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Owners ponder the secret ingredient for restaurant success

Some longtime Laguna eateries haven't been able to weather conditions and have been forced to shut down.

November 14, 2013|By Bryce Alderton
  • Chef Michael Leech works in his neighborhood eatery Cafe Zoolu on Tuesday.
Chef Michael Leech works in his neighborhood eatery Cafe… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

Cafe Zoolu owner Michael Leech doesn't pay for tasks he can do himself.

He'll order fish directly from the supplier, avoiding the middleman, then roll up his sleeves and prepare a meal out of it.

As for managing all the duties that come with running a restaurant? He and wife, Toni, have it covered.

The hands-on strategy has worked for the Leeches, who have owned and operated the Laguna restaurant at 860 Glenneyre St. for 20 years.

Cafe Zoolu is one of the few long-standing survivors in a beach city that has seen its fair share of iconic places shuttered for one reason or another.

The Cottage closed its doors last year after nearly 50 years on North Coast Highway because the property owner sold the land. Last month Sundried Tomato closed its Forest Avenue location after 12 years.

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"Unfortunately the location no longer fits our model because of its size and overhead," managing partner Rob Quest wrote in a prepared statement.

Locals are crucial to sustaining a restaurant in Laguna, Leech said.

"We have mostly repeat customers," Leech said. "We know just about everybody."

Leech prides himself on using the freshest ingredients, giving substantial portions and adhering to a consistent, seafood-centric menu, with a few seasonal twists such as Laguna spiny lobster (October through March) and Copper River salmon each May and June, as well as the 3-inch-thick swordfish, a perennial top-seller, according to the restaurant's website.

"Food costs are out of control, but we don't cut down on portions," Leech said. "Over time the bottom line has shrunk, but you deal with it. One thing is I have a great landlord who works with me. One of the reasons a lot of restaurants go down is because of a greedy landlord who is unreasonable."

Smaller family establishments are becoming less common as larger chains move into town, Leech said.

Spending habits have also changed and fewer customers are coming to the restaurant, Leech said. Diners who come are more frugal than in the past, he said.

"Customers are forgoing an appetizer or dessert," Leech said. "A lot more people are bringing their own wine or having a drink at home and then coming in."

Mayor Kelly Boyd, who owned the Marine Room downtown for 25 years, would like to see more family-style eateries and kid-friendly places that serve affordable comfort food.

"The rents in Laguna are ridiculous and that's why some restaurants don't make it," Boyd said.

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