Customer Spotlight: Buna's Kitchen
Co-authors: Brayden Hooper and Lauren Sulek
We sat down with Grace An (Owner and Head Chef) and Ryan Zoldy (Kitchen Manager) of Buna’s Kitchen to learn about what it takes to make it past the 5-year mark, how to handle order volumes with apps like Ritual and why grandma’s food is the best food.
How did you get started in the food space?
[Grace] I actually started out in a completely different industry. I was working in solar energy as a junior project manager, but things didn’t work out. I remember sitting with my boyfriend (now my husband), and we were talking about my next steps. I had no clue what I wanted to do. He had said that one of his coworkers recently took a culinary class and that I should try it out, even if it was just for fun. So, I took the night course and loved it! I spent a year after that doing professional chef training.
I’ve always loved cooking, which is why the training was so fun. I loved the chef that was teaching the class and I loved my classmates. I met a woman who was an amazing chef and just said to her, do you want to do something for real after we’re finished here? It was a long, long process but now we’re here!
[Ryan] For me, it stems from a long time ago. I hate the cold so most winters were spent indoors with my mom baking and cooking. From there, I found myself getting a lot of jobs within the food industry. I’ve worked in back of house and front of house roles, dabbling in a little bit of everything, eventually stepping into management roles.
I feel that there are two fields that you’re pretty safe in: health and food. People always want to eat and I don’t think I’m strong enough to deal with anything in the realm of sick kids and stuff like that so food was the right choice for me.
How long was the process of actually finding and picking your location?
[G] Well, we were basically what some people might say, fresh off the boat in the restaurant location picking world. When you’re looking for a location, there are so many things that you need to consider, you have to pick a real estate agent that understands your vision, find a space that’s within your budget and find a location that you believe your restaurant will succeed in.
Luckily for me, my husband used to work right around the corner from our current location and one day we were walking by and we saw a “for lease” sign. It was the perfect little spot. It took us about a year and a half to secure the location, but it was definitely worth the wait.
So you’ve got the location checked off your list, how did you come up with the concept?
[G] We wanted a space that had a rustic look and feel. That’s why we put subway tiles around the space and a blackboard with the story of Buna. We also wanted to show how much we love growing herbs and vegetables. That’s where the plant wall comes in; we wanted to show our customers that everything is very fresh and (mostly) organic here. So, we eventually hired a designer to bring all of our ideas and concepts to life.
[R] What I love about Buna’s concept is the open kitchen. From the employee side, in a typical kitchen, you don’t get to see the people that you’re serving. With an open kitchen, you get the best of both worlds; you can interact with your guests while cooking. I think it goes a long way for customers too, because they can see that we have nothing to hide, it’s a clean place, the food is fresh and they can witness the magic happening right in front of them and that’s huge.
Customers that come to Buna’s can expect a meal made with fresh ingredients. What can they expect when it comes to the atmosphere?
[G] Very welcoming and homey. We have a lot of regulars that come here and we’re on a first name basis with all of them. We’re just a very friendly group and I think that shows when people walk into our restaurant and get to know us better.
Also, we call it Buna’s Kitchen because there’s not much room here, you literally walk into the kitchen and can smell the food right away. Everything is very hearty, just like your grandma makes it and I think that is a big part of the atmosphere that we’ve been able to create here at Buna’s.
[R] I think what people can expect when they come to Buna’s is extremely friendly staff who will take the time to get to know you. Our regulars are absolutely amazing, and they’re a huge part of why I love working here. They definitely balance out the days when you get some maybe not so great people, and then you see a regular and everything is wonderful again.
Where did you come up with the name for Buna’s Kitchen?
[G] My husband is Romanian and refers to his grandmother as Buna. Whenever we go back to Romania to visit, the first thing we do every morning is go to Buna’s house. She makes the absolute best food. She’s like 90 years old and still makes everything from scratch; she has her own recipe book. Everything she makes is just so delicious and fresh and that’s what I wanted for my own restaurant, hence Buna’s Kitchen.
And to honour her, we make sure that our food is simple, classic and delicious. I find that some restaurants tend to overcomplicate their dishes with an abundance of ingredients; there’s so much going on and it makes it hard to anticipate what you’re going to taste when ordering a dish. So, just like Buna’s recipes, I wanted to keep my menu simple and delicious.
