When one sees Jimmy Sanz walking hastily along West 4th Street in New York City, one wonders where this retired-aged man is running off to in his tweed suit and perfectly combed white hair.
At 75, Sanz is founder and owner of six NYC restaurants – Tio Pepe, Las Ramblas, The Taco Shop, Burrito Loco, Da Rosina and Casa Pepe – the first four of which are neighbors on West 4th Street. He considers the West Village his home now for the past 55 years. That wasn’t always the case though.
Sanz arrived in New York City from the Zamora region of Madrid, Spain in 1959. He was 20.
“I came by myself – I only had an uncle here,” says Sanz, whose original dream was to go to Australia, but he didn’t have the money. “I had to support myself.”
He says he had to sleep three nights in the subway when he first arrived.
“In the beginning, it was rough for me to be here,” says Sanz. “It was hard to get food. I used to eat one meal a day at La Nacional on 8th Avenue and 14th Street.”
But Sanz was prepared to work hard. He says he learned English, finished high school, and then studied electrical engineering in college – all while supporting himself by working in restaurants.
Around the time of NYC’s World’s Fair in 1964, Sanz says he had saved enough working as a waiter to become co-owner of a restaurant called Las Caravelas with a friend.
“For eight years, we fixed it up, but a big corporation bought the whole block,” remembers Sanz. “Those days, I made a lot of money working in the restaurant…I told [my partner] I found this place on West 4th, and maybe it was a good time to buy. He told me to buy it, because it was a good location. He gave me some money and I opened it.”
That was how Sanz opened his first restaurant, Tio Pepe, in 1970. At the time, it was the first restaurant in NYC offering both Spanish and Mexican cuisine.
“In those days people didn’t know the food from Spain,” Sanz explains. “I used to go to Mexican restaurants a lot, and I saw the opportunity to make it successful.”
Today, Tio Pepe focuses more on Spanish cuisine, and it is still the only restaurant in NYC which uses a wood oven – not gas – to make paella like it is done in its native Valencia.
“I was always ambitious – I love people and moving around, and I like a lot of noise,” says Sanz, although he himself is very soft-spoken, almost shy. “I used to see those big restaurants, and I thought one day I can have a restaurant like that.”
Sanz not only found professional success in the West Village, he also met his wife on 14th Street – where he used to live. Today, the whole family – his wife, two sons and daughter, are involved in running the Sanz restaurant empire.
“I don’t think I will retire,” says Sanz, who now likes to help others open restaurants, like his friend once helped him. “I had a tough life, but a good life…To be successful, you need a lot of energy to work hard.”