Published Mar. 8, 2023
BY SAGE MELTON
Restaurants provide customers with not just a culinary experience, but also a place to gather and connect, thus serving as one of the cornerstones for Carmel’s tourism-based economy and local population alike, and what lies at the heart of these well-loved Carmel restaurants is their community values and commitment to high-quality service.
So what does it take to establish a successful and sustainable restaurant business in Carmel?
With the constant fluctuations in tourism and high cost of rent, it is often hard for new restaurants to keep their doors open and create a lasting business. For Chloé and Jay Dolata, who helped open Carmel Belle and now own Elroy’s Fine Foods in Monterey, entering the Carmel restaurant business entailed a long process of learning and growth.
“There was definitely a learning curve because we were new to Carmel,” explains Jay. “We didn’t really know what the tourist foot traffic was like and when the slow season was and how long it was.”
The Dolatas had always wanted to start their own business in the food and market field, and when they started a family they felt the time had come. In 2009, they finally settled on purchasing Carmel Belle, which had only been opened two months prior and was being sold due to the past owners’ family emergency.
The opportunity to purchase the property upon which Folktale Winery & Vineyards now stands came for Greg and Madigan Ahn eight years ago when the owners decided to sell the land that was a wine estate at the time. Although Greg had previous experience in the wine distribution business, Folktale acted as their first physical space and opened up a world of possibilities to them.
“It was way more than we expected,” Madigan says. “It was like running seven businesses in one because it had events and food and wine.”
The wine industry adds a large profit for many local restaurant businesses. Casanova, owned by long-time restaurateur Walter Georis, owns over $750,000 in wine, for instance, and the wine business within the restaurant accounts for half of their revenue.
After establishing Folktale, the Ahns went on to open Seventh & Dolores two years later and within their first year, they made Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s list of top 100 restaurants.
“We were quite lucky because it’s a different visual space for the area so it had a very different feel and people were interested in that,” explains Madigan. “Plus the style of food was very modern and approachable.”
Each of these restaurants has their own unique aspects, which adds to the larger array of culinary experiences in Carmel and also helps attract customers.
Bashar Sneeh, who owns Dametra Cafe, Porta Bella and Catch, all located along Ocean Avenue, notes that there is a certain theme that can be found at each restaurant, giving the menus and atmospheres their own special touches.
“I wanted to have a restaurant that is very unique, a restaurant that feels like a living room in my home,” Bashar explains about Dametra Cafe, “so we came up with that authentic Mediterranean menu. We thought that we are going to bring hospitality to a different level with a very welcoming, family feel.”
Along with having an authentic menu and character, culinary quality also plays a large role in these restaurants’ successes. Georis, who started Casanova, La Bicyclette and Corkscrew Cafe, has a lot of experience in the business and pays close attention to the quality of his food and menu, discussing the business of running a restaurant in almost a scientific way.
“Let’s say someone orders a medium-rare steak,” Georis says. “The kitchen fires it until it’s medium, it goes to the table, and it’s sent back. You just lost money. And the next steak that you sell is not going to pay for the first one.”
One of the common factors that allows restaurant businesses such as these to find success in the competition of Carmel is keeping a community focus, even among the high population of tourists.
“What does the community need or want?” Madigan says. “The tourists are going to find us, so how do we make sure we focus on our community and make it a place they want to come to?”
At Carmel Belle, keeping a community focus meant buying produce from local farmers, constantly sourcing from farmers markets around the peninsula, and hosting pop-up events with local chefs.
“Just by doing that we created this community and people really recognized that,” Jay says. “A lot of locals would come because they knew we were serving organic food and local food,”
There’s a certain philosophy shared by many of these local restaurateurs as they feel the need to fulfill the community with more than just food. For Anthony Carnazzo, co-owner of Stationæry along with his wife Alissa, the idea of a restaurant holds a much deeper meaning as it acts as an important part of the community, providing people with a place of both comfort and celebration.
“There’s this essential need that we all have to be nourished,” Carnazzo explains. “But I look at it as not just your belly, it’s also for your heart and your head,”
Sneeh attributes much of his success as a business owner to what he calls his “five golden keys”: quality, value, customer service, consistency and integrity in mind.
Along with finding a strong connection to the larger public within Carmel, restaurateurs also note the importance of creating a strong community bond within their own staff. The Ahns credit a large part of their success with their three businesses at Folktale, Seventh & Dolores and Rise + Roam to their staff. They keep their employees connected at each business by communicating on one platform and constantly inviting staff to visit other business locations.
“I look for people that have a good heart, that are eager to care for people,” Carnazzo explains, “and then I can teach them all of the technical parts later.”
Creating a caring and supportive environment within the staff itself allows these restaurants to further the comforting atmosphere to the larger community of their customers. By implementing such a strong focus on the connections within their own staff and with the larger community, these restaurateurs have been able to create sustainable businesses that continue to grow and thrive.