Restaurants come and go in rapid succession. Hopeful owners dump thousands of dollars into renovations and pray that their vision will draw crowds. After 20 years in the Santa Barbara restaurant business, Mitchell Sjerven has found a recipe for success.
Sjerven was raised in Minnesota and came to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB. He earned a degree in international relations and intended to pursue law. But after an internship with the European parliament, he decided to rethink his career direction. Sjerven had put himself through college waiting tables and proceeded down that path by working in every position, except chef, in various restaurants. Eventually he decided to jump in as an owner and opened Meritage, followed by bouchon and Seagrass — all in downtown Santa Barbara.
Sjerven and partner Doug Margerum also own the cluster of wine and food offerings in the in the historic El Paseo complex. These include the Wine Cask, which offers a beautiful, spacious room for fire lit formal dining; Margerum, a tasting room that carries all local wines and hosts various events (birthdays, social mixers, engagement parties, etc); and Intermezzo Bar Café, a stylish and more relaxed option for lighter fair and wines by the glass.
The three businesses share a courtyard and guests can order from any of the menus. For customer favorites, Sjerven names the duck cassoulet trio (white beans, duck leg confit, braised pork cheek, Farpoint Ranch sausage) at Wine Cask while Intermezzo customers come for the flatbreads, with the arugula and prosciutto being the most requested.
Wine Cask and its sister restaurants have quite a history. Margerum, who owned and operated the award–winning institution since 1981, sold it in 2007. The new out-of-town owner significantly changed the menu, the interior and the vibe, which eventually led to the restaurant’s demise.
“He did not understand what locals wanted,” Sjerven said of the owner. “Food was too expensive and too exotic.”
After two decades of working in the restaurant business, Sjerven considers himself a good businessman. He listens — both to his staff and his customers and course corrects. Through this approach, he determined that locals prefer familiar, tasty options. He cites the lack of successful foreign food restaurants in town as proof.
“People want comfort food — steak, chicken, local fish with mashed potatoes — not something they can’t pronounce,” he said. “They also want California wines — pinot, merlot, chardonnay.”
Sjerven has tried repeatedly to venture out with specials from far-reaching regions, only to return to the tried-and-true basics. One myth Sjerven does debunk is that Santa Barbara locals only want healthy, organic basics.
“Our customers come out for food they can’t make at home,” he said. “They want delicious taste and that doesn’t always mean low calorie.”
Margerum and Sjerven joined forces to revive the revered Wine Cask of old. They asked friends and locals to give feedback about what they wanted and received a resounding response: People wanted the restaurants to look and feel as they did under Margerum’s tutelage. So not only did they re-pour the concrete for both bars, they brought back the familiar leather couches and cozy seating style at Intermezzo. For Wine Cask, they updated the décor with new drapes, carpet and mirrors, but left the signature ornate beamed ceiling and fireplace.
With the most restaurants per capita in California (yes, we beat Los Angeles and San Francisco), Santa Barbara offers diners quite an array of choice. That choice also means Sjerven has a fair amount of competition to attract customers. While weekends are busy because they get the L.A. crowd and tourists, midweek reservations require some strategy.
While Sjerven is committed to simplicity and comfort dining, he is also an entrepreneur looking for ways to innovate. Last week he installed 16 tabs, two of which will be dedicated to beer with the rest being allotted for wine by the glass. This method has several benefits: bottle and cork waste are eliminated; the wine is always fresh; customers can try more wines by the glass at a lower cost.
“Our customers don’t want a rotating menu or crazy, discount-driven crowds,” he said. “They come here for refuge.”