Photographs by Sharon Risedorph

By Kristen Spina

It’s clear that much of Dr. Joe Torres’ success stems from the fact that he is a people person. You can hear it in his voice. It’s like a smile. “Sure, being a competent doctor helps,” he says. “But I really love seeing patients.”

Tucked into the lobby level of Embarcadero 4 in downtown San Francisco, Eye Carumba is a reflection of the doctor’s desire to create a positive experience for anyone who passes through its doors. “Customer service is our main thing,” he says. “I treat people the way I want to be treated and, as a result, people feel comfortable with me. I love my work and it shows.”

While he credits his parents for instilling that “do unto others” attitude in him from a young age, there’s no doubt that Dr. Torres firmly believes in the creed. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley School of Optometry and a third generation Mexican-American, Dr. Torres can’t imagine behaving in any other way. “Sometimes the staff makes fun of me because if a patient is in a bad mood, I can have them smiling and laughing within five minutes. I don’t know why, but my patients really like me.”

And yet, there is more to building a successful practice than simply being a nice guy. Yes, being a competent doctor and a good listener are important factors, but there’s a lot to be said for knowing how to surround yourself with people who can get the job done—and to that end, Dr. Torres seems to have a knack for partnering with those who are at the top of their game. From his office manager to the head optician to the architect who orchestrated the build-out, Dr. Torres’ team has gone above and beyond to create a one-of-a-kind, uplifting environment in a small, but efficient space.

Architect John Lum cleverly played off the idea of refracting light in his design. “The space starts as a compressed, curving tunnel that increases in width and height, ending in a floor-to-ceiling glass window that overlooks the street,” he explains. “Reflected light draws in the passerby and gives the literal effect of a light at the end of a tunnel.”

With a total of 1,524 square feet—450 of which accounts for the dispensary—Eye Carumba is a study in modern simplicity. And though the architect’s execution sounds complex, the result is a light, bright, efficient interior that uses color and lighting and architectural details to maximize its impact. “Dr. Torres wanted something unique and eye-catching,” says Lum. “Something that would appeal to both professionals and business people in a fresh and innovative way.”

But transforming the vacant space into a “tunnel of light” was no easy venture. “We had to do a lot of creative problem solving on the budget,” says Dr. Torres. “Estimates from the union contractors were two-and-a-half times what the architect projected, and because the developer required us to work within the unions, our hands were tied.”

Instead of the desired terrazzo and slate flooring, Dr. Torres settled on more cost effective wall-to-wall carpeting, and he creatively combined off-the-shelf cabinets from Ikea with custom designed cabinets from his contractor. “In the end, we saved a lot of money,” he says. “Also, in some ways, the compromises worked to our advantage. Carpet has better sound absorption than the hard tile flooring would have had, and because we couldn’t afford the light fixture we wanted, one of the electricians designed something for us that turned out even better than we could have hoped.”

And while Eye Carumba is described by both Dr. Torres and Lum as a truly modern space, it is not without a touch of whimsy. The reception desk and tables are trimmed in white fur, and the inventory of 600 frames, including styles from Zero G, Booth & Bruce and Silhouette, is housed in rotating cases designed by the architect. The cases, which are inset into the walls, are mirrored on one side. “Space was limited,” says Lum. “And we wanted an efficient way to have a mirror that would also be interactive and able to display the product. This was a clever way to do that.”

“The design is just beautiful,” adds Torres. “And it’s comfortable.”

With 11 employees, including two doctors and three opticians, Eye Carumba is a busy enterprise. The average cost of a complete pair of eyewear ranges from $450 for single vision pairs to $700 for progressives. And while the patient base skews toward young professionals who work nearby, Dr. Torres has a loyal following of patients who travel great distances just to see him.

Dr. Torres spends the bulk of his time in one of the two exam rooms, leaving the day-to-day responsibilities to practice manager Paul Irving. And though Irving is currently in the process of transitioning out—Kerrie Volau, a longtime friend of Dr. Torres, has been tapped to replace him—Dr. Torres credits a great deal of his success to Irving’s management skills. “He does everything. He runs the business. He’s the one who found the lease and the architect, and hired the contractors.”

Volau is hoping to put her own stamp on the position. As she takes on more of Irving’s responsibilities, it is her hope to maximize marketing opportunities and increase awareness of the practice. “One of my immediate goals is to revamp the website and increase our visibility using some of the free marketing tools offered to us by the Embarcadero Center.”

It’s clear the investment in the space, the design and the staff has been worth whatever sacrifices needed to be made. Perhaps Lum sums it up best: “This is definitely not your normal optometric office.”  ■