In the Right Place, At the Right Time
Local business C'est Bon finds recipe for success in the Square, at Harvard
C'est Bon seems like the kind of bakery that would go national, becoming just as omnipresent in cities across the country as it is in the Square.
But, ironically enough, its success stems from the owner's business mantra: think small.
He is keeping his focus even as C'est Bon gets bigger, with the University giving it prime retail space in classroom buildings, and patrons lining up at its four Square locations (two in Harvard buildings) for sesame cookies or hummus.
The first C'est Bon, still in its original location at 1432 Mass. Ave., opened only in 1990.
The second Square location, in the Harvard Square Hotel, opened just three years ago.
And the stores in the Barker Center and Boylston Hall debuted in 1997 and 1998, respectively, opening along with the renovated buildings.
Despite the mushrooming growth in recent years, C'est Bon owner George Sarkis says the secret to his success is thinking small.
To this end, he intends to keep his business local.
A Dream Come True
Sarkis' story begins back in 1988, when he first set his sights on the Mass. Ave. location.
Sarkis says the idea for the business had been germinating in his head for a while, but seeing the Square sealed his decision.
"I was looking for a business, and I bought one of those books that lists 500 businesses to open," Sarkis says. "I wanted to open a food store."
The Square seemed a prime location.
"Au Bon Pain was so successful in the early '90s, I figured if they were doing it, I could do it right across the street," he says.
At the time, 1432 Mass. Ave. was a shoe store. Sarkis approached the store's owner, hoping to take over his lease. The owner refused.
Sarkis, trained in civil engineering at Northeastern University, was occupied by other matters for the next two years, but kept his business plan in the back of his head. In 1990, he made an offer to the owner of a coffee shop called Biscotti, which occupied the building at the time. This time he met with success.
Sarkis bought the business from the owners and set out to transform it into something all his own.
And how did he acquire such coveted property so easily? He chalks it up to good timing.
Sarkis says Biscotti was a joint venture between a real estate broker, a banker and a lawyer. The broker's wife, he says, was responsible for the business, but was realizing she didn't have time for it.
Born in Australia to Lebanese parents, he has lived in the Boston area for 19 years.
His menu is just as cosmopolitan, mixing French pastries and Middle Eastern foods with the all-American cup of joe.
As for finding employees, Sarkis also added his own twist.
He forewent the traditional "Help Wanted" sign in favor of a more personal search for employees, conducted through word of mouth.
The result was a hand-picked batch of family and friends who take a personal stake in C'est Bon. It is this aspect, Sarkis says, that makes the restaurant so successful.
All in the Family
Sarkis' staff is composed of, for the most part, "people I've known for years and years and years," he says.
Because of this, he says, "Our service is some of the best in the area."
The personal investment of employees in the business is apparent.
As a rule, Sarkis' staff greets customers promptly with courtesy and friendliness, offering more than just a product and a price.
One Wednesday in late May, John Nehme, manager of the Boylston Hall C'est Bon, asks customers about their exam schedules and plans for the summer.
Customers clearly respond to him as more than just a cashier as they chat and inquire about Nehme's plans.
"It doesn't even feel like they're customers," Nehme says. "Some of them invite us over to parties or weekends at their houses."
"I can't speak for other [employees], but customers tell me I'm friendly," he says.
Vesting large amounts of responsibility in a small number of employees, Sarkis says, has been crucial.
"I don't need 50 people to work here," Sarkis says. "If I can do it, if a brother can do it, if a good friend can do it, then why not?"
And his employees attest to the fact that Sarkis holds himself to the same standards he sets for others.
"He's here from six in the morning to nine at night," says Yve Younes, manager of the Barker Center C'est Bon.
Sarkis, his employees say, has no problem digging in and helping with the work in times of need.
"If it's busy here, we can call him for help," Nehme says. "If there are any mistakes, he's part of the mistake and he's part of the solution."
"We don't feel like we work for him, we feel like we work with him," he adds.
"He treats everyone like brothers," says Anthony Sarkis, who manages the Harvard Square Hotel location. He would know, since he is George Sarkis' younger brother.
