There were no balloons, banners or special deals to mark the fifth birthday of the San Marino Café & Marketplace last week. Proprietor Linda Grace was busy just making sure that number six was more likely to arrive.
“I had to work an extra shift and had some deliveries that day,” said Grace with a chuckle. “We were too busy to have a party.”
Turns out, that’s actually a pretty good problem to have. When it comes to the life cycle of the average restaurant, lore and fact are often at odds. A commonly held belief that 90% close their doors within the first year of opening them is not true, but keeping a restaurant open is clearly a daunting proposal even in the best of times.
Not only has the San Marino Café & Marketplace survived during the pandemic, but it has also actually strengthened its position. Grace recently opened another restaurant in nearby San Gabriel with plans of launching a third in the upcoming months. Not bad for someone who had to borrow $20 from her own cash register just to buy gas on the first day she owned the place, which brings up the question of whether she could afford to own the place if gas was at its current price.
Grace’s grandfather survived a genocide and giving in to a pandemic was basically not an option.
“I knew I had something good here, so it didn’t have to make sense,” she said. “It’s interesting because it has been during the pandemic when we really grew.”
Grace took the “Marketplace” part of her name more seriously as closures and regulations climbed. At times, her restaurant more resembled a corner market with raw goods replacing made-to-order panini.
“I was getting text messages and phone calls at all hours of the day asking me if I had eggs or lettuce that my customers needed to give to their mothers,” Grace recalls. “Losing was never an option. If the pandemic was an enemy, I was going to beat that, too. Saying ‘no’ to people was never going to happen. If they needed something, I was going to do my best to find it.”
It’s apparently part of her DNA. Grace’s grandfather escaped Armenia during the genocide, eventually landing in Baghdad, where he opened a restaurant on the banks of the Tigris River. It was called Piccadilly and catered to British diplomats, which makes it no surprise that her new eatery is called Piccadilly Grace. This iteration of her growing restaurant empire is located in the Blossom Market Hall near the San Gabriel Mission. A third location is planned for “somewhere between Claremont and La Cañada.”
“Somewhere between those two bookends,” she said.
Wherever she decides to land, customers can be assured receiving of a warm hug with their cup of hot coffee. Barely a second goes by in the Café without a personal greeting. During a recent visit, a patron told her without a prompt that Grace had “saved her life.”
“This place has always been about my dream of feeding people,” Grace said. “This is what I dreamed of doing and the universe just sort of put this place in front of me. Customers always want to see a real person who wants to feed them when they are ready to eat. It’s that simple.”
Grace is happy that she ignored a piece of advice she received during the pandemic: Close the doors.
“No, that was never going to happen,” said Grace. “I thought, I am going to get an army of people who are invested in seeing me win.”
Maybe the victory will be secure when she finally finds the time to host that fifth birthday party.