Women of Pasadena: The Business of Food

A fixture in the San Marino community, Linda Grace owns and operates the beloved San Marino Café & Marketplace while giving tirelessly to local charities. A newcomer to the area, Susan Sarich is the founder of popular SoCal bakery staple SusieCakes, which just opened its 24th location, here in Pasadena. These dynamic women discuss the trying times of the pandemic, running a woman-owned business, balance, silver linings, and where to have a little fun in Pasadena.
Linda Grace

LINDA GRACE: I think the last two years for anyone in the food business, or any business, it’s been really tough. When the pandemic hit, I launched into this very transparent panic-survival mode. I was only two years into the business, and I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing. And I knew that, no matter what happened, I’m not going to give myself an option to fail. I have to figure this out. So, instead of hiding in my shell, I reached out to the community and asked, “What can I do for you?” And they said, “Linda, we don’t want another grocery store.” So, I opened a marketplace in the café (San Marino Café & Marketplace). I think that’s the moral of the story—I just kept having to pivot and figure it out, but it was more of a need to listen, and that’s what I did.

SUSAN SARICH: For me, it certainly was the biggest challenge of my professional career that I’’e ever faced, even more difficult than launching SusieCakes in Brentwood in 2006. It was really tough on an emotional level having to lay off employees. And it was tough on a physical level because we only had the bare-bones team members to get us through the full lockdown, and we were working tirelessly to come up with ways that we could pivot. We completely redesigned our business model to adapt to the new environment. Guests weren’t allowed to come in the store, the days and weeks of operation, everything changed. So, the silver lining is we were able to survive, and the outcome of that survival was actually a more viable business model for moving forward in challenging times.

LG: Definitely. What I’ve experienced in my business in the last two years is just major growth. We grew leaps and bounds. I found my business plan from 2017 and I did double of what I had projected for 2021. I think for the ones who figured out how to get through a pandemic, you figure out a whole lot of other stuff too, and I’m a very happy business owner. San Marino kind of chose me. I came up through middle-market banking, and I was at the tail end of my divorce. I kind of hated the corporate life. I knew I loved food and that hospitality was my thing, but I was never was in the restaurant business. And then, a friend of a friend told me about [the café]. I had a conversation, signed a lease, and then five weeks later, I opened. It just all sort of worked and was one of those meant-to-be things.

Susan Sarich

SS: We’ve been looking [for a space] in Pasadena for the better part of 10 years. We were just waiting for the right location and the right deal. So sometimes, the right space can come up, but you need parking, street access, and all of the things that we know we need to be a successful bakery location—and the terms of the lease have to be financially viable as well. So those two factors weren’t always coming together for us. We looked for a long time and then something came up. It was definitely pre-pandemic because I remember the landlord worked with us to assure that we were still able to open even though it was such a challenging year. We’re very intentional about choosing sites that are about community and like a local neighborhood feel. And for me, Pasadena has always felt like a tight-knit, supportive community where people who live there support the local businesses.

LG: I agree 100%. There’s so much of an output. I think people want to support small businesses and want more women-owned businesses—let’s not shy away from that. I think that those are really important factors. And we happen to be in a community that wants that, and we can give them that. I think that being a woman in any business, especially in hospitality, there are certain challenges—everybody expects you to smile and be happy all the time. And I’m a very hands-on owner, I’m in the café a lot. I’ll make the soup five times a week, or I’ll be at the register 10 days in a row, so I really like to be active. Sometimes I’m busy and I don’t get to say hello because I’m ultra-focused in a moment. I don’t know if that’s a man or woman thing, but I’m expected to always be bubbly. So, I’m finding comfort in being behind the scenes a little more.

SS: I think at this juncture in our world, there is extra pressure on women overall in the hospitality industry, in the workforce, and in general of taking care of kids at home, when school closes or when somebody gets COVID and has to quarantine. I’ve seen it because my workforce is so predominantly female, but I see that responsibility many times does fall on the woman. And then it becomes a decision of family or work, which is a very difficult one. I’ve been in the hospitality industry for 10-plus years prior to opening SusieCakes, and one of the drivers for me to open my own business was that I noticed that there weren’t a lot of women in the industry in leadership levels, certainly not at VP levels. This was in the ’90s and things have certainly changed, but the desire to open was largely around offering progressive careers for women in food service where you didn’t have to work 24/7.

LG: We’re a band of moms and many are my pillars. Christmas was on Saturday so they wanted me to close on Sunday. And I had anxiety for a week because I’m still in that mode of “I need to do this. I need to make this work.” I said, “OK, guys, I’m gonna do it.” It was really hard for me. But again, I listened. And I think as a business owner that’s growing, I need to know how I can support my staff. That’s very important, especially the moms. I’m a mom—I’m raising two teenagers, and it’s really tough, but we’re figuring it all out. As an entrepreneur, I didn’t take a day off throughout the pandemic. I’ve worked for 11 months in a row, but I’m learning how to be better because it’s so important.

SS: We are closed on Christmas Day and those three days after for our teams to spend time with their families. We are not open late nights, early mornings. And so that was intentional to attract a female workforce who can say, “I’m passionate about food service and I want a career in this, but I don’t want to be working every New Year’s Eve.”

LG: For me, it’s been a personal journey. I wanted to see what I could actually do. And I’m really transparent about this: I’m a high school dropout and I got my GED when I was 22, and then I tried college. I figured out corporate and I got to a certain level, but I knew that there was something else for me. It’s me kind of looking at myself going, “Oh, can I do that?” So, I think I’m going to open a second store, and maybe I can do a third. I’m in that process right now.

SS: Definitely. My goal is to have SusieCakes become a national brand and a household name. So that still is the plan.

SS: Pie ’N Burger is so good and one of my favorite things about Pasadena. It reminds me of some old-school diners I used to go to growing up in Chicago. So that’s my downtown and then my uptown is The Langham for fancy cocktails and snacks at the bar—those are my two favorite things to do.

LG: I’m a Houston’s person. I love their trout, and I will eat there three times a week. I live a very busy life, I’m raising kids, and I’m not going on vacation, so eating out is really the only fun that I have in Pasadena. I feel like there’s always that comfort—I’ll go in there and I’m a happy gal—so it doesn’t take much!

SS: We both work really hard in our businesses, and so it’s nice to go to someplace where the service is really friendly and takes care of you, and I think Hillstone always hits it out of the park on that front. I would love to come see your place, Linda, and have a cup of coffee or something together. I think it would be awesome.

LG: I love that. And meeting more women in this business who are willing to really teach and kind of bring up that next group of women. I would love to be a part of that.