Restaurateur Leo LaGesse reluctantly closed his Greek Village Inn at 65 University Ave. in November as a weak dollar and slower traffic made the cost of imported foods prohibitive.
LaGesse told me: “We couldn’t expand. We were disappointed when Swanson’s renewed their lease next to us. We were going to take over that space and open up a bar, get another 1,400 square feet. That would have given us the potential to put a full bar in there. ... If you look into the places at Fair Oaks Boulevard now, just look at Ruth’s Chris when they did their cocktail hour. Their business has really increased with cocktail bars.”
The addition of a full bar, LaGesse said, would have brought sales that could have compensated for the food costs.
“Our food costs are higher than most of them on the street because we serve imported Greek items,” LaGesse said. “A euro is at what, $1.37, so we’re losing 37 cents on the dollar because we’ve got to pay more for these imported items. My feta cheese … was costing me $9.40 a pound wholesale.”
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LaGesse opened the restaurant with his wife, Cathy Tsakopoulos, in 1989, but a few years ago he became sole owner as Tsakopoulos took time to care for her aging parents. Frank Gardner and other customers so loved dishes such as the lamb chops, moussaka and pastichio that a month after the restaurant closed, they are still emailing The Bee to see what happened.
LaGesse has gone into commercial real estate sales, and he has no plans for a comeback at present. His restaurant was ideally located near his home, and that Fair Oaks restaurant row has a special place in his heart. LaGesse was able to find jobs for many of his staff at Ettore’s, Zinfandel Grille and Piatti’s.
He and his wife recently stopped into Ettore’s for a meal, and an old customer of theirs spotted them. He waved, disappeared and then came back with a $25 gift certificate to Ettore’s. The customer said, “I just want to say thank you for all the years you gave us great food and service.”
Customers are right
Customers asked Sunsweet Growers to sell a preservative-free prune, and the giant co-op listened. The D’Noir Prune brand is now a huge seller.
“We actually invested between $2 million and $3 million to figure out how to do this,” said Dane Lance, Sunsweet’s chief executive officer, “so we’re sorta nutty when it comes to prunes. We have the scale because we will handle between 65 and 70 tons every year. That scale, that size allows us to make investments in ideas.”
No preservatives are put on prunes until they’re moistened for market, and then producers add a spritz of potassium sorbate, which is essentially a sea salt, to prevent them from fermenting. It amounts to less than 500 parts per million in each package.
Sunsweet began putting out D’Noir Prunes a few years ago, and customers not only thanked them but described the plum taste as fresher than they had ever experienced. Numbers really tell the story, though. About 5 percent to 7 percent of U.S. buyers choose the D’Noir Prunes, Lance said, making it the nation’s No. 2 seller behind Sunsweet’s single-serving Ones brand.
Hungry for a cause
Last summer, Susie Sutphin launched a nonprofit food hub that connects North Lake Tahoe restaurateurs with growers in Placer and Nevada counties.
Sutphin freely acknowledged that she has no experience in the food industry, but while managing the Wild & Scenic Film Festival tour, she was exposed to one food documentary after another. And, after seeing how eating local could expand economies and improve health, she said, she wanted to do something about it. She visited four food hubs on the East Coast, then returned to Tahoe area and dived right into the project.
“If you can shift the buying power of your food alone to local, you can increase local sales revenue drastically,” she said. “We are a tourist economy. If we can support the outlying communities and make them stronger, there’s this give and take. They have more opportunity to come up to Tahoe.”
Sutphin is starting out with pilot projects: The first was a 15-week summer season that drew restaurants such as Dragonfly, Jake’s on the Lake and Sunnyside. Now, she’s trying a short winter season that focuses mostly on bringing local produce to Squaw Valley restaurants. Restaurateurs pay a 20 percent fee on each sale to cover the food hub’s administrative and transportation costs.
Besides connecting small farmers to restaurants, Sutphin also plans to do food education and hunger relief. Here in Sacramento, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Soil Born Farms and other organizations are studying what it will take to create a Sacramento Valley Food Hub. Sutphin said she’s received generous donations from Tahoe-area businesses, and she launched with a van and cold storage. She makes improvements as she goes along. For instance, she said, she discovered a company called Local Orbit had created an online system to facilitate orders.
“It has enabled our food hub to scale up really fast because it’s a very user-friendly platform,” she said. “We could upload pictures of the food, descriptions of the food, pictures of our farmers and stories about our farmers. When we started using that for our buyers, our sales increased because it was intuitive.”
Sutphin also has launched a crowdfunding campaign, accessible from her website at www.tahoefoodhub.org, to get another much-needed item: a refrigerated van.