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INSIDE DISH: Saffron Cafe surges in second year

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Inside Dish

Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”

Our subject this week is Saffron Cafe, which has filled a void for Moroccan cuisine downtown since opening in March 2009. Chef and co-owner Anass Sentissi broke off from his family's Bloomington restaurant, Casablanca Cafe, in hopes of finding more consistent business in a local economy not dependent on the September-May school schedule.



"It's not consistent business; it's dead in the summer," said Sentissi, who hails from the Moroccan city of Meknes. "Just by staying open, you are losing money."

Sentissi and his wife, Anne, staked out a locale for Saffron Cafe—so-named for the expensive and extremely potent Mediterranean spice—in the former home of the near-north favorite Canary Cafe. Left with the free-standing structure's shell, they spent three months rebuilding the interior and decorating with tile, light fixtures, pottery, photographs and other materials directly from Morocco.

Stricken with a tight budget, Sentissi and a handyman did most of the work themselves, apart from electrical wiring. They were able to open the restaurant's doors with $150,000 in startup capital from a variety of sources, including a $25,000 Small Business Administration loan, a $25,000 line of credit, and $50,000 obtained by refinancing the Sentissis' home mortgage.

In the early going, the cafe's marketing strategy relied on word-of-mouth referrals. To that end, the Sentissis staged a grand-opening night in which they comped the meals of about 120 diners, hoping to generate a critical mass of early buzz. This spring, they invited about 20 of the city's hotel concierges to the restaurant for free meals in order to stay front-of-mind with those vital links to the city's tourists.

Unlike many small, locally owned eateries that increasingly rely on cost-free social media, Saffron Cafe now also takes the more traditional route of advertising on an area radio station (for which they pay $550 per month) and in local print publications.

"At first you want to see if the product is working or not," Sentissi said. "If the product  is working and people try it and love it, they come back and generate word of mouth. We see a lot of repeat customers. But you also want to reach people [through advertising] who have not had a chance to hear about you."

Saffron's gross sales have grown markedly since the March 2009 opening—from $250,000 over 10 months in 2009 to an estimated $400,000 for 2010.

In the video above, Anass and Anne discuss their challenges in opening the restaurant, amassing financing, the cafe's cuisine, and the importance of achieving consistency in dishes based on family recipes and the chef's instincts. 
 

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Saffron Cafe
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621 Fort Wayne Ave.
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(317) 917-0131
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www.saffroncafe-indy.com
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Concept: Moroccan and Mediterranean-region cuisine focusing on fresh ingredients and authentic spices.
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Founded: March 2009
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Owners: Anass and Anne Sentissi
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Start-up costs: $150,000 (including a $25,000 SBA loan; a $25,000 line of credit from the same bank; $50,000 from refinancing the owners' home mortgage; personal savings; and financial support from family).
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Gross sales: $250,000 (2009); $400,000 (projected for 2010).
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Seating: 50 (14 tables), with enclosed and heated outdoor seating expected within several weeks.
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Employees: 15
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Goals: To increase catering business, and grow sales through the A La Carte Delivery service, which takes orders for and delivers food from several downtown restaurants. The Sentissis also are contemplating expansion options, such as adding rooftop dining at their current location or opening a tapas-style eatery on the far-north side.
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Good to know: Chef Anass Sentissi is an accomplished Middle Eastern percussionist who grew up in Meknes, Morocco. He's an expert in Moroccan Andalusian classical music and in 2005 co-founded the Moroccan  Andalusian Classical Music Orchestra of Bloomington, Indiana.
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  • The BEST
    Great food!
    Love the delivery service: www.alacarteindy.com
    Bringing Chef Sentissi food to my dinning room table is priceless.
  • to clarify
    not really complaining about not being able to walk-in on the weekends--i'm very happy for the owner that saffron has become so successful. it just means i have to plan ahead!
  • one complaint
    the only complaint i have is that i can't walk-in on a friday or saturday night...can't get a table until 9:30 w/out a reservation!

    great food, very nice chef/owner who wanders the dining room to meet the patrons, and GREAT FOOD! if you haven't been, it's a must try (but make a reservation for the weekend.)
    • Love it
      Our Masonic lodge group dined there several months ago. Anne and Anass Sentissi made every minute of the evening entertaining, and a completely unique, memorable and personal experience. The food is wonderful. Go. Eat.
    • Great food!
      The only place I have found that is better in Moroccan food is El Yacout, in Fez, Morocco. It is a great place to stay while in Fez, too. (Meknes is not far from Fez--we have been there).
    • Worth A VISIT
      amazing flavors and service not surpassed. A true class act to downtown.

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