Living Proof: Chef Sergio di Sapio Shares His Recipe for Success
Sergio di Sapio’s great success as a Chicago-based chef and restaurant owner was founded on his family’s tradition of hard work and, in the words of Paulo, Sergio’s director of bar operations, a genuine “appreciation (for) creating welcoming spaces and environments.” As Argentinian immigrants who made Chicago their home in the late 1970s, the di Sapio family brought with them their passion for traditional Argentinian food. In 1977, Sergio’s father opened El Mercado, a butcher shop and South American grocery store that has stood the test of time to become a community landmark.
With its warm and welcoming old-school charm, El Mercado remains authentic, selling the same traditional cuts of meat and the family’s signature empanadas, one of the many foods Sergio learned to cook as a young boy. Preserving the tradition of El Mercado is important to Sergio. “You don’t want to change it,” he says with fondness. “I feel like (it’s) part of what we are.”
As a boy, Sergio committed to saving every dollar he earned from selling the empanadas his family was known for. By age 20, he had accumulated enough money to open his first restaurant. Together, he and his father established a business plan for what would become Tango Sur, a traditional Argentine restaurant serving a simple menu featuring barbecue, short ribs, flat meat, and empanadas. Building on its success, Sergio continued to expand, and over the next 25 years, launched three more locations: Bodega Sur, a casual wine and beer spot next to Tango Sur; Barra Ñ, a vibrant lounge serving food, signature cocktails, and hosting live music; and Folklore, an Argentine steakhouse and bar located in Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood.
The secret of his success is how Sergio built his business: slowly, with passion, intention, and by diversifying as both a restaurateur and a property owner. “For me it was important to get into real estate when I did the restaurants,” he says of his business model. “I was, like, ‘I want to own it, I don’t want to rent it.’”
As owner of the buildings in which his restaurants are located, he has also become a landlord, renting apartments on upper floors. “From a young age my mom would always tell me, ‘You need to be an owner. You need to own your own apartment. You need to own your own business.’” Now, with four thriving restaurants, the original El Mercado, rental properties, and a fifth restaurant location in the works, Sergio has clearly turned his mother’s advice into action.
Realizing his vision to create places where people can gather and feel good while they enjoy an authentic meal and warm, friendly service is a true labor of love. Even with multiple locations and 70- to 80-hour work weeks, Sergio says the money doesn’t always pour in. “A lot of the money you have to reinvest into your restaurant, into your people. You have to have different options. That’s why I got into the real estate part of it, too,” says Sergio on how he balances the ebb and flow of business, adding, “It’s not an industry you’d want to get into unless you love it and grew up in it, or just have that thing that pushes you past all the craziness that comes with it. Keep to what you know and do it right.”
As an entrepreneur who clearly knows what to do and how to do it right, Sergio di Sapio’s gift is for turning each location—down to every last detail—into individual and memorable experiences for customers, from the food and drinks, to the music, décor, atmosphere, and, most important, the service.
“Create this atmosphere where people are not just coming in to eat the steak, but to feel like they’re somewhere else,” says Sergio, who finds great satisfaction in the simple fact that he loves what he does. “I love to serve people,” he shares, “and I love to talk to people and show them a good time and make them feel good.”