Day-by-Day at the Live Oak Café

The Always Exhausting, Occasionally Rewarding Life of Running Your Own Restaurant

Live Oak’s proud owners, Mark Dela Cruz and Molly Holveck

Paul Wellman

Live Oak’s proud owners, Mark Dela Cruz and Molly Holveck

“I just finished cleaning the bathrooms,” says Chef Mark Dela Cruz matter-of-factly, his face shrouded by a hooded sweatshirt while the sun rises above the Live Oak Café on a recent Thursday morning. “I have to mop the floors early so they’re dry by 7 a.m.”

When he and his girlfriend, Molly Holveck, opened the Bath Street restaurant inside the Encina Inn & Suites more than three years ago, they fulfilled a shared dream, one that’s not uncommon in this age of celebrity chefs and foodie fandom. But they also entered, almost blindly, a new reality of endless toil, on-the-job learning, and steady personal sacrifice. The romance of owning and operating their own restaurant was essentially dead on arrival.

They put their heads down and persevered, and recently were able to stop working 16-hour days seven days a week ​— ​they’re now on more of a six-day,

8 a.m.-6 p.m. schedule; Holveck gets Saturdays off while Dela Cruz takes Mondays. However, like restaurateurs everywhere, they remain at the whim of the lives of their nearly two dozen employees, meaning that the pair’s next missed wedding, canceled vacation, or 16-hour day is only a text message away.

This particular morning the dishwasher can’t make it, and so Dela Cruz finds himself scrubbing toilets and sanitizing flatware rather than curing bacon or braising short-ribs. When a server calls in sick, Holveck is bussing tables and taking orders instead of baking cakes and crafting cappuccinos. And just like the napkin folding, coffee mug refilling, and question answering about whether the wheat bread is gluten-free or if the halibut is farmed, the paperwork never stops. Although cooking is what brought them to this point, it’s often the least of their daily concerns now.

As the food editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, I’ve frequented ​— ​and written about ​— ​dozens of restaurants over the past two decades, but I know the Live Oak Café story most intimately. That’s because Mark and Molly are my good friends, and I became a back-seat passenger on their journey even before the restaurant opened in April 2015. When I decided to write about how a Santa Barbara restaurant really works, I trusted them to speak honestly about the business, without the everything-is-organic sugarcoating that’s the mantra of today’s culinary world. And because the Live Oak Café’s three-meals-a-day formula, moderate pricing, and wide-ranging menu essentially makes it a classic American diner ​— ​albeit a more upscale and creative one ​— ​I believe their experience represents what restaurant ownership must be like in cities across the country.

But what’s most compelling to me about the Live Oak story is that Dela Cruz had never stepped foot in a commercial kitchen before this undertaking, having worked primarily as a handyman for most of his adult life. While Holveck’s résumé is stacked with managing jobs at some of Santa Barbara’s best-known eateries ​— ​Natural Café and the former Sojourner Café, to name two ​— ​Dela Cruz is just a couple of steps removed from me and possibly you: i.e., those who enjoy cooking, think we’re pretty good at it, and entertain far-off fantasies of one day running our own place. But, as you’ll discover, theirs is a cautionary tale, albeit one with a light finally flickering at the end of the tunnel.

“If you’re asking me if I’d change it,” Dela Cruz replies when I ask whether he wishes he’d had more technical training or practical experience before embarking on this adventure, “I don’t think I would. Everything’s worked out the way it’s supposed to.”

Makin’ Bacon

7:08 a.m.: A buzzing sound like a dot matrix printer hums in the kitchen, spitting out an order and prompting the two line cooks, Jovani Crucillo and Claudia Cuevas, who arrived around 6 a.m. that morning, to start pancakes, oatmeal, and an over-easy egg. “That’s the first ticket,” says Dela Cruz. “I used to have nightmares about that sound. That was just my inexperience in cooking at a commercial level.”

Born in Honolulu, where his Filipino paternal grandmother was born on a sugar-cane plantation, Dela Cruz, who is 43 years old, was raised in Orange County’s Fountain Valley, his dad a computer programmer, his mom a nurse originally from British Columbia. He started cooking in the mid-1990s when he came to UC Santa Barbara to study biology. “I wanted to eat the same food that my parents were eating at home: fried rice and kalua pork and shoyu chicken,” says Dela Cruz, whose dad still lords over his parents’ kitchen. “I had to learn all those recipes.”

That little bit of knowledge was valuable in Isla Vista, where grilling culture reigns and yet very few know how to cook. His culinary interest grew stronger after graduating in 1999, which is about when we met and began tending many a barbecue together. He’d gotten hooked on Alton Brown’s Good Eats television show around that time, fascinated by the scientific side of the kitchen.

