In 25 years in business, Cafe Med has weathered many ups and downs: the growing pains of a new business, relocations and expansions, a changing dining scene and economic downturns, like the one now from Kern’s oil industry.
These periods test one’s mettle, said Cafe Med owner Meir Brown.
“When times get tough, you’ve got to stick to your guns. ... Resist the temptation to lower prices. You increase quality and increase service. Better times will come.”
A good day is coming next week as Brown and his staff celebrate the restaurant’s quarter-century in business with a day of music, food, drinks and fun.
Running from noon to 5 p.m., the June 12 event will spread out in an air-conditioned tent in the parking lot and street fair along the walkway outside the restaurant.
Music will be provided by Bunky Spurling, “Hawaiian Wonder” Tino Ibach, Last Call, Shades of Grey and Evan Morgan and Brant Cotton and the Outliers.
And no celebration of a restaurant would be complete without food. Brown said there will be at least eight food stations featuring pastas, salads, hamburgers on pita bread, street tacos, rice and beans as well as hot dogs and cotton candy for the kids. A beer and wine tasting will be available for adults.
Brown, 59, is excited to celebrate and note how far the restaurant has come from opening in 1991 at its first location, at Auburn Street and Fairfax Road.
“When we started it was myself, a daytime dishwasher, a nighttime dishwasher and two servers. That didn’t last long.
“There was no time to train people. We became so popular so fast.”
Good word of mouth, including a review from Californian dining columnist Pete Tittl, helped draw attention to the eatery, then focused primarily on Middle Eastern cuisine Brown learned from his mother and grandmother.
“We thought, It’s a little cafe in east Bakersfield. How are they going to find us? But they did.
“The influx of people was completely overwhelming.”
There was a “stiff learning curve” for the former dairy executive who decided to switch gears five years after moving to Bakersfield.
“I had a midlife crisis and decided to change my life. ... I had never operated and owned a restaurant before.”
But Brown learned on the job. And after outgrowing the location on the eastside, the cafe moved briefly to a spot on California Avenue before its current home on Stockdale Highway, where it has been since 1996. The space has undergone its own changes in 20 years, with the addition of a wine room, banquet area and the Gourmet Shoppe, the deli it opened next door in 2001.
“The deli was a dream when it came true,” Brown said. “A culinary lower-cost experience that you can take with you.”
Along with sandwiches, salads and pastries, the deli turns out the family dinners that have become a customer favorite. The deal, which includes an entree, starter, salad and side, is so popular it has been picked up as a fundraising tool for schools and churches. Brown said the groups are able to purchase the meals at a discount and keep the difference to help fund projects.
Brown said he’s happy to partner with nonprofits and groups for a good cause.
“We have one of the most amazing charitable towns.”
He’s taught healthy cooking classes for Go Red for Women, and teamed with the Bakersfield Women’s Business Conference and the Wounded Heroes Fund. (And part of the proceeds from the June 12 celebration will benefit the fund.)
Satisfying the public
Brown said the menu has retained the same essence but branched out from its Middle Eastern roots to more of a “continental Mediterranean” concept.
Traditional items like souvlaki, dolmades, moussaka and hummus share space with steaks, pastas and seafood. The catch of the day special, which in the past has included Chilean sea bass, swordfish, halibut, Arctic char and black cod, is usually a top seller.
The specials also allow Brown to rotate popular items like stuffed zucchini and kleftiko (oven-baked lamb), which are too labor-intensive to keep on the main menu.
Twice a year, the menu is reworked with the bottom performing 5 percent dropped in lieu of new ideas. But the offerings are extensive enough to please average and adventurous diners alike.
“If you can’t find anything you like on our menu, you can’t find anything you like anywhere.”
The key is focusing on freshness and avoiding waste, Brown said.
“Ultimately we’re here to satisfy the public. We try to find a balance with fresh ingredients and top-quality preparation.”
Stocks (veal, chicken and, when necessary, fish) and reduction sauces are made from scratch. Dishes are free of MSG or additives. Even without formal training, Brown said he has picked up the knowledge he needed along the way.
“I say, ‘I never make the same mistake twice. I just find new ones to make.’”
Finding new ways to grow, like adding a Sunday brunch, has helped increase traffic. Knowing business was slows on Sundays, he said he had to decide if he wanted to close for the day or make it a destination.
“I really wanted to try and do something that is a ‘Sunday fun day.’”
Brown said the brunch, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., averages 150 people, good for a Sunday.
And as business has grown, so, too, has the local dining scene.
“We may not have 15 different restaurants, for one thing, but we have a very diversified dining scene at a really high level.”
Even with the rise of chain restaurants, locally owned eateries have endured.
“The more, the merrier. The market always determines when it’s too many.”
An avid supporter of fellow local restaurateurs, Brown said he has no problem paying more for what he knows will be a better dining experience.
“It is important to have a strong, vital local community.”
Not that he’s advocating anyone jump into the dining industry without serious consideration.
“Think very carefully before you go in. Unless you have a real passion and endurance, it’s not for the faint of heart.”
Despite any warnings, Brown looks back on the last 25 years in business with fondness.
“It’s been a wonderful adventure.”