Focus on Sales
In other aspects of the business as well, the secret lies in thinking small, employees say.
The store's sales, George Sarkis says, split neatly into thirds, with roughly equal amounts sold from the coffee, baked goods, and sandwich sections of the menu.
These three categories have remained stable for the last few years, Anthony Sarkis says, and customers have come to depend on them.
"Ninety percent of our regular customers have the same thing every day," he says.
And they can look forward to continuing the habit well into the future, Anthony Sarkis says.
"Every couple of years we add an item or two, but we keep it simple," he says.
"Customers don't like too much stuff," he explains. "They have half an hour for lunch, and they don't want to look at a big menu."
In addition to serving customers in the store, C'est Bon also offers catering services, with a variety of platters available for next-day delivery.
The fact that the store is local, instead of a large national chain, has helped its catering business grow, employees say.
All of the baked goods are made from scratch at the company bakery in Union Square, and the chicken is roasted in the store.
"There are too many caterers around," Anthony Sarkis says. "They prefer somebody local."
And Nehme says the stores' proximity to one another is an asset in that it allows employees at one store to request help-in the form of food or labor-in short order.
The Real Crimson Catering?
It is this focus on the small that has brought about the store's evolution into a central element of campus life.
To George Sarkis, Harvard's choice to include C'est Bon in its classroom buildings was a logical one.
"At the time they just wanted someone to serve coffee in the building, with light food. That's basically what we do," Sarkis says of the Barker placement.
But the University's experience with C'est Bon's catering services didn't hurt.
"The University calls the main store for pretty much everything they need catered," Anthony Sarkis says. "We get six or seven catering calls a day, mostly from Harvard."
According to Sarkis, with the quality of C'est Bon's food and service, it was only natural that the University would call on them for official functions.
"People [from the University] start taking the menus, and they start calling," he says.
And when the University began to make its plans for the new Barker Center, that contact paid off.
C'est Bon, says Elizabeth Randall, capital project manager for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences physical resources, was one of only three restaurants considered for the Barker Center slot. The others were Calla Lily-another local coffee shop-and a new Harvard Dining Services restaurant.
"The architect kept talking about a good cup of coffee," Randall says.
She says C'est Bon's inclusion on the list stemmed in part from recommendations by faculty in the Afro-American Studies Department, which was located on Mass. Ave. next to C'est Bon at the time, and is now housed in the Barker Center.
Randall says the store's good ratings placed it ahead of the other two contenders.
C'est Bon's store in the Chestnut Hill Atrium Mall received consistently high ratings on cleanliness, efficiency and courtesy, Randall says.
The Barker placement worked out, and so when the time came to choose a restaurant for Boylston Hall, the choice was clear.
Due to both C'est Bon's success and the less-than-desirable Boylston location, Randall says, no other restaurants were seriously considered before an offer was made to C'est Bon.
"We don't think that Boylston attracts the kind of traffic that Barker does," she explains.
Anthony Sarkis is confident that C'est Bon is here to stay on the Harvard campus.
"When Harvard is renovating a building, they give us a call," he says.
Just as C'est Bon contributes to life at Harvard, Harvard has contributed immensely to the restaurant's success.
Nehme says Harvard is "essential" to the store.
And Younes says working in a coffee shop in any other place could not compare.
"You meet future world leaders," he says of his job in the Barker Center. "It's a beautiful building, and the best university in the world."
"What else could you ask for?" he adds.
So does George Sarkis feel his business is successful?
He cringes at the use of this rather superlative word.
"It might be a success," he says skeptically.
But when he speaks in more concrete terms, the word clearly applies.
"This block has the highest rent in the Square," he says. "We serve several hundred customers a day."
And perhaps it is Sarkis' knack for achieving balance, reflected in his avoidance of superlative words like "success," that allows him to-well, to succeed.
Sarkis has no concrete plans for new stores but says he is not against expanding.
"I won't say no," he responds when asked if there will be a new C'est Bon at sometime in the future.