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.