Profile: Mario Del Pero
Del Pero and his wife and business partner, Ellen Chen, work closely with the vendors who supply their restaurants. Here, they visit Drake Family Farms, which produces artisan goat cheese. Photo courtesy of Mario Del Pero.

Profile: Mario Del Pero

Mario Del Pero ’95 is co-founder of Mendocino Farms, a Los Angeles born-and-bred chain of gourmet sandwich and salad restaurants.
ByMichelle Boston

USC Dornsife alumnus Mario Del Pero grew up in a food family. Nearly a century ago, his great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy, settling in San Francisco and opening a butcher shop in the bustling, seaside Embarcadero neighborhood.

Over the years, the business blossomed into a larger family-run operation — a meat processing company in Marysville, Calif., north of Sacramento — that Del Pero’s father eventually took over.

The younger Del Pero, now a titan in the fast-casual California dining scene — he and his wife, Ellen Chen, co-founded Mendocino Farms artisan sandwich restaurants — said that his childhood experiences in the family business and his time at USC helped shape his career path.

Del Pero’s father made sure that his son understood the importance of a hard day’s work. He assigned him some of the meat processing plant’s toughest, and lowest paying, positions. One summer he was tasked with repairing the processing plant’s roof. Another stint had him working on the processing line, a job that he said is not for the faint of heart.

“A lot of my great grades were due to the fact that I did not want to be working at that processing table,” he said. “Those were definitely formative jobs.”

An entrepreneurial mind

Del Pero earned his bachelor’s degree from USC Dornsife in 1995. As an undergraduate, he started out as a political science major but quickly switched his focus to international relations when he heard about an incredible new professor named Steven Lamy who was joining the faculty.

“I thought, ‘How do I not lose this opportunity to take as many classes as I can with him?’ ” Del Pero said.

Lamy, professor of international relations and spatial sciences, was an influential figure for Del Pero. In addition to lessons on policies and theories, Del Pero picked up soft skills modeled by Lamy that have been crucial to his business acumen.

“One thing that Dr. Lamy drove home for me is the ability to connect with individuals in large settings,” he said. In a classroom of hundreds of students, Lamy knew every student’s name and if they had attended class the previous week.

“To this day, I walk into a restaurant and I think about how it’s filled with individuals who all have different needs. I serve them best by connecting with them, and letting them know they are heard.”

His international relations courses also honed his critical thinking abilities. Those skills, he said, come into play for him on a daily basis.

“I use my degree in every single thing I do,” Del Pero said. “Whether it is understanding a conflict in 1960s Venezuela or analyzing an issue with our restaurants’ supply chain, I’m identifying all the players, I’m making sure I understand the history, and I’m thinking of what it will teach us for the future to give us the best shot for success.”

Right place, right time

In 2003, Del Pero and Chen came up with the Mendocino Farms concept — gourmet sandwiches and salads that occupy a space somewhere between the convenience of Subway or Quiznos and upscale eateries like Joan’s on Third. They opened their first restaurant in downtown Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood two years later.

L.A., Del Pero said, was the best place for Mendocino Farms to be born because of Angelenos’ very specific tastes. “It’s so much so that if you can make it in L.A., you can make it anywhere.”

The city has also gone through a renaissance in the past decade, he said, with many great chefs either hailing from L.A. or moving here to open restaurants.

“We’ve been blessed not just to be friends with them but to have a few of them help pushing us and how we think,” he said.

Del Pero is involved in research and development of menu items, but a number of highly accomplished local chefs have had a hand in Mendocino Farms’ culinary style. Judy Han of Eko Eats helped develop the restaurant’s first menus; Bryant Ng of Cassia created a sandwich with all proceeds from its sale donated to a nonprofit assisting the homeless and victims of domestic violence; and chefs Josef Centeno, Kris Morningstar, Erik Black and Joe Marcos have also had a hand in menu items.

Del Pero and Chen have redefined how their restaurants interact with vendors. Instead of working through a third-party distributor, they have built direct relationships with local farmers who can bring the freshest produce and foods straight from farm to table. Scarborough Farms in Oxnard, an hour’s drive north of L.A., delivers greens daily, and Drake Family Farms in Ontario, 45 minutes east, provides artisan goat cheeses.

Coming full circle

In the past several years, Mendocino Farms has expanded from its L.A. base, opening new restaurants in Orange County, San Diego and the Bay Area. A location is slated to open in Houston, in 2019, which will bring the total to 28 restaurants.

But nothing might be as significant for Del Pero as the company’s new flagship restaurant. He recently oversaw its opening in San Francisco’s Merchants Exchange Building near the waterfront, just a few blocks from where his great-grandfather opened his butcher shop when he first arrived in the United States.

“The fact that 100 years later his great-grandson can be part of a company that employs about 1,200 team members, a good majority of whom are living out their own immigrant story — that meant a lot to me,” he said. 

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Fall 2018/Winter 2019 issue >>