After quitting a marine biology lab job, Dela Cruz started working construction with a property manager who oversaw about 100 units in town as well as various remodeling jobs. His boss also owned a massive barbecue trailer, and one day they catered a 200-person wedding together, which was the first time Dela Cruz really cooked for people he didn’t know. He eventually did some other small gigs as well, to much applause. “Everyone was telling me that I should think about doing this professionally,” he recalls, and that thought started burning in the back of his mind. “I knew I didn’t want to do construction forever.”

7:15 a.m.: Ding! “That’s the food,” says Dela Cruz, happy that it’s ready in seven minutes. A brisk breakfast service is critical to Live Oak’s success, especially on weekends, when their popular brunch goes until 1 p.m. “The difference between making $1,500 at breakfast and $1,500 at dinner is huge,” he explains. Breakfast is easier to prepare, and the ingredients typically cost much less, just one of the many lessons that he learned upon opening.

Initially, Dela Cruz had high hopes of changing the menu seasonally, offering meticulously crafted specials, and other sorts of fine-dining items. “Then reality hit, where I just needed to have enough food to serve,” he says. “I had no idea of portions, of how much meat we would need.” One weekend in July 2015, after I wrote a short piece about his bacon-fried rice bowl, Dela Cruz explains, “We literally ran out of bacon and rice.”

His inexperience led to other follies, inefficient methods, and some of his staff taking advantage of him. But Dela Cruz also believes that his naivete allowed him to try things that a more experienced chef would have instinctively avoided ​— ​such as curing his own bacon, which takes a week, and then prepping it in either his Pacific Rim or Maple Espresso seasonings. “We sell a lot of that bacon,” he says. “The bacon-fried rice dish, that’s what we’re known for.”

8:01 a.m.: “They’re asking about where the bacon comes from, because they really enjoy it,” says Jodi Ford, the morning busser, to Dela Cruz. “That’s the Pacific Rim,” he replies. “You can tell them we make it here.”

As she saunters back to the customers with the new intel, he turns to me, explaining apologetically, “It’s, like, her fifth day. When it comes to training, the menu is so much further beyond the basics.”

Dela Cruz and Holveck are proud of their current staff: a dozen line cooks and dishwashers and an equal number of servers and bussers. Finding reliable employees in a tight labor market proves to be Live Oak’s biggest challenge, a complaint I’ve heard from restaurant managers all across town. They’ve endured tremendous employee turnover in three years, with the exception of Cesar Muñoz, who’s been with them since they opened the door and is now a manager.

“That’s always fun ​— ​having to interview a bunch of people and finding no qualified applicants and having to cover all of the shifts,” says Holveck of a recent round of hiring. Then there was the week when many scheduled interviews yet no one showed up. “I don’t get this ghosting thing. That’s the way things are done now, I guess,” she adds.

Though just 32 years old, Holveck is a veteran of the Santa Barbara restaurant industry. Raised in Auburn in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where her dad worked in construction and her mom made killer holiday cookies, she moved here in 2004 at age 17 to attend Santa Barbara City College and then study art history at UCSB. After seeing a roommate come home with wads of cash from waiting tables, Holveck started working as a hostess at the Wine Cask at age 18.

“I was so young, but they took me under their wing,” she remembers fondly. “It was like this little family. They took me out on a salsa dancing cruise. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, dancing all night with the cooks. I got hooked at that point.”

There were other benefits as well. “It helped me come out of my shell because I was extremely shy,” she says. “Having to talk to people was my number-one fear. I probably didn’t say a word in my childhood until I was 16.”

Horrible clothing retail jobs led to a great experience at Metropulos in the then-emerging Funk Zone, where she made sandwiches and ran the cheese counter for a couple of years. Then came S.B. Roasting Company and the Natural Café, where she quickly became the downtown location’s assistant GM. By 22, she was the GM of the location at Hitchcock Way, one of the busier restaurants in town and adjacent to the headquarters of the successful regional chain.

“It was terrifying,” says Holveck. One day, her attempts to keep labor costs down by sending staff home early collided with a surprise rush that forced the café chain’s owner to pitch in and make smoothies. “He said, ‘I get what you’re doing, but don’t ever do that again ​— ​you can’t do everything,’” says Holveck, who got critical crash courses in the Natural Café’s profit and loss accounting, staff training protocols, and large-scale management systems. “At the time, I was like, ‘This is nuts. It’s all extremely stressful,’” she says. “But now looking back, I wish I could implement that here.”

Upon college graduation with her art history degree, she realized she didn’t want to work in museums. After a few months in Europe, she returned to Santa Barbara in 2012 and found work at Olio Pizzeria and Sojourner Café. The latter, a classic all-vegetarian menu eatery that closed in September 2015, was really the first time she waited tables. “I was jumping into something new again,” says Holveck, who served as Soj’s manager for almost two years. “It was probably the funniest place to learn how to wait tables because it was so, uh, I guess ‘free-spirited’ is the word.”

