Patisserie Boissiere: Owner makes most of opportunity
As the Egyptian-born son of a high school teacher and banker, Magdy Ibrahim seemed an unlikely candidate to become co-owner of a French restaurant in Carmel. He wasn't educated as a restaurateur. He had never owned a business. He knew virtually nothing about the delicate art of French cuisine.
But Ibrahim says he was blessed with a dogged reluctance to accept failure — one of the things that have enabled him to maintain Patisserie Boissiere as a successful Peninsula eatery beyond its fifth decade.
Ibrahim and Lynn Wood are in their 23rd year as co-proprietors of the 48-seat Euro-style establishment on Mission Street, between Ocean and Seventh avenues — a business founded in 1961 by Elaine and Pierre Boissiere.
The popular French couple died in a 1987 automobile accident after building Patisserie Boissiere from a pastry and tea house into a lunch and dinner destination that attracted visitors from all over the world.
Ibrahim, who was a student, was a regular customer at Patisserie and a friend of the Boissiere family when the accident occurred, but had no aspiration of becoming a restaurant owner.
"But I had known the family for a number of years and felt a personal connection," he says. "After talking to Pierre and Elaine's daughters, who no longer wanted to be involved, I made a deal and bought the restaurant (in 1989)."
He understood from the outset that his learning curve would be steep, but felt like he had the right partner. He had worked with Wood at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, where she was a sales manager. Her interests were in cooking, recipes and aesthetics. His strengths were in management and organization.
"We felt like we complemented each other well," he says.
But five years into the experience, Ibrahim was having second thoughts. The business was struggling on multiple levels. He thought about selling. Ibrahim says he asked himself one question that helped him decide to keep the restaurant.
"I wondered if I'd look back on the experience with regret, a feeling of, 'Did I try everything in my power before giving up?' The answer, clearly, was no."
The next question was how to start over. Ibrahim saw problems in every area.
"I decided to take every individual aspect of the business one at a time, and start from scratch," he says. "I essentially threw out the playbook."
He started with rebuilding his staff, taking extra care in hiring and maintaining an efficient group. Success in that area can be documented on multiple fronts, beginning with longevity: Mario Garcia (kitchen manager) has worked at Patisserie for 18 years, and Marcelino Martinez (cook) and Laureano Alvarado-Aquino (baker) have been there 15 years each. Waitresses Leslie Whitney and Sumintra Prakash and cooks Melquaides Sebastian and Pablo Garcia were hired more than a decade ago. Four other employees are in the four- to six-year category.
That means 11 of Ibrahim's 19 employees are veterans at the restaurant — a significant factor in two other sources of pride: No employee has filed a workers' compensation claim against Patisserie Boissiere since 2000, and the business has gone 10 years without having to make an unemployment insurance payout. In an industry where employee turnover traditionally is sky-high, both figures are unusual.
Another key to the restaurant's success, says Ibrahim, was his work with computer software to help with tasks such as purchasing and invoices.
"I was taking off-the-shelf software — accounting, spreadsheets, database and word processing programs — and tweaking them to create my own templates," he says.
Ibrahim says he has developed literally hundreds of templates in the past 17 years.
"The bottom-line savings that has resulted from the purchasing and invoicing template I created 16 years ago has been $350,000," he says. "If not for that one template alone, I would have been out of business a long time ago. That's obviously a huge amount of money for a small business."
The reason the mortality rate of small businesses is so high, he theorizes, is that proprietors simply don't have time to correct each of the hundreds of problems they face each week.
Ibrahim says he has optimized his time so efficiently that he is considering writing a how-to book to help small-business owners avoid the pitfalls that traditionally bring them down.
Meanwhile, he says, he is living his dream in Carmel.
"The wonderful thing about this experience is that we have so many repeat customers, including out-of-towners," Ibrahim says. "Over 50 years, we've accumulated layer upon layer of visitors who come here to dine, then come back again. That makes it a very special operation, a very comfortable environment. It's a pleasant climate."
Magdy Ibrahim -- Serving Up Delicious Dining at a
On a cold, clear day in December we were shown to a quiet table in a charming restaurant by the owner/manager of Carmel's Patisserie Boissiere, Magdy Ibrahim. We were interested in the Patisserie, which is on Mission Street between Ocean Avenue and Seventh, because it has become somewhat of a landmark in the world of Carmel eateries. Its staying power is quite remarkable considering that not a few restaurants come and go like so many trinket shops and galleries.
Thanks for talking with us, Magdy. You're a member of CRA and so you know we like to feature stories of locals and especially our own CRA members. To begin, can you give us an overview of your background and what brought you to Carmel in the first place?
I was born in Cairo, emigrated to the US and to the West Coast in 1980. I had friends in both Los Angeles and in San Francisco but I found big cities were not where I wanted to live and work. Carmel is such a short distance from San Francisco, so I explored the Peninsula and decided this is where I wanted to be. I enrolled in the Policies Studies program at MIIS. In order to pay my expenses I worked at various positions in local restaurants. I found I liked, and seemed suited to, eating establishments. As luck had it in 1989, I came to Patisserie Boissiere and I've never left.
When was the restaurant first opened?
The interesting fact is that this restaurant was built years before the Plaza opened. Where the Carmel Plaza now stands was the old Carmel Theatre. Patisserie Boissiere was opened in 1961. And I've been here for over twenty-four years.
How would you characterize the food, the cooking here at your restaurant - Continental, European?
