for this,” Matamoros says. “We have our own coordinators go out and find target demographics and develop research forms and focus groups. They send their analysis back to us and we present it to the client in quantitative and qualitative form.” He notes that demand for this service has grown of late as clients vie to stay ahead of competition.
Through Surplus Internacional, Matamoros’ team helps franchisees develop, execute and commercialize their visions, find investors and expand within their markets. Matamoros has worked with franchisees of major chains such as Denny’s, KFC and Pizza Hut as well as startups. “Yesterday we had a meeting with a client who wants to move forward as a franchisee, but they know they have problems with their strategic focus and need to differentiate themselves from other similar Argentine meat-style restaurants,” Matamoros says. “So we moved them to Datalisis to understand more consumer insights and Food Gurus will help develop a new brand strategy.”
Finally, Empleohoreca.com, is a job portal for restaurants, hotels and foodservice businesses find chefs, cooks, servers, hosts and others in a time when labor is so short in the hospitality industry; a problem around the globe.
Matamoros is working on launching an upgraded, “next generation” version of the website this year.
It seems Matamoros’ clients latch on early for one service, then realize they need more help so they keep coming back. That was certainly the case for Grupo Lorena, now a prominent restaurant group in El Salvador with five brands.
“We started as a consultant for them with a six-month contract, but that’s now lasted seven years,” says Matamoros, who has helped them grow their concepts to include a fine-dining restaurant, bistro, Mexican restaurant, gastropub, hotel and soon to come, a bakery. “When we started with them, their sales were around $600,000 or $700,000 per month – now it’s $3m per month.”
Matamoros has also helped a small sushi operator franchise and grow from one unit to seven brands and 35 restaurants across the board. He’s also proud of his collaboration with BW Buffalo Wings, an expanding restaurant chain in El Salvador. Working with the company for 14 years, he played an integral role in developing their franchise model, resulting in their successful expansion into five additional countries in Latin America with 60 units in total.
“The way we see it, if you’re working with one of our companies you’re part of our entire group,” says Matamoros, who’s able to leverage his various company divisions to support his clients’ diverse needs.
Hotels have also been a source of growth for Matamoros. “There are a lot of hotels springing up in Guatemala and especially in Costa Rica; we recently started working with Wyndham Hotels on their rooms, their banquets, the food and beverage concepts,” he says. “Service is a big issue so we’re taking some time to find out what the major challenges are and help resolve them. We’re setting up KPIs for them and sending our team from El Salvador and Guatemala to dive deeper in each area as well as offering training. Our clients like that kind of information.”
Matamoros and his team members were able to really flex their creative muscles with Lobby, a gastrobar in El Salvador owned by a Pixar animator and one of Matamoros’ designers. “All he had was the name and logo; we came up with the rest.” The result was a sleekly designed 250-seat restaurant and bar modeled after a 1940s Chicago-style hotel lobby bar, complete with fun interior design features such as vintage keys hanging on the wall behind what would have been the check-in desk.
Most recently, a major fast-food franchisor in South America approached him looking to open a fine-dining restaurant in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He didn’t want just any fine-dining restaurant; he wanted the best restaurant in Honduras – one that would serve as a beacon for tourists.
“They wanted a rooftop restaurant on the 9th floor of the building,” Matamoros says. “He said if people go to San Pedro Sula, I want them to go to my restaurant; that’s a huge responsibility.” No problem for Matamoros’ team – they have the name (CIMA), logo, menu and renderings of the front, back and bar design for the massive 7,000 sq ft restaurant, which is set to open in December. The team is also working on staffing and establishing a training program.
“People want things done really fast here – and they want it all done at once,” says Matamoros.
As if Matamoros isn’t busy enough, he’s spent the last couple years launching his own and collaborating with others on conferences and educational opportunities for Horeca professionals in Latin America.
He hosts the annual Congreso Gastronomico, a gastronomic conference that brings together industry professionals, including FCSI consultants, to share insights and drive innovation in Central America’s food and hospitality sector. Next year’s event (the fifth annual) will take place in April in El Salvador, his home base.
At time of writing, Matamoros was on the agenda to speak at the Horeca Expo in July, which will be in Honduras this year and is already expected to attract at least 500 attendees. It’s a three-day conference focused on all aspects of restaurant development and design.
Between September 14-16, Matamoros is helping host and speaking at the first-ever FCSI Latin America Summit conference in Panama City, Panama. “FCSI opened my eyes to a wider industry and is a really good networking opportunity for me,” he says. “The Latin America market for consultants is [relatively] small; there are 18 or 19 certified consultants in Brazil and if we add Mexico, maybe about 45 total in the region. It’s a huge market with not enough consultants.”
That’s not the only area where FCSI has served him well. “FCSI has helped us find ways to understand different areas of consulting that we might not already have known, especially when it comes to equipment. I used to only learn about equipment through major distributors who might focus on selling only a few brands, but because my goal is to recommend the best equipment to my clients, FCSI has really helped.
At the same time, design cannot and should not be the be-all and end-all for Matamoros, not in a smaller market. “If we only did kitchen design we wouldn’t be in the market anymore,” he says. “That’s why we have to do more things.”
As a passionate advocate for excellence in the foodservice industry, Matamoros’s ultimate objective is to raise hospitality standards throughout Central America. With an extensive network, a multidisciplinary team, and a commitment to knowledge sharing, Matamoros is on a mission to transform Central America’s food and hospitality landscape, ensuring that the region’s restaurants reach new heights of success and provide exceptional dining experiences for their patrons.
“My main objective for Food Gurus is to elevate the food and hospitality industry in Central America,” he says. “When that happens, we have better restaurants, better food, better experiences, and we all make more money – plus, we’re happy.”