Holveck started daydreaming about running her own bakery. “My baking background is nothing ​— ​I have no experience at all,” she readily admits, though she recalls many holiday cookie sessions with her mom, a tradition she keeps up today at the café, alongside inventive pies and other desserts. “It’s just something that I really loved to do. It was rewarding.”

By then, Holveck had been dating Dela Cruz for almost 10 years, and they talked about restaurant dreams. “I don’t think I was necessarily planning on opening a restaurant with him,” she says. “But we thought we could have a little bakery and lunch place. He could cook, and I could bake. It was like a what-a-wonderful-life kind of thing.”

Opportunity Rocks

8:23 a.m.: Dela Cruz emerges from the kitchen with a twinkle in his eye. “You’ve come on a good day,” he smiles. “Just go back there.”

I walk into the kitchen, where a long, green snake of a tube is jiggling on the ground, putrid smells filling the air. “It’s sucking out the grease trap,” Dela Cruz says over the gurgling. I go outside to find a MarBorg truck, which ingests every restaurant’s food scraps and gunk every week or so. There’s also the huge barrel of used cooking oil that gets collected monthly right by the back door, just another ugly thing hidden from those who eat in restaurant dining rooms.

Back inside the kitchen, beyond the office that’s littered with cookbooks, stacks of résumés and personnel records, and a conveniently placed bottle of ibuprofen, the walls are lined with lists on paper and whiteboards: who’s working when, what needs to be ordered from which supplier, the soup of the day, which menu item is 86ed (or almost gone), and even what’s spoiled (for tax write-offs).

Such is the system handed down to restaurateurs through the ages, no matter how they get into this all-encompassing lifestyle ​— ​restaurants often inherited, generations passing the business through generations. For others, owning a restaurant is the culmination of a successful career in the kitchen or the front of the house. And for some, it is a lifestyle luxury fueled by wealth from elsewhere.

For Holveck and Dela Cruz, the opportunity to own a restaurant came out of the blue. Her dad, Wayne Holveck, had partnered on projects for years, both here and in the Sierra foothills, with the family that owns the Encina Inn & Suites, which is a Best Western hotel. When he heard they were looking for a new operator for their restaurant, he suggested Molly.

“He’s my biggest fan ​— ​maybe he embellished my experience,” says Holveck. But she recognized that it was a unique chance, especially since the hotel owners were offering to remodel the space, handle initial business issues, and partner on the project.

She then pitched Dela Cruz as part of the package. “A twentysomething girl whose boyfriend wants to be a chef but is currently in construction?” she laughs. “Yeah, that took some convincing, which is understandable.”

Once the hotel owners were convinced ​— ​and quite open to dishes such as pork belly bánh mì and shoyu chicken bowls, which were unconventional by traditional hotel diner standards ​— ​the couple had to take the leap. “It’s a big decision,” says Holveck. “But it was basically like if you don’t take this opportunity, it’s never going to actually happen.”

8:55 a.m.: I’m sitting at the bar when Holveck brings out small plates of chilaquiles that the line cooks made for the staff breakfast. As I tuck in, Holveck gets up to say hi to a pair of her favorite customers, who regale her with tales of their latest vacation and the one to come. Her breakfast, meanwhile, goes cold.

Tepid meals are just one of the sacrifices that she and Dela Cruz have made to keep doors open: missing weddings, opting out of vacations, buying concert tickets only to wait tables and wash dishes instead ​— ​though Dela Cruz did close the restaurant to attend the funeral of a childhood friend. “I knew it was going to be 24/7,” says Holveck. “But I don’t think I knew what that felt like. It was harsh, but in the beginning, you’re running on adrenaline and so much fear.”

It’s no wonder they’ve grown super-superstitious, knocking on wood constantly, worrying that mentioning the ice machine will put it on the fritz, purposefully not making plans for birthday parties or getaways. “As soon as you make food for yourself, all the [order] tickets come in,” says Dela Cruz. “You won’t be able to eat it for two hours.”

10:46 a.m.: “Now there’s no one,” says Holveck, her restaurant completely empty. Though they’ve developed a solid clientele of locals, Cottage Hospital employees and patients, and hotel guests ​— ​which can account for 80 percent of the business in the summer ​— ​it’s still a nail-biting affair in slow times. Of all businesses, restaurants may be the most feast or famine.

“We were absolutely overwhelmingly busy this summer. We did more than I could have ever imagined, and I felt physically broken,” says Holveck. “But October is looking brutal.” By 10:47 a.m., a new customer is being seated.

11:01 a.m.: “It’s a new guy,” says Dela Cruz, as he and Holveck watch the delivery man from U.S. Foods pile boxes of eggs and most everything else into the kitchen. Holveck scours the list ​— ​errors sometimes happen, like hot sauce mislabeled into the to-go cups box ​— ​as Dela Cruz shuffles the cold stuff into the fridge and Cuevas stacks dry goods in the pantry.

