Interview by Emma Castillo
Featured photo by Adam Freidin. Other pictures by Crystal Birns Photography
Andrea’s business is truly one of a kind. As an entrepreneur with 10 years of successful business experience under her belt, she shares her inspirational story that lead to the Food Lounge. The Food Lounge is an incredibly unique middle ground between a limited traditional restaurant and a catering business. Creating the best of both worlds, the Food Lounge acts and an incubator and innovative space that Santa Cruz can appreciate for it’s abundance of opportunities, strong community ties, and aura that encourages people from all walks of life to come together and collaborate.
I was actually a sports medicine major. And it’s way more fun to feed people and make them happy, rather than have them come and be injured and unhappy. I know ultimately the goals are the same in making them feel good to an end, but there was more immediate gratification in feeding people and feeding them from the inside rather than fixing their outside injuries. So I was taking night classes in culinary just for fun, because I was bored. And decided woah! I think I want to pursue this. I moved across the country and started school all over again. Then I ended up living in Santa Cruz and starting my business here.
It’s funny, I don’t feel like my life was hard, but I feel like some of the experiences growing my business were really difficult. And I pushed through them when a lot of statistics say that food businesses close within the first few years. And it’s something that made me the business person I am today. I experienced just a whole series of little disasters at the beginning of growing my business, but I think without them I wouldn’t be the experienced business person that I am now.
I always wanted a big kitchen and I wanted people in my kitchen, rather than just a small commercial space down in a more industrial area like research park or Watsonville. So I built my first kitchen in downtown Santa Cruz – it was big, it was beautiful. Then we had one of those disasters happen where there was a breech of lease and I was a subtenant so my lease was broken by my, quote, “landlord”. It put me out of my kitchen after I invested all my money into it. Anyways, I kept pursuing along and I thought ok, I still want a big kitchen and i still want to host a lot of my parties on site versus doing off site catering where you’re not really connecting with the client as much. Several years later, I’m ten years in the business now since the day I opened my first kitchen. I came full circle, I was back downtown and in another very comfortable similar space when this restaurant came up for sale. I looked at it and it needed a lot of work, it was rundown, but I could see this bigger picture, I could see lots of space, a courtyard, centrally located, access to purchasing a full liquor license. I could see this really big picture and it scared the crap out of me [laughs]. I ended up buying the kitchen with a couple of business partners and friends. I think it’s been this accumulation of just really wanting my own space and wanting it to be big enough that I could have a lot of my catering be there. Consequently, having a large space costs a lot of money, so I started working with a lot of other small businesses around town inviting them to be a part of my kitchen. That was really exciting to me because then you get to work with someone and talk to someone while you’re working. You can brainstorm together, use them as resources, and they can use me as a resource. It just became this thing over the last ten years, that happened organically and ended up being the Food Lounge in the end.
The Food Lounge is a few things, it’s a commercial kitchen space with a very large kitchen and it’s an event venue in the front. The back commercial kitchen space, I like to call an incubator because the word to me means helping grow in a controlled environment. I love the idea that these small businesses can utilize equipment and a large kitchen that they otherwise may not necessarily have been able to afford. The small businesses use each other as resources, bouncing ideas, information, tools, and product off of one another. The back of the house, as we call it in the industry, is this incubator for businesses to connect and collaborate, use each other as resources, use me as a resource as a business consultant. So that is really cool – lots of small businesses doing big stuff in the back.
In the front of the house, I selfishly wanted the event space in the front because it’s a lot of work for a caterer to load out of a kitchen into a car, go to an event, work with whatever they have on site, which is often nothing, and then unload come back. It’s just a big moving game of constant shlepping. My back said, you need to do more events on site and do less shlepping [laughs]. So in the front, selfishly I really wanted to do a lot of my catering up there and have it be primarily on site, even as I still do a lot of off site catering. In the front house, I like to invite people to come in and be fed. And that didn’t mean a restaurant to me because I never ever really wanted to own a restaurant. It meant dynamic, cool events where you could book a private party, and look at the event calendar and come to a public event, a public dinner, or a pop-up dinner. So there is such a range of opportunities both for the public and for the tenants that I think make it really special. It’s not just one focused thing, it’s a lot of different things. Although that seems daunting sometimes, I’m noticing some of the collaborations are just out of this world. I walk in and I’m surprised at what’s going on in my kitchen between tenants and people in the community.
What’s an example of one of those collaborations?
