Building an Edible Empire

The Wence Family Loves Food - and Creating New Restaurants

Esther and Jaime Wence and their daughter Yaretzi in the kitchen of Manny’s Barzzeria in Isleton. The restaurant is named after Jaime’s father, Manny Wence. Photo by Rich Turner

When Jaime and Esther Wence decided to open a new restaurant in Isleton, they had plenty of inspiration. 

That’s because the couple is part of a family of restaurateurs who’ve built an edible empire in the Delta and beyond. 

Wence family members operate restaurants in Isleton, Brentwood, Rio Vista, Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, with one set to open early this year in Suisun City.

Jaime Wence spent weeks perfecting the pizza dough at Manny’s Barzzeria and makes nearly everything on the menu from scratch. Photo by Rich Turner.

Their menus vary, the decor is different, but there is one thing the Wences share:

The Wences all work very, very hard. 

There are no culinary graduates among them, no MBAs.

The Wences have succeeded by doing, whether that means clearing tables, working cash registers, cooking meatballs, or mixing a good martini.

Jaime Wence learned all that from his father, Manny, the man he named his restaurant for – and the master builder of the Wence empire.

Manny’s Barzzeria, at 212 2nd Street in Isleton, specializes in gourmet pizza and also offers a variety of pasta, sandwiches and burgers. Photo by Rich Turner.

A modest pioneer

Manny Wence emerged from his kitchen for an interview wearing a smile and a blue chef’s jacket.

Manny and Lucy Wence in the dining room of Lucy’s Restaurant in Rio Vista, which they opened in 2005. Photo by Rich Hanner

He is soft-spoken and modest. He doesn’t particularly like to talk about himself or how he helped create the family businesses.

But his family is happy to describe him. They use words such as pioneer, mentor, innovator. 

And workaholic.

He came to California from Michoacán, Mexico as a young man with very little, took a job as a dishwasher at a Bay Area restaurant, and worked. He watched and learned everything about the kitchen operation, the “back of the house” in restaurant parlance. He became a sous chef, then the head chef. Along with cooking the pasta and pizzas, he was responsible for the staffing, the ordering, the inventory.

It was a good education – but a frustration, too.

He and his wife, Luz, who also goes by Lucy, were starting a family. Manny was putting in ungodly hours at the restaurant.

“He would come home and tell me, ‘I wish I had my own place,'” Lucy recalled.

She did not encourage him. Her family owned a retail business in Mexico.

“I know how demanding it is to run your own business, and I told him ‘you carry the weight 24/7.’ He told me, ‘I’m carrying it 24/7 anyway. I might was well do it for us.'”

So they found a spot for rent in Brentwood and opened Lucy’s in 2001. With Lucy setting a friendly tone out front, and Manny cooking, they made a go of it. Yet they knew they wanted to own, not lease.

They learned of a venerable restaurant for sale in Rio Vista. They sold their  home, scraped together virtually everything they had, and bought it. 

Manny could not start cooking just yet, though. The place needed work. The kitchen had been largely destroyed in a fire.

Manny, the chef, became Manny, the builder.

“There was a lot of work to be done. A lot,” recalled Ivan Wence, Manny and Lucy’s younger son. “My dad did pretty much all of it himself.”

Ivan Wence has worked at his family’s restaurant in Rio Vista since he was a teen. He tends bar and helps manage the restaurant with his mother, Lucy, while his dad, Manny, runs the kitchen. Photo by Rich Hanner

Finally, in 2005, Lucy’s was reborn in its present location at 95 Main Street in Rio Vista, just a block from the Sacramento River.

Since then, Manny has been planted squarely in the kitchen, cooking up scallops and scampi, steaks and spaghetti. He loves to try new dishes and seasonings. 

Manny Wence was the first member of the family to open a restaurant, and his success has inspired several of his siblings to do the same. Photo by Rich Hanner.

“We were in Napa recently and we had a chicken and pasta dish with garlic and bell pepper,” Lucy said. “Manny liked the taste of that, so now we serve his own version.”

Manny’s culinary range is vast. There are more than 92 items on Lucy’s menu, from calamari fritti to the California club sandwich. The menu is Italian-eclectic, with tacos, a Mexican turkey melt and Teriyaki sandwich listed along with more than a dozen pasta dishes. 

Staples include the fresh loaves of an Italian-inspired bread Manny bakes each morning. The bread is a customer fave, and the yeasty aroma lingers in the kitchen throughout the day. Like the bread, all of the sauces at Manny’s are made from scratch. 

Lucy, with a sharp mind for business, juggled working at a Longs drugstore with running the front of the house.

Especially in the early years, they skipped vacations, pulled in family members, and put every penny they could back into the restaurant. Asked if he has a hobby, Manny drew a blank. His world is an energized mix of family and food.