They order once a week from U.S. Foods, Jordano’s, and Harbor Meat & Seafood, as well as from produce suppliers, Ethnic Breads in Goleta, McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, and Tondi Gelato, and they occasionally hit the farmers’ markets, usually Tutti Frutti Farms, for specialties like heirloom tomatoes. I wonder aloud about the oft-uttered claim of chefs shopping that market daily or buying all organic, locally grown produce, and Dela Cruz grumbles.

For him to do that would add “exorbitant” cost to the menu, and he believes that most of the meat ​— ​including the beloved Mary’s Free Range Chicken, which he buys ​— ​is coming from the same handful of producers, unless you’re buying directly from a boutique source. He’s run into other renowned restaurateurs loading up on meat at Costco. “It’s all price point,” he explains of the buying decisions.

That said, about three-quarters of the menu is house-made ​— ​even the salad dressings, sausage patties, quinoa cakes for eggs Benedict, and pickled veggies ​— ​and Dela Cruz makes the pricier call when needed, including the organic eggs, which cost more than twice as much. “It makes a difference, in the flavor for sure, and the texture,” he explains. “But we don’t say it in huge letters on the menu.”

Being a restaurant on a Best Western property came with other challenges as well, including the need to stock Raisin Bran at all times, a tasting for the corporate execs, and a sprawling menu that slides from French toast and Pan-Asian to Southern barbecue and Italian-American favorites like chicken piccata. “It’s global comfort food,” says Dela Cruz. “It’s all stuff that we really like to eat.”

“We’ve got a lot to cover,” says Holveck of having to serve so many different types of people. “Having a big menu is something I didn’t really want, but it seemed necessary.”

1:17 p.m.: It’s the lunch rush, and the credit card machine is not working, so the Live Oak crew opts for its Square backup device and calls the repairman. He’ll show up almost two hours later.

Though open for more than three years, it was only about a year ago that Holveck and Dela Cruz started to feel somewhat comfortable in their new shoes. They also earned full ownership of the business, recently signing their first five-year lease. “I feel like we can conquer a lot,” says Holveck. “Whenever something comes up, we know the protocol. Even when shit hits fans, we don’t freak out anymore. We just start problem solving.”

1:26 p.m.: “It’s very good. The meat is very tender,” says a woman behind me, chomping on the pulled-pork sandwich. “Thanks for the recommendation.” She’s talking to her server, Josh Perry ​— ​Holveck says her waitstaff gets lot of compliments for being knowledgeable ​— ​but the customer walks up to the bar when Dela Cruz comes out. “That barbecue sauce and the pork is so delicious,” she tells him. “And that’s coming from a black woman whose family owns Gates Bar-B-Q in Missouri. That’s saying a lot.”

Though he doesn’t work the line much anymore, Dela Cruz is still the one who smokes the pork shoulder every week, prepares the kalua pig with banana leaves and Hawaiian sea salt, marinates the shoyu chicken, cures all that bacon, and sous vides the pork belly for the bánh mì sandwiches. But both he and Holveck are increasingly comfortable with delegating, which is the difficult but necessary step that restaurateurs must take to regain any semblance of a normal life.

They’ve even been able to take some overseas trips ​— ​once to Sicily together, and Dela Cruz came with me to Cuba last year, chalking it up to “research,” and Holveck just came back from a girls’ trip to Mexico. “It was glorious,” she says. “We need to do it more often because it’s not a big deal. The restaurant functions just fine when we’re not here.”

The two are now at a point where they can start thinking about the future, tightening up their systems, tweaking the menu, considering delivery service, and maybe even more off-site catering. Says Dela Cruz, almost reluctantly, “No one really does luaus in town …”

Holveck believes that Live Oak Café has cultivated that same sort of family feel among the staff that pulled her into the industry in the first place. So is she happy to have embarked on this entrepreneurial adventure? “I am glad,” she says. “It’s still tough, but I am glad.”

Epilogue

Sunday, 7:54 a.m.: My family and I walk into the Live Oak Café for Sunday brunch, and the place is packed ​— ​every table in the main dining room is full, and then the patio is consumed by a youth soccer team, parents and siblings and all. I’d forgotten that the night before was Holveck’s birthday, so neither she nor Dela Cruz is in yet. Things are running rather smoothly ​— ​sure, some tables wait a little while for their bills or coffee refills, but that’s normal in even the most established diners during a rush.

Holveck zips in about 15 minutes later, hurried but smiling. As she hustles by our table, she jokes, “This is fun …,” but I see a glimmer of pride in her eye. As we pay our bill and wave goodbye, she’s bussing a table and welcoming the next four-top at the same time.