Meet Dan Allen Bartkowski, owner of Southeast Portland’s Cricket Cafe. Dan is a self-taught chef who’s had further education at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
Along with running Cricket Cafe, he teaches baking classes and seminars, and reads countless books and publications on the food and beverage industry. When not focusing on his company, he spends his time as a busy husband and father to 3 young boys.
Dan is the second owner of Cricket Cafe. Learn more about how Dan took over, and continued to operate the successful breakfast restaurant!
What is your company?
I own House of B INC., which is an umbrella corporation for all things food and beverage. Cricket Cafe is the main component.
How did you come up with the idea?
House of B was born from a door mat that my best friend (who passed away due to complications from cancer in 2008) bought as a housewarming gift for my wife and I when we moved into our new home. Our last name starts with a B, so you get the idea.
The Cricket Cafe was named by the previous owner. He said there was a pesky neighborhood cat named Cricket, and it would sneak in while they were working on the place to open it.
Where did you find your first customer?
I did not start the cafe, but purchased it in 2002 from the original owner who conceived the idea and opened in 1999. I did however completely rework the menu, hired new staff, and completed some major kitchen and dining renovations before soft re-opening.
So as far as our first customer, I suppose it was a neighborhood patron off the sidewalk.
How did you determine your target market?
I came from a variety of self conceived projects, having built and operated a food cart, then a full scale bakery and drive thru gourmet pizza concept, as well as shave ice and a few others. So when it came time to market and advertise the Cricket, I had a diversified portfolio of ideas that sprung from many campaigns.
I would have to say that what works for one location does not necessarily transfer to another. The best run we have had at the Cricket is the down and dirty guerilla canvasing with coupons attached to flyers. We use a company who specializes in such things.
What are you currently doing to reach them?
Same show, flyers and redeemers work well.
I have also cut deals with WW and the Mercury for trade advertising and cooperative junkets.
Also, we try and donate time and resources to many charities and local causes. It helps in ways we really stand for and helps us in terms of exposure. The Portland Farmers Market and the Sunnyside Multicultural school come to mind.
How much did you start up with?
That is a loaded question. I wish I knew the magic button for big, successful startups. I keep a keen eye on startups and shutterings. I have a penchant for knowing and checking out the latest digs Portland has to offer. In the same breath, I also like to see who makes it past the sophomore year and who doesn’t, and try to reason why something went down or sideways.
Maybe it helps my brain to know that at any moment this whole thing could crash. I would love to believe I have an accurate financial picture of the industry with an acute ability to use those numbers in my own equasion, but it’s all too fickle.
Oh yeah, what was the question? How much? How much is not as important a question as how much are you willing to lose or borrow of your own or someone elses money?
Did you bring on investors, get loans, or grow naturally?
I grew naturally and paid cash for almost everything along the journey. I avoided long term risk and loans, but have used injections of credit and cash from outside sources to stay above water in the lean times.
The trick is to posture yourself during the fat times and pay down or off those notes quickly, as the lean times always return.
What’s the best advice someone has given you?
Know your costs… all of them.
What are your keys to staying productive?
For most restaurant and bar owners in a climate like Portland, where the competition in most segments is fierce, combined with the small market demographics, I would say staying productive is a mantra.
Innovate or die is another. It’s not hard for me to want to stay busy. Although, with 3 kids and a wife who is a full time nurse, its extremely challenging.
When you started, what was one thing you wish you knew?
There is no real manual for restaurant ethics, human relations and such. Managing people is not like managing a business – nowhere close. I wish I had better skills in that department before hiring a large staff.
I pride myself on being a jack-of-all-trades, but HR is my toughest rag.
What resources or books do you refer to regularly?
I have a huge food, beverage, and baking library – from technical and educational workbooks, to underbelly prose and jokes written just about the industry. Ever hear the one about the one-eyed potato?
Has your company experienced any close calls or lucky moments?
Luck in this business is nonexistent.
Off the cuff, I would recall the times that celebrities and big band names have stopped in. Without my assistance or knowledge the cafe has been a ‘seen’ scene and to me that is a chancy kind of thing of note.
Other close calls could be financially or some disastrous event and those are just too commonplace to mention.
What does success mean to you?
Being successful is not a rite of passage. It’s something you strive for in many ways, but the outcome is mostly unclear it seems. Unless you determine success, like I do, as the ability to own something that employs and gives back.
Some of the most endearing moments I have experienced in this business are when a customer or employee are beyond grateful in some way I did not expect for the jobs and services we provide.
Where would you like to see your business 5 years from now?
Doing just what it is doing now…
with at least a new dishwasher and maybe a few other new useful tools.
How can people find you online?