Follow-Up File: Regulars are bread of life for Le Ciel

Name: Barry and Heather Fenton

Job: Owners

Organization: Le Ciel Crepe Café

What they said then: In May 2009, The Tribune featured Le Ciel Crepe Café in San Luis Obispo — a restaurant concept born from a birthday dinner.

Barry and Heather Fenton opened the café at the Crossroads Center on Broad Street in 2004.

“Our customers are really our cheerleaders,” she said, attributing their success to the “core of regular, local people that have come in.”

They had also started serving crepes at San Luis Obispo’s Thursday night Farmers Market and were toying with the idea of opening a downtown “high-class” street vending location.

What they say now: Farmers Market has worked out well for Le Ciel. So now they’re also selling at the Avila Beach Fish & Farmers Market on Fridays.

They commit to being downtown year-round — unless it’s raining — rather than just summers like some vendors.

“It helps us let people know about the restaurant,” Barry Fenton said recently. “It’s more supplement than a big money-maker.”

They have to limit their offerings at the markets. For example, they only have room to produce only one sauce to pair with a vegetable option or a meat option. In Avila, they add a seafood choice.

The downtown street vending is on hold for now, Fenton said. They’ve taken about a 30 percent hit in sales in the past two years, so they aren’t thinking about expansion.

To compensate, they’ve reduced costs by cutting their staff in half. Including the Fentons, seven people working mostly part-time maintain the restaurant and market tent.

“Almost all retail and restaurants that I know of in the last and a half, two years — except for a few exceptions — are trying to stay afloat and maintain what you have,” he said. The restaurant is holding its own “thanks to a really large amount of regular customers.”

Currently, about 95 percent of sales at the restaurant come from regulars — mostly individuals working or living within a three-mile radius.

“When their restaurant spending decreased, they at least managed to get us in the rotation,” he added. “That helped us get through a really tough last year and especially in the winter.”

Keeping its price point for meals at or below $12 also has helped make Le Ciel an attractive choice for those pinching dollars.

This spring, month-over-month sales are about at 2009 levels. Fenton sees that as a sign of increased optimism in diners.

Despite the challenges, in opening their first restaurant, they’ve feel they’ve hit upon a successful idea.

“There were no other crepe restaurants in San Luis Obispo. The fear is that the reason no one else is doing it is that it’s a terrible idea,” he said. “The concept works.”

- Raven J. Railey