My three business partners and I — we are three women — we feel kind of like the Moms of the FoodLounge [laughs]. It’s funny because there are three women business partners and all of the tenants are male. We’re kind of like running the show, watching, seeing if people are needing us, how people are helping each other. We’re just looking at this thing we’ve envisioned and created, just feeling really proud. I hate to use the word mom, but there is this pride of this thing that we birthed [laughs]. I’m actually not a mother, my baby has always been my business, but the other two owners are, and I think that word feels really matronly, but it feels like this thing that we birthed that we are really proud of.
Lifestyle has been in business for 10 years, so my catering company has been the inspiration for the Food Lounge ultimately. It was me not really wanting to do a ton of wedding style catering like a lot of the caterers in town. Not because I don’t like brides, but because I didn’t feel as much of a connection to those types of events where you go out and do it once and maybe you get a referral or two, but there is really no repeatability, no repeat business, or repeat connection. Through one of the big moves and changes I had, I ended up in Scotts Valley in a business park. And it could have just been a commercial kitchen. It could have just been my catering kitchen, but there was a business park there. And I thought, I want to feed the employees, so I started a little cafe and I realized that just feeding everyone on a more daily and weekly basis was way more appealing to me. It kind of fed me more. So I did less and less wedding style catering and started noticing that all of my clients were repeat clients. They were coming back because they liked the food, they trusted me, and they just had to make one phone call. So it’s corporate, non-profit, business, and people’s private events. Some of my lunch clients ended up being my best friends, very close friends that not only come to every event, but people that I would go out to dinner with on a Friday night. So it was really special. It was a woman and her husband who worked at the office and they would come for my chili and turkey burgers every week, and then we started seeing each other often, I catered their parties, we went out to dinner. It just became this thing where I felt that I want my business to look like this. I want to know my customers, not just feed random people. So I think that just happened over time. It became less weddings and more and more connections to the community and repeat businesses. I think I’ve done some fundraisers for schools 8 or 9 years in a row, and they call me back every year. They tried another caterer and came back. That kind of catering vision for me turned into wow, I see this really cool space downtown and I think it could be the next stage for my business. And it was it ended up being where I wanted to do most of my catering and when the deal went through finally it was just exactly what I wanted. This place I can open up and cater out of while inviting the community in to eat.
What makes Santa Cruz a great place to create an alternative food space like the Food Lounge?
I’m actually not from here, I’ve been here 15 years and it’s where I finished my schooling, started my business, and grew my career. But I’m from Montreal, which is kind of a big city, akin to San Francisco, and Santa Cruz is small. There were a few years in my career where I thought, gosh, Santa Cruz is really small, I don’t know if I’ll end my days here. But the more my business grew, the more connected I felt. I feel like in a small town, if you’re doing good things, and you have good ideas and you’re connected, it’s so easy to thrive. It’s just about not burning bridges, feeding people, and for me that’s physically feeding people – not metaphorically. It felt like once I connected with the community, they liked my food, and they knew I was reliable to feed, show up, and create the experiences that they were looking for, it was just really easy to do good things and be in business.
I never market. I never ever market. I market with my food. It’s really unfortunate for the local media [laughs]. The best way to market my food in a small town is just to feed people and that is the best use of my money. Buy food, feed people. A small town will remember that, the people will know you by name, they’ll know your food, they’ll remember the experience. It creates a lot of opportunities for people if they do it right, if they can tap into that and build those bridges. A small town is the perfect place to build a community focused business. But oh gosh, I can’t get anyone to sign up in advance for an event to save my life! [laughs] Everyone buys tickets last minute. But I’ve noticed Santa Cruz people are loyal to the things that they love and if you take good care of them, they will return. I like that about Santa Cruz. It’s not that there aren’t options, like in a big city, because there are a hundred caterers. I could name a couple dozen off the top of my head. So it’s not that there are not options, it’s that people are very hungry for good experiences and if you’re reliable and you provide something cool, they’re super loyal. I think there is enough business to go around for everybody. I know half of the other caterers in this town and refer them business regularly. Santa Cruz is this really cool small town with big hunger.
Well we’re still just ramping up. And I think what’s next is just seeing what people are enjoying at the Food Lounge. My partners and I have our idea of what we think we want to provide and what we think people will like, buy tickets for, and come to dinner for, come to brunch for, come to private or public events. I think what’s next is figuring out if our business plan and ideas matches what Santa Cruz is looking for. And so far dinners have been full, our events have been successful, well attended, well received. What’s next is going to be asking and listening to what Santa Cruz really wants there. What’s next is just making sure I’m listening. I don’t think people are successful in business who don’t have flexibility, forward vision, and listen to their clientele. I just love what I do!
The Santa Cruz Food Lounge Website is coming soon!
Find out about weekly events by checking the Food Lounge Facebook Page