They were bankers. They liked to eat. Everybody likes to eat, but that doesn’t mean you open a restaurant.
Restaurants are graveyards. Restaurants are places where bright ideas fall apart, dreams wither away and money goes to die.
Restaurants are like wineries or many attractive sounding businesses: You want to end up with a million dollars? Start with $2 million.
No one told Gary Blackburn and Jeff Simpson, who started Sequoia Sandwich Co. 19 years ago. Blackburn, a Bakersfield native and Simpson from Phoenix, by way of Tulane, had nice safe jobs in the corporate world. They wore ties, handed out business cards with vice president splashed across them and worked in offices where the thermostats were pegged at 68 degrees. However, like the Bob Seger song goes, “They were young and restless and bored.”
"What would you think about doing something on our own?" one of them asked the other.
They did. Opened a sandwich shop. Surprised their friends and confounded their parents.
“I’ll never forget the disappointment on my mother’s face when she realized that I would be dragging my graduate degree in business to the restaurant industry,” Simpson said. “Little did she know, it took all my business acumen to make this work.”
No one would have faulted Simpson’s mom. The two friends were entering a world they knew nothing about and then compounded the challenge by opening their first store on 18th Street east of Chester, which, although the quadrant included Bakersfield favorites like Mexicali, Bill Lee’s, Sinaloa, Rice Bowl and the newly opened Uricchio’s, might as well have been the wild west in terms of restaurants.
Sequoia was a long shot. By the time it opened in September of 1999, Simpson and Blackburn had quit their jobs, were way over-budget and desperately needed the shop, which specialized in handcrafted sandwiches and fresh salads, to take off like one of Richard Branson’s rocket ships.
Simpson and Blackburn, both perfectionists, were prepared and the restaurant gods rewarded them. Although six in 10 restaurants fail in three years, Sequoia did not. Not only did it not fail, the sandwich shop immediately hit a lick.
In 2002, the company opened its second Sequoia in the Northwest Promenade on Rosedale Highway next to Target, the third store in 2005 on Ming near Cal State Bakersfield and then one in Clovis. Then, a year ago, debuted Qwik Cafe, the grab-and-go concept next to the original Sequoia shop downtown.
Their secret was simple: hard work, attention to the thousands of details that make restaurants daily performance art and tasty food.
Pastrami sandwiches, corn chowders, coleslaws, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. The menu was extensive and hit the mark.
Couple the food with a staff, now close to 75, that could churn orders out in less than five minutes. Sequoia serves nearly 2,000 people a day, has done almost $80 million in business, and has made more than 7.5 million sandwiches and salads since it opened.
This week, Simpson and Blackburn sold the three Sequoia restaurants and Qwik Cafe to the same group that had bought their Clovis store a couple of years ago. The new principals include Kevin Roche from Hanford and a local family who used to own a trucking company.
The pair leaves with friends, memories and a chunk of money, the actual amount of which Simpson would only say “enough to take some time off but not retire on.”
“Once, we delivered a $1,000 order to the wrong address,” Simpson said. “When we went back to retrieve it, a bunch of random people had already helped themselves to lunch.”
Sequoia contributed. In addition to feeding the homeless — “The sight of a starving human being is unbearable,” Simpson said — they donated sandwiches for Links for Life, Kern County Tennis Association and nearly 3,000 gift cards a year to various charities.
Simpson has grown to appreciate both the difficulty of the restaurant business and the sturdiness of the people who make a life out of it.
“Anybody who thinks they can just throw money at this industry and sit back collecting a check — let me save you a lot of mental anguish,” Simpson said. “Don’t do it.
“It’s a grind even when successful. I tip my hat to the lifers like Skip (Slayton), Sarah (Slayton-Price), Gino (Valpredo), Toni (Valpredo) and Ralph (Fruguglietti),” he said of the owners of, respectively, Jake's Tex-Mex Cafe, Luigi's and Frugatti's.
After some time off, Simpson may return to banking. Sixty-eight degrees, a chair and a business card don’t sound as bad at 50 as they did at 29.
Blackburn is less certain about the future, but upbeat nonetheless.
“My emotions are all over the place,” Blackburn said. “I’ve been working since I was 16, right through college, never been off more than two weeks so I’m not sure what I’ll do. But I’m excited I can do anything I want whenever I want.”