And where do you get your inspiration for new menu items?
[G] Well, I love food so I watch a lot of food shows. I’m constantly looking at recipes in magazines and shows, really anywhere. Of course, Instagram and Pinterest are a big source of inspiration too. If I find a dish that I like then I’ll put my own twist on it. Personally, I think that everything I put on my menu has to be something that I would not only be willing to eat, but enjoy too.
More on that, I tell all of my cooks to keep tasting the food that they’re making. Our team wants to make sure that we consistently deliver delicious food to our customers. For example, Chef Jordan makes the soups everyday and he’ll spend 10 minutes constantly tasting the soup until it’s up to our standards.
You have a high volume of walk ins to this restaurant and you’re on different food ordering services like Ritual. How do you keep up with the demand?
[G] We used to be on other services like Foodora and GrubHub, but we decided that we had to bow out of those and stick to Ritual only. It’s important for any restaurateur to understand how much they can handle before the quality of food goes down.
Ryan is an amazing manager. Him and I are the ones running the cash and so we usually do a one for one tradeoff (one Ritual order then one in person and so on). Luckily for us, we have a very patient clientele. We always take the time to make sure that the cheese actually melts and things like that, so our customers are willing to wait a little longer for good food.
Being open for 5 years now, what would the biggest piece of advice be for anyone looking to open a restaurant?
[G] It’s not easy. Be honest, pay your bills, be nice to your suppliers, and the most important piece of advice I have is to put your staff before everything else. When you run a restaurant as small as ours, you need to be passionate and so do your employees. Passion trumps everything, so don’t get into this business if you’re not passionate about it.
[R] Adaptability is key. You’re going to be thrown into different situations daily, and you should be able to adapt. Also, being aware of the resources you have is huge. You can’t come into this role with an “I can’t do it” attitude, you have to at least try to solve your problem first. There are going to be days when maybe you run out of ingredients or your delivery is delayed, but building up your ability to adapt to these situations and problem solve will help you succeed as an owner, chef, manager, or really any role in this industry.
How do you deal with the stress that comes with your role?
[G] I’m lucky because I have so much support from my family. I’m a new mom and having such a strong support system has been such a blessing because I can still run my business and spend time with my baby at home.
Every morning, it’s really hard to leave my daughter because she doesn’t want me to go, but we still need to make a living. I’m fortunate enough to have found a profession that I absolutely love: making food. When I’m here I feel like I’m an expert in my craft. As the owner, I feel that it’s my job to be at Buna’s to support and be there for my staff. Regardless of the stress that comes with the role, I think that my passion and connection to my craft and team help when it comes to dealing with all the stress that comes with it.
With such a small kitchen and staff, what’s the culture like for your team?
[G] We’re a team and we’re friends. I’m not the type of boss that yells at people left, right and center. If someone messes something up, we work together to figure out how to fix the problem. I really believe that it’s better to solve problems together and make it work because I think that’s how people grow. I think my employees really appreciate this approach and the effort that I put in to build our friendships.
I’m also constantly changing my menu with the seasons so my employees also get the opportunity to work on new dishes and work with new ingredients.
[R] Everyone that works here has an input when it comes to what we’re doing with our menu, which I think is really cool and keeps everyone on their toes. Like Grace said, we’re a team. Personally, I find that I get really bored, really easily, but because our menu constantly changes, it keeps me more inclined to stay here; I’m able to constantly learn new things and I think the same goes for a lot of people that work here.
Why did you choose to partner with ChefHero?
[G] It’s really easy to order, especially with the search function. You can just hop on the app or website, type in the item you’re looking for and several options pop up. I also feel like I have more control over my orders now. I can control what I order, and have digital proof of that in one place. Having the ability to view my invoices online in one dashboard has made life much easier for me as well.
What got me to continue using ChefHero is the quality of the products; everything is always so fresh. We switched from a supplier whom we were with for 5 years, and not to say that their products were bad because they weren’t, it’s just that ChefHero’s quality was better.
Finally, their service has been amazing throughout. ChefHero has a chat function that I use often and they generally respond within two minutes. If something were to go wrong, I feel confident that I would get an answer fast, which gives me peace of mind.
If you’d like to learn more about how ChefHero can help your business save time and money through ordering restaurant supplies, book a demo.