Interview: Michael Volpatt, Big Bottom Market, Guerneville

Posted in Interviews on March 29, 2016

When Michael Volpatt, Crista Luedtke, and Kate Larkin opened the Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, California, they always new that they wanted to turn it into “something big.” All three came from business backgrounds, and their instincts were right — the Market, and it’s buttery, addictive biscuits, soon had a loyal following of both Russian River locals and out-of-towners alike. Early this year, they made a major expansion push by partnering with restaurants in New York with the aim of spreading their biscuit gospel. A few months in, and the team is already ready for more. Here, Volpatt shares the strategy behind their expansion (and ways in which they ensured that the high quality of their biscuits would stay consistent), details on their forthcoming New York biscuit bar, and even more growth plans (involving biscuits… both baked, and not).

What inspired the expansion to New York? Why was this the go-to market?

When Crista, Kate and I started this business we had a vision that it would grow into something big. And then about a year into the endeavor we realized how challenging just managing one was turning out to be. Unfazed by a challenge we dug our heels in and did what we could to ensure that the Market thrived both in season and out of season. Our tenacity has paid off and we are turning a profit and looking to new way to expand the brand and our lock on the best biscuit recipe in Northern CA.

Meanwhile, Kate and I began investing in restaurants in NYC and found a team of highly experienced and successful restauranteurs that own The Diner, La Follia, Carroll Place, and Osteria Cotta. We put money in two of the four restaurants and as profits began paying us back we went to our partners with an idea. What if we launched a version of big bottom market in NYC with the help of your team? Almost immediately the New Yorkers (Sue, Mario, AJ and Sergio) agreed and together we created a biscuit menu and trained the staff how to make the recipe to match what is being made at our location in Sonoma County. After the biscuits launched at La Follia Sue texted me with two words… “Biscuit Mania”. It was game on and our teams launched the menu at The Diner and then Cotta.

NY presented an interesting opportunity. The original Big Bottom Market team from CA (Kate, Crista and Michael) always avoided expansion, because it required a capital investment and commitment to real estate that we were not ready to make. NYC on the other hand presented us with options. Osteria Cotta has a coffee window that is going unused and not monetized. So the NY team suggested we ‘test’ the concept of a biscuit bar — a scaled down version of the Market that the CA team had been thinking about for quite some time — to see if it would work.

Suddenly NY became an ideal marketplace, because we had shown success with the biscuit at brunches in multiple locations, we were limiting the capital and real estate requirements and we had partners that were ready to move on a unique idea.

What were some of the biggest challenges? Distance presents a big challenge for the entire team, but luckily I have made a commitment to relocate for a month and help the NYers see this transition through. The other challenge is not knowing whether this work or not and if it does, how do we structure the relationship so that it is fair to each of the partners. The one thing that is a true light at the end of tunnel is our willingness to see this as a test. No big business plan, simple projections, very few employees and little investment are helping us overcome any and all challenges that could potentially be roadblocks.

What steps did you take to ensure that your biscuits would be well-represented, and maintain the big bottom standard? Simple – Crista came to NYC and taught the team how to make the biscuits. We also spot test to ensure that any time a new baker or chef is making the biscuits they are being made properly and to our standards. The team from NY also committed to buying convection ovens for each of the restaurants where we introduced the brunch menu. The new ovens have helped to ensure that our biscuits taste just the same in Geurneville, CA as they do in NYC.

How did you know that these restaurants would be a fit? We knew La Follia could put out the best product first because the pastry chef Delfina Martinez has an unwavering commitment to perfection. She took Crista’s recipe to heart and kept baking until it was ready. The customers response was immediate. The brunch menu at La Follia started selling more biscuits than Truffled Eggs. As far as the Diner we knew our corner Meatpacking location and retro American look and feel would be a great fit for BBM biscuits. We were right again. They are a hot item and people love them.

Tell us more about the forthcoming biscuit bar. What can diners expect? In addition to total awesomeness, biscuit lovers on the Upper West Side and beyond can expect a streamlined menu featuring some our favorite biscuit creations and coffee from Stumptown. The big bottom biscuit bar will be located in the coffee window at Osteria Cotta and will be open from 7AM until we run out of biscuits (we expect them to go fast so get there early). One of the Guerneville favorites will grace the menu in NYC and give the bagel with lox a run for its money. We call it the Sea Biscuit and it features smoked trout (or salmon), pickled onions, creme fraiche and capers topped high on a delicious biscuit.

Are there plans for any major non-biscuit-related expansions coming up? Let’s rephrase that… Are there plans for any major uncooked-biscuit-related expansions coming up? Funny you should ask… We have actually launched a pre-packaged biscuit mix (we already sell pre-baked frozen biscuits in the store) that is really flying off of the shelves at the market. Th mix is available online and will be featured in the May issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine in an article about the town of Guerneville. Our team is also testing out a packaged version of the delicious granola that we make 2-3 times per week in our tiny, but powerful kitchen. We have also just released our third vintage of the big bottom blend — a red blend that we make in conjunction with Thomas George Estates on West Side Road in the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County.

[Photograph: Kelly Puleio]