By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Laguna Beach Independent
Soaring food and labor costs, energy expenses, and ever-slimmer profit margins are among the worries facing restaurateurs in 2023. A survey from the National Restaurant Association shows inflation intensifying the need to preserve profit margins, which are already notoriously razor-thin in the industry.
The owners of two Laguna eateries, one long-established and one new, detailed their current challenges and opportunities.
The heavy April showers brought May flowers, but the rains and wind served up havoc for Zinc Café and Market on Ocean Avenue. Owner John Secretan described the late February weather event that demolished the overhead tent structure in the outdoor dining area that served as a parking lot before the pandemic.
“The wind came out of nowhere. Literally 30 minutes before that happened, it was a relatively peaceful scene,” he said. “The rains were devastating to our restaurant because all our seating is outdoors. In Southern California, you don’t expect that.
“Not only do we have the effects of all the rain, but we’re still recovering from Covid lockdowns. Tough economic times plus the rainy weather were a double whammy,” he said.
Secretan lamented the added stress for his 60 Laguna employees created by the lack of customers during rainy weather and the hours they had counted on for their income. A note of “disaster fatigue” is felt among employees and management.
“You start to lose a little bit of your ability to keep the momentum going,” Secretan noted. “You get mentally fatigued as to how to fix it anymore. There’s been a huge toll on staff. But they are amazingly resilient. They are always willing to solve a problem.”
Day in and day out, staffers take up the slack, continuing to serve up the café’s signature breakfast and lunchtime vegetarian dishes, desserts, and coffee drinks to faithful, sometimes finicky customers with a smile. Even so, loyalty to the job can suffer, and workers often decide to move on. That employee turnover amounts to another significant expense for Zinc. Training a new employee means two people are paid to perform one job. Departing employees are paid for vacation time owed. It adds up.
Summer, however, has always been very good to Zinc, Secretan said. “With the festivals and visitors, business inevitably picks up and stays that way. We never worry about having enough customers in the summer months. In this business, it’s feast or famine, and the feast is coming.”
New to town from Chicago, Majid Mahkri opened Kebab Kurry in The Hive on Laguna Canyon Frontage Road last September, just after the summer madness subsided. It was part of his plan – it gave him time to refine the menu of Indian and Middle Eastern fare and build a loyal clientele, many of whom seek out the restaurant for its halal food. Halal food adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Koran. Mahkri is particular about the ingredients that go into his dishes. He sources his spices from a vendor in India because of their quality and consistency. All meats are organic and noticeably juicy.
Along with the typical worries of a nascent dining establishment came the added challenges of unusually harsh winter weather. With its open patio with limited indoor seating capacity, the rains impacted the eatery’s bottom line. Winds destroyed Kebab Kurry’s new cloth canopies and 86’d customer traffic. Adding to the obstacles is the channel replacement project, a major county infrastructure operation yards from the front door.
Despite these challenges plus rising costs, Mahkri is finding ways to manage.
“We’ve explored different suppliers that offer competitive pricing and negotiated with our current suppliers,” he commented. Despite the challenges, Mahkri is upbeat.
“We’re committed to staying flexible and innovative,” he said. “We’re finding ways to remain profitable while giving customers top-notch service and food they can find nowhere else in South Orange County.”
He giddily recounts receiving a call from a Yelp representative four months after opening, hinting that he had gamed the system and faked the five-star reviews. He emphatically said he did not, but he’ll take the compliments.
Kebab Kurry’s location on the edge of the Sawdust Festival is a boon, and Mahkri is preparing for a summertime rush. “When weather permits, we will be expanding outdoor seating capacity. We’re exploring ways to create more attractive outdoor spaces. That will help us reduce customer wait times during peak hours.”
Kebab Kurry does a brisk takeout business and offers catering. In April, he and his staff welcomed a crowd of 40 for a Friendship Shelter charity event with three buffet-style courses. It was a hit.
“We open our arms to the community,” he said. “We warmly welcome nonprofit groups and invite diners in for special celebrations on our patio.”
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