It was a question they’d asked themselves time and again. Could Placerville support fine dining? Would the little town of 10,000 people, known for mining and quiet foothill living, embrace a $14 salmon burger or $18 fried chicken? Surely, they thought, the market for their envisioned eatery, The Independent Restaurant and Bar, must exist.
So when Tom Coffey, the owner of a local construction company, began courting the family partnership of Ben Carter and Jeff and Judy Thoma to consider opening their second restaurant in a new building he was constructing, they were intrigued and challenged.
For seven years, the trio has run the Heyday Cafe on Main Street in Old Town Placerville. It’s a small, wine-centric eatery with loyal patrons. At the time it opened in 2007, there were plenty of soda shops, burger joints and taquerias downtown, but no upscale dining. The Heyday took a step toward that vacuum, serving roasted portobello paninis, heirloom tomato gaspacho and prosciutto pizzas, but Carter and the Thomas always felt they could do more.
“We had been talking for quite some time about opening a second spot with different cuisine and, ideally, outdoor dining,” Jeff Thoma says. “But that offer was the catalyst. It made us ask ourselves, ‘Hey are we going to do this or not? Here’s an opportunity.’”
So they went to see a man about a loan. “You’re crazy,” he said. And the second banker said it, too. And the third.
“It was 2010 in a down economy, and we were looking for a loan to open a new restaurant,” Thoma says. “We didn’t have the money to cover the tenant improvements, equipment costs, liquor license, permitting fees and other startup costs.” The experience was far different than what they had gone through to open the Heyday, which the couple financed with a second mortgage on their home. This time around, they needed nearly $500,000 to finance a restaurant model that Placerville hadn’t yet tested.
And if the financial journey wasn’t painful enough on its own, the permitting process assured some additional strife. When Thoma submitted his business plan for the Heyday eight years ago, he walked into the city offices with a single-page business plan. For The Independent, he worked with an architect and submitted a 40-page document complete with dozens of renderings.
“It sure didn’t feel like there was any feeling of partnership coming from the city or the county,” Thoma says. “It’s like they didn’t care we were trying to open a new business that would create sales tax and employ local people. Here we were, creating our own little stimulus package for the town, and we just weren’t getting any love from local government.”
But in time, the financing and permitting hurdles were also overcome, and in November of 2011, The Independent Restaurant and Bar opened. Profit hasn’t come overnight, like it had at the Heyday, but growth has been steady and encouraging.
“The only reference we have is the Heyday. But it was so different. It cost a lot less going in. It was such a success so quickly. We were profitable in the first six months, no matter how you looked at the numbers,” Thoma says.
The first six months at The Independent told a different story altogether. “I said, ‘Oh wow, we are actually not making money.’ I had to take a second look at our payroll and at how expensive our quality produce was,” Thoma says. “Those are very high-priced startup costs, but that’s what we had to do to establish The Independent as a high-end restaurant different than any other local offering.”
By the end of year two, the restaurant began turning a meager profit. Aside from costly produce, The Independent has struggled against two other large factors: an uninformed clientele and a perception that the Independent is out of the way.
“There has been an education process,” Judy Thoma says. “There are a lot of people here that think a fine dining experience is going to the Olive Garden. They don’t go to Sacramento to seek small, upscale restaurants. They don’t know what Mulvaney’s is. For them, when they wander in here, it’s like leading a horse to water.”
And it’s a difficult task if the water is uphill. Five blocks from Old Town, The Independent is considered off the beaten path. Because of that, it has taken a bit longer to build up a base of local regulars. Still, Jeff Thoma contends the restaurant could survive off locals, “but you’re profitable off your tourists. People that appreciate and understand what you’re doing are out there. It’s our job to get their attention and get them to come in here regularly. The outsiders have to be our second tier regulars for us to be successful.”
And to that end, The Independent has seen triumph. At the Heyday, most customers walk in from their home or office. But at The Independent, its not unusual for 30 percent of the dinner crowd to arrive from El Dorado Hills or Folsom. “There are nights here when I don’t know anyone in the place,” says Judy’s son Carter. “At the Heyday, most everyone in there knows each other.”
The Thomas say their outlook is positive, but they don’t deny the strain of owning two restaurants and managing more than 40 employees. When interviewed for this story, Jeff said it was his first day off in 17. Judy has a full-time job as an adjunct professor at Sacramento State and comes in on evenings and weekends to provide an “outside perspective.” Their teenage daughter works as a waitress when her school schedule allows. Ben Carter has regular bartending shifts at the Heyday and is in charge of staff scheduling and menu development. He covers shifts in the back of the house and front of the house when someone calls in sick.
When asked how this growth impacts a family-owned business, Carter says (somewhat sarcastically), “It’s awesome. We love it. If we could figure out how to work eight days a week, we would do it.”
Have you dined at The Independent? Let us know what you thought in the comments.
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