Love where you live!
LA MESA -- The two establishments, in some ways, couldn't be more different.
One is the latest incarnation of a very well-financed, time-tested business partnership; the other is the fledgling dream of an immigrant literally acting out the American dream.
To the casual observer, Bo-beau Kitchen + Garden, the new Cohn restaurant in La Mesa Village, and Slides, an equally new concept burger joint tucked away in a strip center along University Avenue, represent different ends of the spectrum.
But if you pull back the curtain on these two new business endeavors playing out in La Mesa, you find more similarities than differences. And watching these entrepreneurs at work gives new appreciation for the importance of small business in the La Mesa (and American) economy.
Slides is the brain-child of Minh Nguyen, who escaped from Vietnam as a child, earned his way through UC Berkeley and architecture school and is the proud owner of a Carmel Valley firm and, now, a La Mesa restaurant, where he is trying to apply the word "gourmet" to hamburgers for under $2 each.
Just a mile or so away, David and Lesley Cohn's Bo-beau concept is testing the La Mesa waters, bring a form of fine-dining and innovative culinary efforts with a much wider range and a higher price. The Cohn's business overall has grown large by adding one small business to another. That is what Nguyen hopes for his effort someday too.
But like all new small businesses, there are big challenges.
Slides, located right next door to the super franchise Subway, needs to convince diners that the quality of his two-slider with fries and drink combo at $7 is better than the cheaper fast-food burgers that are constantly advertising $1-specials and have drive-thru windows and boast almost instant service. Nguyen has his "cook-to-order" approach down to just a few minutes and is working on even more speed.
Bo-beau was opened recently in a space that has seen a series of restaurants come and go. The East County restaurant market is a mix of fine diners and the intensely budget conscious and Bo-beau is clearly looking for that sweet spot where high quality and culinary innovation -- which is not cheap to produce -- can attract enough customers to succeed.
What both Bo-beau and Slides have in common -- and the reason locals should be cheering both efforts -- is La Mesa's young. In many ways, the restaurant business is a young person's game.
Talk to the cooks, wait staffs, dish washers and greeters at both these new restaurants and you meet young people learning the ropes from the ground up.
In pursuing his Slides dream, Nguyen has invested heavily in reconstructing the restaurant site, and he has reached across the street to Helix Charter High School to give more than a dozen students their first jobs. He has taught them a daily mantra of quality, speed and customer care and they are learning to show up on time and how to operate a cash register ordering system, among many other skills. He has taught them to mix his special meat recipes and repeats constantly the need for uniform quality and care.
At Bo-beau, the Cohns have an equally young crew learning their "absolutely" approach to customer care -- this is the default response to virtually all diners' requests. They have spent more on the B0-beau space than Nguyen could for his burger effort, and their range of foods prepared and delivered swiftly is much broader, but both Nguyen and the Cohns are giving La Mesa's young a first step out the door and the kind of training for life that schools can only talk about.
Food Network TV today has turned food service in America into a bit of a cut-throat spectator sport. Chefs are trotted out to compete against each other and there are winners and losers. Food criticism, I guess, has its place.
For the record, I have already eaten at Bo-beau three times and Slides twice. Both produce food to a quality I can't begin to duplicate in my own kitchen. And for the record, I've tried three times to cook brussel sprouts the way Bo-beau's Benjamin Moore turns them out. Three times I have failed.
And as nice a man as Minh Nguyen is, he won't share his meat and fish recipes with me. Mine don't match his.
But, frankly, I don't visit Bo-beau, Slides, Cosmos, Terra , Pietro's or Sun Tacos to stand in judgment of their cooking, as much as I do for the few moments of sharing a meal, cooked by others, and delivered so often by the children of friends and colleagues.
Here's to small business.
Chris Lavin is the editor of La Mesa Today. On La Mesa is an occasional column. Submissions for publication can be submitted to Ourtown@LaMesaToday.com.