September 30, 2020

Dago Villanueva, General Manager of The Meeting House Restaurant: “More Than a Job for Me”

“AN AMAZING GUY”: Dago Villanueva, just promoted to general manger at The Meeting House restaurant, came to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago. He has been in the restaurant business ever since, working his way up from porter to bus boy, to waiter to host, to front-of-the-house manager, and then manager. (Photo courtesy of Dago Villanueva)

By Donald Gilpin

When the pandemic hit New Jersey in March and all non-essential businesses faced a shutdown, Dago Villanueva sat down with Amar Gautam, The Meeting House co-owner, every day, trying to help chart the way forward for the Witherspoon Street restaurant that had opened just four months before.

“We didn’t know week to week if we were going to stay open,” said Gautam.  “But Dago never wavered throughout the pandemic. He was this force of ‘Let’s try,’ ‘Let’s do the best,’ ‘Let’s create a new business model,’ ‘Let’s become a takeout restaurant,’ which we had to do  — and he stayed with us.”

Gautam described how he had met Villaneuva before even buying the restaurant. “He’s a person you see everywhere. I knew him working in restaurants and walking around town,” he said. The previous owner of what used to be Two Sevens Eatery told Gautam, co-owner of The Meeting House with his wife Amanda Maher, that he’d need someone to help run the restaurant and that Villanueva was the right man  — “the best we’ve ever had.”

“We met with Dago and we liked him,” said Gautam, and Villanueva was hired as front of the house manager. “I got to know him really well as we worked side by side during the pandemic,” Gautam added. “We sat next to each other every day trying to figure out how we were going to pivot the business. And every day during the tough times when we were generating zero and losing thousands of dollars, each week he came to work with a great attitude, and he helped us pivot.”

Gautam noted Villanueva’s significant role in forging a relationship with Share My Meals to help people in town who can’t afford meals and in creating an online ordering and takeout system. 

“As we were trying to come out of the pandemic and reopen the restaurant, we moved from laying off a lot of our staff to bringing them back,” Gautam said. “One of the amazing things about Dago is that he has this loyalty among the employees. I was nervous about how we were going to get these people back as we opened up for outside dining. He called them, and his staff was very loyal to him. He was able to bring them all back, which says a lot. He’s an amazing guy.”

Noting Villanueva’s ability to work with others — “his emotional intelligence is off the scale” — Gautam noted Villanueva’s range of skills and attributes. “He’s this really solid citizen who works hard and keeps his cool, a pleasure to be around — and very talented,” said Gautam. “And you can tell he’s come up through the restaurant industry because he does not hesitate to bus the table or wipe it down. He does not hesitate to bring your food out to you or take an order. At the same time he’s very professional and very smart. And he can sit down and converse intelligently with customers.”

Villanueva described his job in an Italian restaurant in New Brunswick when he first came to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago. “I was working as a bus boy. Trying to learn the language and culture was hard,” he said. “I was 18 years old. It was intimidating. I didn’t know the job or the restaurant culture and I didn’t know the language. I was very hard on myself because I wanted to do well, and it wasn’t just to pour water and bring bread for the tables. I wanted to understand how the system worked. For the first three months it was awful. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the job because it was so hard. The whole experience was challenging.”

As he worked his way into his new country, with the new workplace and the unfamiliar language, things began to look up. “I took every chance, every opportunity that I was given,” he said. “That’s why I believe that everyone deserves a chance. We all have different talents. We have to believe in every single one. Some people believed in me. I’m privileged that I’ve had that opportunity, and I’ve worked hard.”

He added, “I got a lot of support from people who told me ‘you’re going to learn. We believe in you.’”

Villanueva moved to Princeton after a year and was soon employed at a restaurant in Forrestal Village, where he worked his way up through a variety of positions, mostly as a server. “My experience there helped me to train people when I became a manager because I knew all the positions. It makes a difference that I have done many different jobs.” 

He continued, “I really understand the culture of the business, and it’s been incredible to coach and teach other people.”

When Agricola opened in downtown Princeton in March 2013, Villanueva was ready to move on and he was the first employee interviewed and the first hired for the new restaurant. His learning curve continued to rise sharply as he learned about different foods, about the culture of downtown Princeton, and the culture of the new restaurant.

“I always tried to do my best to accommodate everyone. Little by little I got comfortable. It took a while, but after three years serving I became manager. I had to wait for the opportunity, but they saw my potential.”

He emphasized the unusual appeal of Princeton. “The relationship with the community was very exciting,” he said. “It’s such a small town, and everyone knows your name. People call me. They text me when they want to place an order. That’s special to me. That’s fulfilling when people call you. They say hi to you and they want to know who you are and they want to meet your family. It’s a great feeling.”

He continued, “In Princeton I have never felt disrespected. I think people are generous and really understanding, especially now. I have to thank the Princeton community. The support has been incredible.”

In the fall of 2019 Villanueva was ready for a new challenge. “That’s when I met Amar and Amanda, and I knew that The Meeting House would be my new challenge,” he said. “They are incredible to work with, very generous people. And they have done an amazing job at The Meeting House. I’m grateful to be a part of it.”

Villanueva described the importance of teamwork in operating and growing a restaurant. “Little by little we’re building something good,” he said. “It’s amazing to be doing something important as a team. Without all of them it’s impossible for me to do my job, and thanks to them my job is much easier.”

Villanueva lives in Montgomery with his wife, a pastry chef, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 13. “Without my family’s support I would not be where I am,” he said.

Looking forward to owning his own restaurant someday, Villanueva observed, “The best experience is connecting with people. I always tell everyone that I would like to own my own restaurant one day, with people that I enjoy working with. I’ve met so many great people in the restaurant business.”