Actually it's country French. Our repeat customers - and I'm happy to say there are thousands of them who visit year after year as well as our local friends - have their favorites. So our menu stays consistent, with a few seasonal changes.
And what would those favorites be?
To top the list would be our French onion soup. Another specialty is our daily fresh roasted turkey, as well as lamb shanks, crab and avocado salad and of course our pastries.
It takes more than cooking to run a restaurant. You have a staff of dedicated people. Happy, dedicated employees have a great deal to say about good management.
Thank you. In fact we have a staff of twenty people who work in the restaurant, the kitchen and the bakery. We serve lunch seven days a week and dinner five nights a (Mondays and Tuesdays excepted). I'm very proud of my staff; there is almost no turnover. These wonderful people have been with me for thirteen to twenty years.
What do you find most satisfying about operating Patisserie Boissiere?
Three things: First, thousands of returning customers who feel comforted when they come back because of the long term relationship they formed with us. Second, providing 20 long term jobs to a great group of people. Third, automating tasks and best practices that helped me optimize decision making in real time; by tinkering with and modifying existing software applications. That has saved me a lot of money and time over the years.
The CRA is very aware of your bakery. In fact you have provided special cakes for our Citizen of the Year celebrations. Let us assure you, your generosity has not gone unnoticed.
I'm delighted to be a CRA member. And by the way, your members have been kind and supportive of Patisserie Boissiere.
Magdy Ibrahim, thank you so much for your time. And again, thank you for your generous contributions to CRA - not only from the kitchen but from supporting what the CRA cares most about, and that is nourishing and preserving what is best in Carmel for all its residents.
Magdy Ibrahim -- adding charm and ambiance to Carmel
Magdy Francis Ibrahim was born in Cairo, Egypt, where he lived until his late teens. His parents and grandparents were well read and instilled in Magdy, at a young age, a love for books.
"When I was growing up," said Magdy, "I had my own study desk with a glass top and my parents put a large colored map of the United States under the glass. I would study the map and dream of traveling to the United States.
" That dream came true for him during his late teen years, when he had the opportunity to visit relatives in Canada and the Los Angeles area. After only two visits he decided that the United States was where he wanted to live. "I've always felt very comfortable here, from the first time I visited. When I first read about the United States, I knew intellectually that this was the place I wanted to live. I admire the system, the traditions, and the culture."
So in 1980, he packed his bags and headed for Los Angeles, where he stayed for a week with relatives. But like many of us, the smog and traffic got the best of him and he decided to give San Francisco-by-the-Bay a try.
I always had a vision of the town I wanted to live in. But after three months in San Francisco I knew it still wasn't what I had in mind," he said.
Magdy decided to travel down the coast to the Monterey Peninsula. Things were starting to look much better, but it wasn't until he actually got into Carmel-by-the-Sea that he finally found the quaint village atmosphere he had always envisioned.
After living in Carmel for a year, he discovered that the Monterey Institute of International Studies offered a degree in international policy studies. "I always considered international studies a hobby and was excited to find that they actually offered a degree in that subject," said Magdy.
While working toward that degree, he found gainful employment in the hospitality industry and became the director of catering at the new Monterey Plaza Hotel. This experience was soon to play a big role in his future.
After receiving his B.A. degree in international policy studies, Magdy thought seriously about joining the international diplomatic corps. But realizing the likelihood of having to move from Carmel-by-the-Sea, he decided that it was too great a price to pay, considering the time it took to discover this unique village, which was indeed what he had envisioned so long ago.
One of his favorite places in Carmel was the Pâtisserie Boissiere Restaurant, with its friendly European atmosphere, and he soon became a regular customer. However, a tragic automobile accident took the lives of owners Mr. and Mrs. Boissiere in 1987. Stunned by this turn of events, not only Magdy, but also all of Carmel-by-the-Sea mourned the loss of this wonderful couple and their restaurant, which had become a village institution. Fate was to step in, however, when Magdy Francis Ibrahim took the knowledge he had honed from his experience working in restaurants and the hotel industry and decided to apply it to his own restaurant. He bought the Pâtisserie Boissiere Restaurant and Bakery in May, 1989. Five years ago, he added a business partner, Lynn Wood.
"Since it is a unique operation and a Carmel institution, I have tried to maintain the European living-room experience that the Boissieres instilled, along with the same type of menu. Recipes have been added and subtracted through the years, but always with a sense of the history built from the Boissieres' reputation," he said.
And indeed, he has definitely made the Pâtisserie Boissiere a crown jewel in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
"My business partner, Lynn Wood, has taken it to the next level of esthetics, making a patron's visit a 'feast for the senses,' " remarked Magdy.
Since living in the United States, Magdy has traveled to many states including Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Tennessee, and Nevada. "I enjoy the skiing in Nevada, not the gambling," he said, "but I'm always glad to come back to Carmel."
He's certainly living in the perfect spot for his other hobbies, jazz and classical music. What better place to live than the home of the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Carmel Bach Festival? Another favorite pastime is jogging along Scenic Road, which Magdy tries to do a couple times a week. And, of course, as an avid reader, you can often find him at the library.
If you haven't had a chance to eat at Pâtisserie Boissiere, I would highly recommend it. And be sure to seek out Magdy Ibrahim at the next CRA meeting, for just as his restaurant is warm and charming, he too is a pleasure to meet.
The Carmel Residents Association appreciates the beautifully-decorated and delicious chocolate cake featured at Citizen of the Year Celebrations, which for years has been generously donated by Magdy's Pâtisserie Boissiere Restaurant and Bakery.
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