Kathleen Cochran has been doing a lot of people watching lately at the Lucky Penny, observing with silent glee the number of customers who marvel at the pennies hand-glued on the walls of the take-away vendor in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.
The general manager of Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta has taken to perching at a table next door in The Lark, where Cochran’s younger sister, Sherry Villanueva, has made her first foray into the tour and travel industry as principal of the restaurant venture.
Sitting with her sister at one of those Lark tables on a recent morning, about to sample the Lucky Penny’s latest breakfast menu items, Cochran told Noozhawk she’s not surprised by her little sister’s success since opening last month.
“It’s my new favorite,” Cochran said of the downtown restaurant. “She gets all her cleverness from me.”
Four years her senior, Cochran takes a slightly protective yet respectful role with Villanueva and their two younger brothers, who live elsewhere in California.
The sisters aren’t often discovered as siblings, and both playfully point out that Villanueva looks nothing like anyone else in their tight-knit family.
When asked where they originally hail from, Cochran and Villanueva hesitate before truthfully replying “everywhere.”
As offspring of a father in the Army, the siblings have lived all over the world and lovingly refer to themselves as “Army brats” who were raised by two other Army brats.
“Home for us is really where your family was,” Cochran said. “I’ve been following my sister around for a while.”
Years ago, when Cochran was in New York, Villanueva was working in Santa Monica. A while after Cochrane moved west to continue working in the hospitality industry, Villanueva moved up to Montecito, where she has lived with her husband the past 15 years, raising two now-grown daughters and operating a marketing firm called Twist Worldwide.
Two years ago, Cochran, who had been living in San Diego for several years, was finally able to follow her sister north when she landed the Bacara job. The move also put her closer to their parents, who have retired in Paso Robles.
Now the sisters are comparing notes in jobs with overlapping skills and helping the other through stressful days by offering massages and spa treatments (Cochran) or a good bottle of wine (Villanueva).
They hope to remain rooted in the same area for the long haul, especially since their own children have formed similar, solid bonds with each other.
“It’s a role I’ve been watching my sister do for 30 years,” Villanueva said of her new business. “She’s really a national leader in the field.”
Cochran was quick to return the compliment.
“This business has just blown up, which is crazy because I’m in this business,” she said of The Lark. “You’re trying to establish a culture. (The restaurant) just seems like home. It seems only fitting that my sister is successful.”
Cochran and Villanueva note that while they have the same core values and tireless work ethic — both surround themselves with respectful, complimentary talent — they tend to approach issues differently.
The sisters say they have the same “serving heart” as their mother, a former nurse, and have eventually come around to sharing the mantra their father used to feed them when they were younger and not so friendly.
“‘Your sister is your best friend,’” Cochran said, smiling with Villanueva at the memory. “I feel really pretty blessed. My sister is my best friend.”