The Ridgeback Café’s Justin Taft, left, with Zev Siegl, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center.
 
 
SEATTLE — The menu at the Ridgeback Café in Phinney Ridge is hip, hot and made from scratch — a lot like the restaurant itself.
 

The café opened in late 2010 in a former printing shop on the 500 block of NW 65th Street, an unglamorous strip of storefronts that’s heavy on body piercing, bars and bargains. Not necessarily an obvious location for a crepe and sandwich cafe, but owner Justin Taft said it was just what he was looking for: affordable space in an interesting neighborhood.

Nestled on the western edge of Phinney Ridge, just east of Ballard, the neighborhood felt solid, he said. Not trendy, but trending, a little like the Georgetown neighborhood where he had opened The Hangar Café just three years before.

Fresh, friendly, fun

A self-taught cook, Taft spent more than a dozen years serving in and managing multiple cafés and coffee shops, including several Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee & Tea and The Essential Baking Company. But by 2008, he was ready to break out on his own.

He had a couple goals when he bought a small café on 13th Avenue in Georgetown near Boeing Field and renamed it The Hangar, he said. He wanted the food to be fresh, the service to be friendly and the ambiance to be fun. Check, check and check.

The Hangar attracted a loyal following right from the start. Online reviewers raved about the food while describing the décor as “cozy,” “quaint” and “comfortable.” One of those loyal customers was Zev Siegl, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center.

The SBDC is a cooperative effort of Washington State University, other educational institutions, economic development organizations and the U.S. Small Business Administration. It promotes economic vitality within Washington communities by providing expert business advising, demand-driven training and applied research to existing businesses and entrepreneurs.
 
Ready to expand

A coffee aficionado who appreciates locally owned small businesses, Siegl was impressed. Had Taft thought of expanding, he asked? At the time, Taft had his hands full with the The Hangar, but by 2010 he was ready to talk.

Siegl was supportive from the start, Taft said, but he also cautioned that opening a second restaurant would be harder, not easier, than the first.

For one thing, you can’t be in two places at one time. Adding a second café meant developing systems and processes that weren’t as crucial when Taft was always on the premises.

Also, Taft had a neighborhood in mind but not a building. When he finally found an affordable space, it didn’t have a kitchen. By continuing with the crepes and sandwiches menu, Taft avoided installing a full commercial kitchen, although the space still required major renovations.
 
Crafting a solid plan

Even as he was moving forward, some people questioned the wisdom of opening a family-friendly, fresh food restaurant serving crepes, sandwiches and soups in a somewhat hard-scrabble neighborhood. But for Taft, that was the point.

“Anything that is meaningful is not easy” is one of his favorite quotes.
 
But that doesn’t mean he fell victim to the “build it and they will come” mentality. With Siegl’s help, he drafted a solid business plan for his new restaurant and reviewed his goals for The Hangar. Together they pored over financial projections, expenses, lease agreements and loan applications.
 
Making a profit

Financing fell through several times, Taft said, but eventually, with Siegl’s help, he was able to assemble the funding he needed to renovate and then open the doors.

The look is totally different from The Hangar – neutral walls, high ceilings and drop lighting over woodblock tables – but the ambiance is similar: casual, fresh and fun. The Ridgeback Café is nearly four times the size of The Hangar, so Taft’s payroll jumped from seven people to 25 for the two restaurants combined.

Every aspect of the business is more complicated, he said. The first seven or eight months were difficult financially, but he has a solid plan and things have fallen into place (with a lot of hard work).

In the first six months he was able to pay back a $40,000 loan. His business plan predicted he’d show a profit by the summer, and he has. In two years, he said, the restaurants will be debt-free.
 
Business expertise appreciated

“It was a huge help to have Zev and the SBDC,” Taft said. “It’s nice to have a person who’s not a family member or a friend to talk things over with, someone who’s a business expert.”

Taft’s track is definitely the less traveled one. But just as he imagined, he likes where it has taken him.
 
His Phinney Ridge neighbors “are just fantastic and wonderful,” he said. And judging by online reviews, they feel the same about him.

The Hangar is located at 6261 13th Ave. S., Seattle. The Ridgeback Café is located at 500 NW 65th St.
 
About the WSBDC
For information about the WSBDC, or to find a certified business advisor in your area, go to www.wsbdc.org.
 
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Sources:
Justin Taft, Ridgeback Café, 206-783-4073
Zev Siegl, SBDC business advisor, 206-870-3710 x5153; sbdc@highline.edu