On occasion, SDNEDC highlights locally-owned small businesses that add to the unique character of North County. To have your small business considered for a future article, email Caitlyn Canby at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Egg, bacon, three cheeses, and avocado on sourdough – “The Works” is the breakfast panini that not only put Escondido’s Sunny Side Kitchen on the map but also helped secure its spot in Yelp’s Top 100 US Restaurants three times. The latest accolade, ranking third in the US, took owners Bob and Kate Carpenter by surprise and increased their business by an astounding 80%.
What can you expect from a visit to Sunny Side Kitchen?
Sunny Side Kitchen is a small batch, 660 square foot café that serves “casual California cuisine” – a lot of fresh and familiar foods made in a unique way. They are well-known for their breakfast and lunch panini, but they also serve quiche, salads, soups, and desserts. Food is a canvas for their creativity, and they prioritize local vendors and produce.
“Kate really puts a lot of effort into combinations where flavors and textures balance each other beautifully. This amount of crunch combined with that amount of sweetness or saltiness.” Bob said.
Kate gets some of her inspiration from her mother, who she said was a great cook and hostess and always served well-balanced, well-proportioned meals.
“We try to make it a well-rounded menu and meet the needs of different dietary restrictions or preferences,” Kate said. All Sunny Side sandwiches can be made gluten free, and vegetarian and vegan options are also available.
Looking for a Menu Recommendation?
How did they make the list?
With a 4.8-star Yelp rating from over 1100 reviewers, the couple insists that great food alone cannot lead to success. They attribute this accomplishment to building a community, asking for help, and finding their niche.
Build a Community
“It’s people. It’s the connections that we have with people. They end up advocating for us,” Bob said. As former journalists, Bob and Kate tend to “interview” their customers. They might ask, “What are you doing today?” instead of saying “Have a nice day,” opening lines of communication to get to know their guests.
“Creating a community of your staff, customers, and surrounding businesses is key,” Kate said. “You could have the best food in the world, but if you don’t have that sense of community among yourselves, then people don’t feel good.”
The Carpenters often hear that their customers feel like they’re in their aunt’s kitchen when they visit, so people feel open to talking to the people next to them, even if they are strangers. Friendships (and even a marriage!) have formed from customers meeting new people at Sunny Side Kitchen.
Ask for Help
Building a community is also how Bob and Kat have found local food, supply, and service vendors. They received assistance on the incorporation process from a customer who happens to be a local lawyer, which leads to their second piece of advice:
“Ask for help. Ask because it makes people feel good, and you never know what they know. You need help even if you think you don’t,” Bob said.
“We went to the [Small Business Administration] for several things, and we had no idea what we didn’t know,” Kate said. “We had never owned businesses before. These experts in the field would come in, and they would always give us some nugget that would get us to the next little level.”
Find Your Niche
As a breakfast restaurant that doesn’t serve traditional breakfast, the Carpenters realize that their menu won’t appeal to everyone.
“The best advice I’ve received is: ‘Be yourself,’” Kate said. “You’re not going to make every single person in this town happy. Sometimes they just want scrambled eggs and pancakes. But I think this is part of the reason that we’re successful, because we have a niche.”
Within their niche, the couple only include “stuff that we love. Meals that we can stand behind,” according to Kate. Items that are good, but nothing special, don’t make the cut for the menu.
What did they do before Sunny Side Kitchen?
The Carpenters both came into the food service industry as former journalists. After a lay off in 2011, Kate brainstormed a way to get out of the office, use her hands, and be connected to people. She talked about being a forest ranger, but ultimately, Kate decided to bake cookies and sell them at the farmer’s market.
“When you’re selling at a farmer’s market, you meet people, talk to them, and they tell you if they like your cookies. You get immediate feedback,” Kate said.
Their farmer’s market venture expanded, presenting an opportunity to delve into sandwich making. As part of this, they crafted a Gourmet Grilled Cheese inspired by one of Bob’s children’s favorites and Kate’s daughter’s Parmesan inspiration. This sandwich, featuring Havarti, Munster, and Parmesan on sourdough bread, has remained a crowd favorite dish at Sunny Side Kitchen.
The last steppingstone to owning their own storefront was making sandwiches at local breweries when they had entertainment booked with big crowds.
“This was a big step because at some breweries, we would make a hundred sandwiches in 3 hours,” Kate said. “We needed that repetition and practice. The breweries and the farmer’s markets taught us how to do food professionally.”
During this time, the Carpenters wrote up a business plan, deciding they wanted to open a restaurant in year 3 of their business. Looking around in downtown Escondido, they found their location – complete with an oven, hood, and food service licenses already in place, and Sunny Side Kitchen was born.
Why did they choose Escondido?
Escondido became Kate’s home in 1992 when she wanted to buy an affordable house in the region. Now, she and Bob stay for the character and tight-knit community.
“We love North County. We have a lot to offer up here!” Kate said. “In Escondido, I like the open space and trails, and I like that it’s small businesses. Downtown, there are no chains. It has character. It has personality. And it’s kind of quirky.”
When they started their business, the Escondido Downtown Business Association reached out to become friendly with them. Other business owners who barely knew them would greet them, hugging them in the grocery store aisles.
“People all care about each other. I don’t think it’s like that everywhere,” Bob said. “Just the other night, we went to the downtown business association mixer. There’s like 200 people that own businesses in this room. They said congratulations, and we got a standing ovation. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed.”
What’s next for Sunny Side Kitchen?
“Our business is a reflection of us. We’re not going to scale up a lot (like moving to a big kitchen or franchising), but we definitely need to scale up the next level,” Kate said.
“To be able to handle a day like today,” Bob agreed, as we sat together outside the restaurant on one of the busiest days they’ve experienced in the restaurant.
Bob and Kate would also like to expand the catering aspect of Sunny Side Kitchen, specifically to serve other small business meetings and small gatherings. While their small, 660-square-foot restaurant can only hold so many seats, they can cater business lunches and similar meals without significantly affecting their dine-in experience.
If you’d like to get in touch with Sunny Side Kitchen to cater for your next small event, you can find more information at www.sunnysidekitchen.com/catering or stop by at the address below.
Address: 155 S Orange St, Escondido
Hours: 6:30 am – 2:30 pm, Monday through Saturday
Read the story covering Sarah McSpadden, CEO of The Elizabeth Hospice here for more content.
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About the Author
Caitlyn Canby loves to discover and share people’s stories. She has her bachelor’s degree in Communications, Print Journalism with over 8 years of journalism experience. An Escondido native, she just moved back from Catalina Island to North County with her husband and two children to the town of Fallbrook. Caitlyn enjoys collaborating on projects as Marketing and Events Coordinator at SDNEDC, traveling, and exploring new restaurants, venues, experiences, and cultures.