Updated: Dec 20, 2019
This story begins with a cross-country road trip in a fully converted cargo van.
Two Buffalo natives, Sarah Sendlbeck and James Ernst, felt called to travel and experience what plant-based food could really be. They decided to convert their 1988 Ford Econoline into a tiny home on wheels and spend a year traveling across the country, and along the way gathered ideas and inspiration for recipes and flavors from all over. They found favorite spots in their favorite states, and seeing what other people were doing to advance plant-based food inspired them just as they had hoped it would.
But their journey didn’t end here. Sarah and James spent months testing recipes in a secluded home in Joshua Tree, California before coming back to Buffalo. By the end of their travels they had a clear vision – a vision which later became Root & Bloom, a vegan cafe set in Elmwood Village.
There’s a lot of misconceptions and myths about plant-based diets. Sarah and James created Root & Bloom to show Buffalo that plant-based food could taste good and compete with WNY’s iconic but not-so-healthy staples like pizza and chicken wings.
When you walk into Root & Bloom, you’ll notice the cafe has a west coast vibe with east coast comfort, just like Sarah and James. They describe their menu as “us and our experiences.” Their space and their menu is a reflection of who they are and it shows.
Opening a new restaurant is challenging, especially in a foodie-central city like ours, and especially within such a defined niche. Despite these challenges, Root & Bloom has quickly become super successful both IRL and on Instagram (their page has over 8,000 followers in just over a year). But how?
We asked owners James Ernst and Sarah Sendlbeck shared their story of how taking small steps to make their dream a reality paid off for them in a major way.
Here are their tips for building a business one step at a time:
1. Bootstrap your business
“Wouldn’t we all love $500k to open up a brand spanking new space with brand-new furniture, equipment and design? Sure. But the reality is, you can absolutely bootstrap your business to get it off the ground if you’re willing to compromise and make improvements as you’re able.
We opened Root & Bloom with a little under $10k, which is pretty unheard of. We had to be extremely thrifty in order to open our doors during our soft opening. We were working with a small secondhand stove, a few griddle pans, a single door fridge, and 1 employee (seriously, that’s all we had).”
“With each passing week, we were able to bring in more things to improve the kitchen setup. By the end of the summer, we had the capital to repair the walk-in fridge, and by the fall we could secure a small loan to renovate the storefront. By the winter we purchased sandwich coolers and updated some equipment we were getting by on.
Still today, a year later, we make improvements as we can, and set goals to replace things with more worthy items. We didn’t open our doors with a pile of debt, and that really eased the financial pressure as we were just starting out.”
2. Perfection is impossible
“When you first open your doors, it’s both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Will anyone come? Is my product worthwhile?
Self-doubt will inevitably set in, followed by a few waves of confidence as customers validate their positive experiences. While striving for perfection is a worthy cause, it’s also one that will leave you feeling defeated and deflated over and over.”
“Pleasing every single person who walks through your doors is impossible, and you will undoubtedly exhaust yourself trying to make everyone happy. We used to constantly add things to our menu based on customers’ requests, all the while overburdening our prep schedule and storage space trying to keep up. We finally realized that focusing on what makes us unique and special, consolidating our multiple menus, and highlighting and improving the things that we do really well was a much better system that left us feeling more balanced and in control.
We can’t do it all, and that’s okay. We’re all human beings, including our customers. There are great days and days where we’re scrambling. Showing compassion and understanding toward each other is so important.”
3. Curation is key
“So much of our generated foot traffic comes from our space and its unique design and vibe, and our online presence. While our cafe is small, we always try to maintain a curated feel in all aspects from our interior cafe space to our back patio to our Instagram feed. Everything has a consistent look, feel and coloring all the way down to the photographs we take or share. It’s extremely intentional and helps define our brand and our customer base.”
“The addition of our patio mural this year attracts professional photoshoots, Instagrammers, and amateur brunchers alike, and we love it. Why? Because online tagging, sharing and liking is the new mainstream marketing. The more people are photographing and sharing your space, the more people organically hear about us and want to check it out too. Whether someone is vegan or not, they’ll come in for the vibe and realize they love the food too. That’s a win-win!”
4. Fanfare is fantastic
“We owe so much of our success early on to the numerous local media sources that covered us as something unique and interesting happening in Buffalo. But the biggest hit was our coverage in a national publication of the New York Times, and then to follow, the Washington Post. This sent waves of people our way during our first summer open when we were just a back patio cafe with no storefront. It allowed us to stay relevant and created a strong following and fan base that we’re still so grateful to be riding on a year later.
With that, however, also comes a downside that can be overlooked. We grew way faster than we were ready to. While growth, buzz, and excitement are amazing things, we were very much still in our infancy stage as a business, learning as we were going. We had to accelerate our learning curves in an attempt to stay ahead. Fanfare truly is fantastic, but keep in mind that it may bring growth you’re not necessarily ready for just yet.”
5. Innovate for interest
“Plant-based food is already a radical idea to the majority of the community, but with that comes a huge responsibility to do plant-based food well. Someone curious may be coming into our space for the first time to try a vegan item, and if it doesn’t hit them as being delicious and satisfying, chances are they’ll think all plant-based food is that way.
We strive to make sure our dishes are bold, tasty, comforting, and endlessly innovative. We don’t have any interest in replicating a dish someone else is doing really well. What’s the point? We want to continue to innovate our menu, keep our “fan favorites” but introduce new flavors and dishes that are new to the area. We take a nod from the seasons and what’s readily available, while also playing to people’s comfort levels for familiar food with a twist.”
Root & Bloom Cafe
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