Aris Cuadra worked in kitchens in New York, Florida and Puerto Rico before catching the attention of Charlottesville-area diners at Caffe Bocce, Pasture, Tavola and the Clifton Inn.
These days, the chef is following his entrepreneurial spirit into the Wich Lab, a new takeout sandwich shop in downtown Charlottesville’s CODE Building that promises an elevated take on scrumptious standards and reflects Cuadra’s newfound commitment to helping others pursue their own dreams of small-business success.
“I just love bringing people joy through food and cooking,” Cuadra said. “It’s my purpose in life. That’s why I do what I do: to bring joy to people.”
The Wich Lab, which is serving sandwiches, wraps and salads from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays in the CODE courtyard, puts locally sourced ingredients and creative spins on familiar recipes on its menu.
Behind the Smashburger, the Fugheddaboudit and the McMolly is a chef who worked 60- and 70-hour weeks honing crowd-pleasing culinary skills in restaurants and, later, as a personal chef in residential settings. His drive to work for himself took a literal turn when he hung up his apron and became an Uber driver.
“I was having fun driving around and talking to people,” Cuadra said of his Uber tenure. Before long, however, “I got into a rut, lacking a sense of purpose. I was unhappy and lacking fulfillment.”
Then an Uber passenger who did design work for the CODE Building offered an enticing tidbit of news: The building’s former Ooey Gooey Crispy space was available. Cuadra was intrigued, but he told her he didn’t have the capital to make it happen.
“Banks won’t touch a new business these days,” he said. But the chef-turned-chauffeur soon discovered that the CODE restaurant space was a turnkey situation — and almost within his reach.
Cuadra, who had taken an entrepreneurship class through the Community Investment Collaborative, or CIC, knew he had the chops. “I’m not lacking confidence. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. So he launched a GoFundMe campaign and applied for a CIC microloan.
His desire to get back in the kitchen — on his own terms this time — won out. He got the microloan. The Wich Lab came to life.
“I was done working for other people,” Cuadra said. “This is a godsend. I’m using my chef’s skills and talents to elevate your normal, everyday sub-shop sandwich.”
Take the classic Reuben, for example. In his version, Cuadra uses high-quality meat — “I want to put out a superior product,” he said — and a playful name.
“There’s a Reuben I call the Ruben Rivera, because my family is Puerto Rican,” Cuadra said. “Just having some fun.”
Rye bread from Albemarle Baking Company offered the “crusty, toasty texture” he sought, especially when slathered with locally sourced butter and his house-made sauce. Cuadra likes supporting fellow local businesses by including their products in his recipes; using “good-quality ingredients and the proper execution” gives his fare an edge, he said.
The Ybor City is a nod to Cuadra’s years spent cooking in Florida and savoring the richness of the culture in general — and one mouth-watering classic in particular.
“The Cuban is one of my favorite sandwiches,” Cuadra said. The sandwich starts with tender mojo pork butt that’s marinated overnight and cooked for hours before being piled onto focaccia baked in Cuadra’s shop and dressed with salami, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and “my own secret Cuban sauce.”
He couldn’t resist trying the “buttery, crispy, toasty bread” that already made his turkey-bacon-and-avocado Gobble Gobble sandwich sing, and he likes the results. Except for one purist, a Cuban friend from Florida who’d wanted Cuadra to follow through on his original plan to bring in Cuban bread baked in the Sunshine State, “people are loving it,” he said. “People are raving about it.”
Cuadra has been serving up handmade sandwiches for more than three weeks now, and he said he hopes his experience will give other local entrepreneurs the push they need to say yes to themselves and their dreams.
“With the generosity of the CODE Building and the space and the CIC, I was able to open this spot,” Cuadra said. “I’m really excited to be here, because I want to inspire new people. I’m also excited for the opportunity my community gave me. I want to encourage other entrepreneurs, because I did this with absolutely nothing.”