With sweat and smarts, and a love for what they do, the couple made Lucy’s a success. Manny’s siblings took note.

“They said, ‘Manny you can do it, we want to try it, too.’ ” Lucy said. “He comes from a whole family of workaholics.”

According to the National Restaurant Association, 60 percent of restaurants fail in the first year and 80 percent fail within five years.

Undaunted, and encouraged by Manny, his siblings have opened one restaurant after another.

In 2010, Manny’s brother Gerardo and his wife Sandra opened Wence’s Seafood and Grill in Pleasant Hill. They recently bought Maximo’s in Walnut Creek.

In 2016, Manny’s brother Alfonzo and his wife Norma started the Wence House California Kitchen in Brentwood.

Manny’s sister, Marta, owns T’znun, in Pleasant Hill. 

Opening sometime early this year is the latest Wence enterprise, 1933, in Suisun City, owned by Manny’s brother  Ignacio Wence, his wife Genoveva and their son, Ignacio Jr.

The siblings all help each other, whether that means muscle for repairs or tips on what works on the menu and what doesn’t.

“We are a very united family,” Ignacio Wence Jr. said. “We get together a lot and we share a lot.”

When Manny and his siblings gather, they do not discuss politics or sports.

“They sit around and talk about where they can get the freshest fish. Or they’ll talk about a new recipe,” Lucy said.

Setting the standard in Isleton

One of Manny’s maxims: When the opportunity arises, always gamble on yourself.

In January of 2020, Esther and Jaime did just that. They opened Manny’s Barzzeria in Isleton, named after Jaime’s dad. The restaurant features gourmet pizza and pasta in an airy, clean atmosphere with high ceilings. A massive polished redwood slab table runs nearly the length of the restaurant. Artwork of the Delta decorates the walls. (Barzzeria is a portmanteau, a blend of bar and pizzeria.)

Jaime had worked at Lucy’s since he was a teenager. He was naturally drawn to the kitchen and his father’s zeal for cooking. Esther, a graduate of UC Davis in environmental science, was all in to oversee the front of the house.

The couple struggled through the dark months of Covid and even had to close for a time. For a stretch, they could offer only take-out. 

In those first months, the couple did everything themselves, from the cleaning, the cooking, the cleanup, the paperwork.

“My dad taught us all to be self-sufficient,” Jaime said. “To run your own  restaurant, you should be able to do a lot of things yourself.”

As Covid eased, they bounced back. Now the eatery is bustling spot for lunch and dinner. The Barzzeria draws both locals and travelers exploring the Delta region..

From day one, the couple vowed to exceed customers’ expectations.

“We didn’t want people to have to go to Sacramento or the Bay Area for excellent food,” Esther said. “We offer that right here in Isleton.”

Jaime experimented for weeks to create just the right pizza dough. The couple is on a continuous quest for the best ingredients. Their pizza sauce, for example, is made from San Marzano tomatoes. Their burger patty is a half-pound blend of American Angus chuck and short rib.

As his father does, Jaime makes everything he can from scratch. Also like his dad, he spends much of his life in the kitchen, often experimenting with new flavors and ingredients.

The menu, like that of the other eateries, includes variations of recipes Manny himself created, including garlic bread, meatballs and tiramisu.

Manny’s is a warm, family-friendly place, and a frequent visitor to the restaurant is Yaretzi, the couple’s baby daughter.

Starting and running Manny’s Barzzeria has had its challenges, but feedback from customers, including reviews on Yelp, has been exceptional. And Jaime cites moments of great satisfaction.

“A few days ago, a customer popped their head in the kitchen and said, ‘thank you very much. That was just great.’  That’s gratifying.”

A passion for the kitchen

What’s in the future for the remarkable Wences?

Is there another generation ready to taste and test and toil?

Esther Wence said she could see little Yaretzi as a restaurateur. It all depends, she said.

“If she enjoys it, yes. If you don’t enjoy it, you just won’t make it in this business. It’s a big commitment. If you do enjoy it, it is a good life and a good way to be with family.”

In Rio Vista, Ivan is on track to become manager of Lucy’s, freeing up his mom to spend more time as a grandmother.

Manny, the soft-spoken master of the empire, is 60 now. He still rises early to get the loaves in the oven and remains until the last meal is served.

“To be honest, I don’t see Manny retiring,” Lucy said.

“I doubt we’ll ever get him out of the kitchen.”


Leave a Reply

One Comment

  • This is an outstanding article emphasizing how immigrants can make great contributions to our region and live the American dream for themselves. Thank you, Rich Hanner and Rich Turner for your efforts in producing this article!

Leave a Reply

To continue reading for free just click the ‘X’ in the upper right corner. Before you do though, if you like what we are doing and have the means, please consider becoming a supporter by clicking the blue bar below.
Soundings is free to enjoy but not free to produce.