Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: The Eatery]
First-time restaurateurs and husband-and-wife team Jess Milbourn and Monda Korich opened The Eatery last year amid some considerable buzz. Not only was it anticipation for Milbourne's casual American menu, but an excuse to cross over into the under-served community of West Sacramento. In this month's edition of One Year In, Milbourne talks about the process of opening his first restaurant, giving people what they want (such as disco fries topped with bacon and eggs), and the realities of drawing customers to a developing area.
How did the concept come about?
We're in West Sacramento and it's kind of an under-serviced area of Sacramento. It's a totally separate county, but it's a five-minute drive. It's less than a mile from where we live to get to downtown Sacramento. There's really nothing here. We get a lot of quick-service, mom and pop ethnic foods, but there's no sit-down, nice upscale casual diners or places to eat. We were actually looking to open our own place in the downtown area and it just came to our attention that West Sac is an under-served community with a lot of people.
Did you always know what kind of restaurant you wanted to do?
I didn't want to go fine dining. I've worked in fine dining restaurants, I enjoy 'em, but I think it's a segment of the dining industry that is really tricky unless you absolutely nail it. So we just wanted to keep it casual. We have a few sandwiches on there, we have a great burger. But then on the other side, [we wanted diners to be able to] come in and actually have an entree. So we do a really nice risotto dish, a roast chicken. We were keeping it simple because we try to use the best quality ingredients that we can and keep 'em local.
We change our menu about once a month. We take a lot of feedback from our guests, our repeat customers. We're open to changing everything. So now that we're up and running, we switch things up all the time. It's really focused on the guest. This isn't like our restaurant to tell everybody, "Here's what we think you should be eating." We can prepare whatever you want.
I hear you have a secret menu.
It was just born out of the idea that if we have the ingredients, we'll make it for people. A gentleman has a blog called burgerjunkies.com. He tweeted one time it's his goal to have a burger named after him. So I said, well, sure, I'll do that. When I was in culinary school, I ate a lot of disco fries. A friend of mine just started adding bacon and eggs to it as a breakfast dish. We have that on the menu. Usually they are these really over-the-top dishes that I'm happy to make for people. If something hits and they like it and they ask for it again, I guess it makes it a secret menu.
So essentially if somebody walks into the restaurant, requests a dish and if you happen to have the ingredients you'll make it?
Yeah. Obviously within reason. I haven't said no yet. It kind of breaks up the monotony and if we're able to do it, absolutely yes. It's actually one of the more enjoyable parts because we get to play around with some food.
How was opening day?
We didn't advertise, we just relied on a little bit of the buzz that was going on. People didn't know we were open until the next weekend. So we had a full week to get accustomed to the space and then the following weekend we got hit pretty good. The normal hang-ups, we had some slow ticket times and things that happen once you get your first busy night and you're still working out the kinks. But overall it went really well. We had a good sales weekend and the food seemed to go out really well, too.
And what about the reviews?
Besides some really just negative Yelp reviews, we've been getting some pretty positive ones. Whenever there's a really bad Yelp review [I try to] respond personally. If people don't respond or are negative back, I just tell my side of the story on Yelp.
How do you find that working for you?
I would say 50 percent of the time when I've sent an email I've received a, "Thank you so much for your reply." I have a couple people who have taken it from just a terrible Yelp review and turned it around and said, "Hey, because you reached out we tried it again and everything was great." And then there are people who just use it as a sounding board and I don't receive a reply at all. In those instances, I try to be fairly nice about it, but I do post a public response afterward. But for the most part it's positive.
And of course we have received some really good reviews from the local papers, and those are the ones that have probably helped the most as far as generating some word of mouth.
How has it been in terms of bringing people over to West Sacramento?
West Sacramento is still just about ready to become its own city — we've got development happening, we've got some good restaurants, we've got a lot of people who have moved in — I think that we're just kind of a step behind in the entertainment area. So if someone is going to go out, it's much easier to go downtown, where within a block radius they have three or four restaurants, a nightclub, a bar. Whereas in West Sac, we're really kind of isolated. I think we're probably two or three years away before West Sacramento has its own nightlife. For now on those nights we get a little bit of a dry spell.
So what have you learned over the past year?
Oh boy. If there's any financial problems, it's best to just call right away. How to communicate. That's the biggest thing. This is the first restaurant we've opened. When I was a chef for someone else, my only job was to make sure the kitchen runs the way it's supposed to. Whereas now I'm not just responsible for food quality. I'm responsible for making sure the checks don't bounce. I'm responsible for making sure the vendors are bringing the right items.
So what's next for The Eatery?
We're looking at expanding the patio and then we're looking to improve what we're doing. We'd like to add some upper-end wines. Like I said, we don't want to end up in that fine dining realm, but we still want to become more of a dining area rather than a place where people come to grab a quick sandwich or one entree. Maybe not quite a destination, but at least a place for the locals to have a little bit better option to eat. And we want to open an ice cream shop, but that's the next step. That's down the road.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
It feels like it's been 20. You learn a lot of lessons in the first year. You think you have a good grasp of how to run the business side of it and then it becomes very quickly apparent that you don't. You have to scramble to find an accountant who's willing to make up for the mistakes that you've made. We've been lucky that we found a good accountant who is able to reach out to the vendors and say, "Hey look, here's what happened. We're trying to right the ship." You jump in thinking you know what you're doing and it's a sink-or-swim mentality. You find the way to swim the best.