Owners ponder the secret ingredient for restaurant success

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.

"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.

Laguna Beach is home to 111 restaurants, according to Kristine Thalman, executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Rents for all businesses in the city range from $27 to $63 per square foot, Thalman wrote in an email, citing research from CoStar Group Inc., a commercial real estate information company.

"Downtown is typically more expensive," Thalman said.

Live entertainment helped draw customers to the Marine Room, according to Boyd, who also said it's important for a restaurant's owner and managers to be present and interact with diners.

The Lumberyard, at 384 Forest Ave., across the street from City Hall, is one such place, Boyd said.

"[Owner Cary Redfearn] is there all the time to meet and greet, and that is an important part of the business," Boyd said.

And a restaurant needs to serve food that diners want to eat, according to Thalman.

"I don't care how much ambience you have, if you don't serve good food, the restaurant will not [last]," Thalman said. "Another factor is continuing to retain local interest with repeat customers."

Thalman mentioned Dizz's As Is, the 36-year restaurant at Nyes Place and South Coast Highway, as an example of a family-style restaurant with enduring appeal.

"It's a place where you want to wear comfy slippers," Thalman said of Dizz's, a cozy house with eclectic dinnerware and photographs of Hollywood stars on the walls.

Adolfo's has served up its chile relleños, carne asada and chile verde since opening at 998 S. Coast Hwy. in 1985, manager Peggy Griffin said.

Griffin's father, Adolfo Vides, opened the restaurant with his wife, Connie.

The family hasn't changed the menu too much and has kept prices reasonable.

"We know our customers, some since they were little kids," Griffin said. "My mom is very sweet and the food is authentic, homemade, like the kind grandma makes."

Word-of-mouth has been crucial to Adolfo's longevity, according to Griffin.

Adolfo's sits at the corner of Anita Street and South Coast Highway, south of the city's main downtown. Staff at nearby hotels often tell customers to visit Adolfo's, Griffin said.

"We're not on a path where a lot of people go," she said. "People [who move out of state] come back to visit us. People just remember."

Griffin thinks there is room for a barbecue restaurant in Laguna and a modest place to get a steak and baked potato without breaking the bank.

"There is too much sushi, too much Italian, too many expensive restaurants," Griffin said. "We need a place to feed four kids that's affordable."

In the case of Cafe Zoolu, one visit may yield enough food to bring home leftovers.

"It's like having two meals," Boyd said. "You won't get a better swordfish."

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