It’s around 1992, and a long-haired dude in his early 20s is sitting with his friend at Taco Loco, a popular Mexican eatery on J Street in Sacramento. They’re eyeballing the customers, waiting to pounce.
At this point in his life, Sonny Mayugba dreamed of being a rock star, but his band, Phallucy, was struggling and he was flat broke. Decades before he would become one of the most dynamic food-focused entrepreneurs in Sacramento and a force in a food-delivery startup now worth half a billion dollars, he was on the prowl for free grub.
“We’d sit and wait and look for a couple where one of them didn’t finish the food, and when they left, we would grab it before it got bussed,” recalls Mayugba, now 47. “We’d cut off the part they had been eating — and we’d eat the rest. I lived out of a storage shed and was basically couch surfing.”
Today, Mayugba is as hungry as ever. He recently celebrated the seventh anniversary of Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar, the lively Midtown spot he co-owns and says has racked up $14 million in revenue since it opened. He just launched Tiger, the restaurant and bar on K Street in downtown that serves New American cuisine, dim sum style. He’s a partner in the soon-to-open Solomon’s Delicatessen, also on reinvigorated K Street near Golden 1 Center; the new owner of iconic Sacramento brand Grateful Bread; and the creator and owner of the coming Market + Makers at lower Broadway, a 16,000-square-foot food hall and market.
Then there’s Waitr, the food-delivery company for which he is chief marketing officer. With an explosion of recent growth, Waitr operates in 250 cities in 10 states. In November 2018, Mayugba and his business partner rang the opening bell at the NASDAQ to celebrate the launch of the Louisiana-based Waitr as a publicly traded company.
In 1993, Mayugba was making minimum wage as a courier when Matt Kennedy and John Baccigaluppi started an edgy little snowboarding magazine in Sacramento called Heckler and asked him to be a partner. Mayugba had only gone snowboarding once in his life. But he had made a name for himself as a courier for Baccigaluppi’s company, hustling up new business leads from receptionists he met during his rounds. He scored plenty of business cards, but Mayugba now laughs at the memory — he was simply trying to meet girls.
“[We] figured it out on the fly,” says Baccigaluppi, who now lives in San Rafael and publishes a magazine on music recording called Tape Op. “We were making a small income on it, but it was an insane amount of work. Sonny was a super-positive person. It would be hard to think of Sonny ever being negative. He always had a can-do attitude.”
By 1996, Mayugba was a 26-year-old editor, publisher and global traveler whose magazine was thriving, so much so that a major publisher came calling with an offer the three founders couldn’t refuse — $1.5 million cash and the founders could maintain editorial control. But after nine years at Heckler, Mayugba was feeling burned out, so he sold his stake and sought his next entrepreneurial challenge.
Mayugba came up with three restaurant concepts and approached Kurt Spataro, executive chef and partner with the Paragary Restaurant Group, which is one of the most prominent locally owned companies in the Sacramento food and beverage category. Mayugba credits his gift of gab and willingness to reach out to those who could teach him something about business with opening new opportunities.
Soon Mayugba was working grueling split shifts as the pantry chef at Esquire Grille. It was 2002, and nobody at the restaurant knew who he was. “You’re the lowest guy, the hardest-working guy in the kitchen. You know what? I loved it,” he says. “It’s what I needed. At Heckler, I became this little king. I was publisher and editor-in-chief at one of the hottest snowboarding magazines in the world, flying all over the planet, hanging with AC/DC and Tony Hawk, all these big names, boxes of free stuff showing up every day. I had become that sensitive, ego-driven idiot. I was too cool and I hated that about myself. I was doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Mayugba quickly realized he didn’t want to be a chef. So he became PRG’s first marketing director. In 2006, he had another idea — online social media for the restaurant industry. He called it Bite Club. This was when Facebook was just a fledgling enterprise. He launched the startup with some investors but just missed out on the coming boom in that realm.
“Social was where it was at, and I saw that,” he says. “But I failed in two areas. As CEO, I thought my ideas were the only way. I invested all of my brain cells in marketing and very few in product. It’s supposed to be the opposite. The failure of Bite Club hurt deeply. … Bite Club was right on time, and I fault myself for the mistakes that were made. I’m over it, but I’ll never forget it.”
That failure wouldn’t be his last. Requested, launched in 2014, was a polished phone app featuring a dynamic pricing concept at restaurants with plenty of financial backing, but it never gained traction. Customers were invited to bid on prices for menu items, the idea being that restaurants would be willing to accept lower prices during slow times, much like hotels do. Building the business accounted for more than a year of his life, and it wasn’t paying off. It was an innovative idea that consumers found awkward to use.
Rather than lick his wounds, Mayugba put together a deal in 2016 to merge with Waitr — and the fortified venture soon flourished. Becoming a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ was a milestone worth millions on paper for Mayugba and affirmation for a dreamer and risk-taker who persevered through his share of false starts and missed opportunities. Looking back, Mayugba says he had a grasp of the opportunities available in the new digital age in business.
“What I recognized pretty early on was the democratization of information and the access to build things — the lowering of the hurdle to build something,” he says. “The real thing that blew my mind that the old-legacy guys didn’t see was the speed at which the tech companies were growing — the adoption by consumers was just unbelievable. I think I saw that.”
Mayugba is still dreaming up new ideas. Next on his docket is getting Solomon’s Deli launched in Sacramento, with an expected opening this summer. The first location opened in Davis last May. “Like so many of us in the restaurant business, Sonny has always been one of those guys who wants to make Sacramento a better place,” says Andrea Lepore, who cofounded Hot Italian pizzeria in Sacramento a decade ago and is a partner in Solomon’s. “Elevating people’s expectations in Sacramento is one of the reasons I reached out to Sonny with Solomon’s.”
Due to open in September 2020 at the Market + Makers is another unusual offering called Smash Table Tennis Bar — Ping-Pong, cocktails and a 360-degree bar. It will be one of the many offerings in this eclectic space.
“Sonny has always been the same person,” says wife Lynn Mayugba, who met her husband in 1994. “I think he’s just become more refined in terms of business. He’s always been extremely exuberant. I think he’s the happiest person I have ever met in my life. Every day is like the best day of his life.”