Chef Chat: 'Little' Big-Timer Bonnie Saran
Getting inside the mind behind Westchester's restaurant empire
As the owner of Little Kabab Station, Little Crepe Street, Little Spice Bazaar, and Little Drunken Chef in Mount Kisco, as well as Little Mumbai Market in Pleasantville, restaurateur Bonnie Saran knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it in the competitive Westchester dining scene. We caught up with her recently and chatted a bit about how her restaurants have managed to survive and thrive.
Restaurants are a notoriously hard business in which to succeed, let alone expand. How have you managed to grow so steadily?
The most important thing is our mission statement, which is that money should not really define how well a person eats. We have a very good price point; our margins are very low. I opened Little Kebab Station during the recession. People go through both good times and bad times. When I designed and conceptualized the restaurants, I kept in mind that whether a person has a job or not, makes really good money or not, [they are still] entitled to eat good food at our locations. Whether it’s a kid, a grownup, a multi-millionaire, a working-class person, a student... I’ve designed [the restaurants] so they are accessible to everyone while keeping the quality high. With that in mind, each year we continue to do better than the last, knock wood.
What’s the one biggest factor behind your staying power?
You’ve got to be true to your own vision and true to yourself before anything else. You have to be honest about what you do. My kitchen staff, for example, knows that if there is something that you will not eat yourself, you absolutely cannot offer it to a customer. I don’t even want to go into what goes on behind closed doors in some kitchens. But we, in particular, have open-style kitchens for this reason. If something isn’t in the best condition, regardless of the cost, it goes straight into the garbage. We’re in this together as a family, along with our customers. Another thing is to always give back to the community. We do lots of events like Feed Me Fresh, or our free Thanksgiving meal, or free lunch for veterans on Memorial Day. Holidays are important—those are the days restaurants can make the max amount of money—but sometimes it’s more important to give back. Even my staff volunteers their time on the holidays, despite working numerous hours.
Employee turnover is very common in the restaurant business. How do you cultivate loyalty?
I personally feel that more than me answering this question, it should be the employees answering on what keeps them here—so I asked them. They all said in one way or another that they’re drawn to the sense of belonging at all my locations. They expressed feeling that their presence on the job is very important to me. Then it’s the bonding that we do—we all hang out and do lots of after-work activities like picnics, fishing, jet skiing, and other things that connect us together. I like to goof off, be naughty, and have fun as much as the rest of them. We all get to know each other as friends, so those who work for me care about being there. In fact, 70 percent of my staff remains the same since we first opened. Perhaps more importantly, I place 100 percent trust in them and give everyone a fair chance, which makes them feel valued.
With the increased focus on fresh foods, how do you handle inventory challenges?
Actually, at each of my restaurants, we have a daily delivery. All of our places are really tiny, so it’s not like we have the space to have extra ingredients lying around for one week. Basically, we check and see what we need on a daily basis. We also try to use a lot of ingredients across multiple dishes. For example, let’s say we have a dish with squash—then we’ll also make a soup with that same ingredient as a special. So everything we use stays in great condition without dealing with the surplus you see at other restaurants. My advice is to keep it real, keep it fresh; get rid of those enormous freezers, because nowadays people care deeply about [that freshness] and go out of their way to seek it out.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I received was from my father about a month before he passed away. We always had a strong and deep connection. He told me, “Everybody has to leave this earth, no matter what. It’s the only certain thing in life. Remember to never run behind money. What really matters is that there should be people whose lives you’ve influenced in some manner—who will remember you because you had a positive impact on them.” That’s why I try to have a big heart; sometimes I do things for people just because, and it gives me the most satisfaction. Sometimes I'll help out people who don’t even know me. And from my mother’s end, she always told me, “Little things make a big difference,” which runs along the same idea.
How do you take advice from others and turn that advice into meaningful actions?
I always take advice from other people. But at the end, I’m also inclined to do my own thing. Sometimes a hundred people might say, “Don’t do it,” but if my gut says otherwise, I might go ahead and do it anyway. Everyone told me not to open Little Kabab Station, for example. But if I see value in the advice, I’ll definitely follow through… and I’ll follow through to a T. I won't do it half-heartedly.