Jeannine’s owner recounts 35 years of breakdowns and breakthroughs
After Alison Hardey graduated from Stanford University in the 1980s, and decided her dream of becoming a professional tennis player was going to remain a dream, she moved back home to Santa Barbara and went to work for her father’s real estate firm.
She felt a bit unmoored, she says today. One thing that kept her grounded was her daily trip to a little bakery in downtown Santa Barbara owned by a woman named Jeannine.
“I fell in love with the whole concept: the coffee, the pink aprons,” Hardey said. “Sometimes I would splurge and have a latte, and back then most people didn’t know what a latte was. … After I would do my little Jeannine’s moment I would feel like all was right in the world. I felt like I fit in.”
Hardey was so taken that she convinced her parents to buy the bakery. Now, 35 years later, she owns and operates four locations of Jeannine’s Restaurant and Bakery, in Goleta, Santa Barbara and Montecito.
Hardey told her entrepreneur’s story to an Oct. 13 breakfast meeting of the Santa Barbara Executive Roundtable, held at the University Club downtown.
In the beginning, her employees didn’t always respect her. Which wasn’t shocking — she was in her 20s, had never run a business and had no experience in the industry. The bakers would unplug the ovens, Hardey said, or fiddle with the water softener so that the coffee came out tasting like “hot, flavored salt water.”
Things changed after Hardey started coming in at 3 a.m. to help, and to make the bakers their first cup of coffee.
“It taught me to participate, to engage, and to act, so that your words carry weight,” she said.
From there, Jeannine’s began to grow and expand, but it wasn’t always a smooth road. Hardey said her parents sold two homes to keep the business afloat. Over the years, the family opened nine Jeannine’s locations and closed five of them.
The most recent closure was early last year. The Jeannine’s in downtown Santa Barbara, in the La Arcada center, had been open 15 years and has been the best performing business in the group.
But it couldn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic, so Hardey and her management team, which includes her brother Gordy, decided to shut it down.
Almost immediately, Gordy Hardey found a new location on Santa Barbara’s waterfront, across the street from Stearns Wharf.
“I said, ‘Gordy, it’s the middle of COVID, we just closed a store, and you want us to open one?’ … Everybody’s shutting down, nobody’s opening anything,” Alison Hardey told the Executive Roundtable.
But she decided to take a chance, and now the waterfront Jeannine’s is the company’s most successful location.
It was an example, Hardey said, of how “a breakdown can honestly be a breakthrough.”
Jeannine’s has survived through hard times before the pandemic. Hardey said the darkest moment, “as business owners and as human beings,” was the mudslide in 2018 in Montecito that killed 23 people and destroyed scores of homes.
The only thing Hardey could think to do to help was to keep serving coffee and scones. So she snuck past the barricades and opened the doors of the Jeannine’s in Montecito, serving food and coffee prepared at her other restaurants and giving people a place to gather and grieve.
“Jeannine’s does not forget its North Star,” Hardley said. “Our North Star is that we’re going to be here tomorrow. We will find a way if we stick together.”