When chef Cindy Black realized that late-night foodies and bar-hoppers faced a dearth in downtown Santa Barbara, she quit her job and used her last paycheck to open her own eatery.
A year and a half later, Black has taken on the challenge of opening a daytime sister restaurant to The Blue Owl, a lower State Street eatery that offers gourmet grub to the night owls and partiers of the town.
Black, a former pastry chef, said she decided to start The Blue Owl, which operates out of the same spot as Thai restaurant Zen Yai, on a whim. She quit her job in the kitchen at San Ysidro Ranch, and with less than $1,200 opened her own business.
“I had a few hundred dollars left of my last paycheck and my sister and mother lent me $500. I made a down payment on insurance, bought a few supplies and bought food on my credit card,” she said via email. “The first six months were really bad. I worked side jobs to pay for the restaurant. My friends helped me. They watched the front, and I cooked and cleaned. We were completely dead. I was able to stay open because I had very low overhead. It took about a year for word to get out.”
At first, few people knew that they could wander into the dark little storefront at 425 State St. at 2 a.m. and find Asian-fusion fare such as Thai basil burgers, red curry shrimp rolls and a fried egg and fried rice duo with herb salad.
But then, one by one, hungry bartenders, bouncers, chefs and waitresses started trickling in, looking for a good bite to eat before heading home after a long shift. Being the late-night haunt for the official foodie crowd drew others, and before long word spread about the tucked away little spot. Soon, Black found hordes of hungry partiers at her door, some in a better state of sobriety than others.
Black had a hunch that good, reasonably priced food offered when nothing else was open – “late night gourmet grub” – could work. So she stuck with it, working as chef, cashier, waitress and bouncer all in one. The Blue Owl is open from 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
When Zen Yai’s dinner service and cleaning wraps up for the evening, Black moves in, prepping and preparing an entire restaurant in less than 40 minutes.
“We have customers for the first hour, then it’s dead, and then the bars close and it is pandemonium! It is the craziest thing I’ve even seen,” Black said. “I automatically take deep, slow breathes and block it out. We work as fast as we can. Every night there are problems. I’ve been through so much for this place. I’ve split up fights, cleaned body fluids, and washed dishes ‘til 5 a.m.”
But the grueling experience of running her own business has also allowed her to meet the kinds of people who want to see a young new business succeed. One customer bought 13 sandwiches one night just to pass them out to people so they would try the food, Black said, adding “isn’t that nice!”
“I stick with it because I am building customers and increasing my chances of succeeding in the day. My customers have been very supportive,” Black said. “I’m very lucky.”
She’s opening a daytime Blue Owl this month. The location is still undisclosed, but will also be in downtown Santa Barbara. Black said the two restaurants will cater to two very different crowds: The new Blue Owl will be a deli-style spot offering reasonably-priced and healthy breakfasts and lunches. As with the late-night Blue Owl, it will emphasize affordability and local, farmer’s market ingredients, including grass-fed beef.
High-tech and late-night
The Blue Owl is no longer the only Santa Barbara restaurant awake in the wee hours of the morning. The owners of downtown restaurant Blue Agave have opened The Wurst, a street-side sausage window down the alley from the eatery, at 20 W. Cota St. The Wurst is open at lunch and on weekend nights and serves chili, Thai and traditional German bratwursts.
Santa Barbara’s late-night and food-truck trend was pointed out to me by the folks at Square, a Silicon Valley startup that offers a new payment system that allows small businesses to accept credit cards via their smart phones and tablet computers. Interestingly, Santa Barbara is a hotspot for Square use. “With Santa Barbara having nearly 1,500 users, it has one of the highest concentrations of use in the country — and is actually a top 20 city in terms of Square activations by population,” Square spokeswoman Lindsay Wiese told me via email. “Santa Barbara is up there with San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and more.” Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties each have about 500 users, she said.
The Blue Owl, The Wurst, Handlebar Coffee Roasters on Canon Perdido Street and new food truck The New Black BBQ all use Square. The technology, which competes with similar services such the new PayPal Here credit card reader, works particularly well for food trucks and street-food restaurants that don’t have a traditional phone-line hookup to install a credit card machine. Late-night restaurant customers may also be interested in a new wallet-less payment feature Square has rolled out that could mark the beginning of the end of the credit card. Pay with Square is an app for that lets regular customers open tabs at their favorites stores and restaurants. When it comes time to pay, you simply say your name. Your photo pops up on the merchant’s register to show them you’re who you say you are, and you’re done.
• Contact restaurant columnist Marlize van Romburgh at [email protected]