By Vickie Lewis
Who would have dreamed that a sixteen-year-old girl who arrived on a Greyhound Bus from Reno, Nevada, would one day own and operate one of the busiest local restaurants and catering businesses in the Bay Area? When Jennifer Arrouzet, co-owner of Jennifer and Todd’s Café Soleil in El Sobrante. shared her story, I was amazed and inspired by her drive and determination that evolved to make Café Soleil the successful business it is today.
Soon after she arrived from Reno, Jennifer secured a job as a server at J Winfield’s in San Pablo. She had never worked as a server but took it upon herself to learn the menu to prove to the owner that she could do the job. When J Winfield’s closed, she continued as a server at Denny’s restaurant. When she was 18, one of her regular customers told her about a small restaurant space on San Pablo Avenue that had recently become available and suggested that Jennifer buy it and open her own restaurant. She decided to take a chance to make it on her own and partnered with a friend to make the required $8,000 investment to open Jennifer’s Café. The café served only breakfast and lunch, and the menu was limited to items that Jennifer knew to be popular from her previous serving jobs. She initially ran the café all by herself—she shopped, cooked, served, cleaned, and did the accounting--with no previous experience other than having been a server. One of her café customers, Todd Arrouzet, worked for Lucky’s Supermarket where Jennifer sometimes shopped for supplies. After numerous encounters, they eventually started dating. Todd told Jennifer that he’d always wanted to own his own restaurant. In 1992, he got his wish--the couple partnered and together ran Jennifer’s Café for the next 6 years.
In 1996, Jennifer and Todd learned about available commercial space at their current location in the Plaza Sobrante Shopping Center, located at 3550 San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante. The building was new and required significant work and far more financial investment than they’d anticipated to prepare the space for restaurant operation. The couple secured loans from family and investors and by December 1997, opened for business as Jennifer and Todd’s Café Soleil. Twenty-one years later, the business has grown far beyond the 600 square foot space once known as Jennifer’s Café, and also supports a thriving catering business for weddings, corporate, and other social and private events.
Jennifer and Todd aspired to “create a modern and artistically warm and wonderful place to have a comfortable meal”—a goal that that they have achieved and far exceeded! The café’s atmosphere is relaxed and casual, family-friendly, and the personal service is warm and welcoming. The interior of the restaurant is resplendent with décor supporting the Café Soleil theme. A large yellow sun prominently painted on the far wall of the dining area, immediately welcome customers as they walk through the main entrance. Strings of red and gold Café Soleil flags are suspended across the high ceiling. Two walls are lined with red brick, and beautiful hand-painted murals and painted accents on the walls are reminiscent of a real French café (though the restaurant serves American cuisine!) Many of the customers are loyal locals who come in repeatedly for the delicious food, large portions, and reasonable prices that they have come to know and love. The restaurant accommodates up to 90 guests, with both counter and table seating available. During the busy breakfast and lunch rushes, the counter seats afford customers the fascinating experience of watching the chefs perform a well-orchestrated routine of quickly and expertly preparing meal orders. The servers bustle busily among the guests, taking orders and delivering plates to the tables, while hosts and hostesses ensure cups and glasses are filled, and that tables are cleared and turned over quickly as guests depart.
Café Soleil specialized only in breakfast and lunch service for many years before adding dinner service approximately nine years ago. The extensive menu includes so many choices that it will take you awhile to read through if you haven’t visited before. The breakfast and lunch menus include all the favorites--traditional egg breakfasts, omelets, pancakes, French Toast, biscuits and gravy, hot and cold cereals and fresh fruit, and an impressive list of freshly made sandwiches, burgers, and entrée salads—and all breakfast and lunch items are available all day.
Starting at 4:00, the dinner selections become available, adding approximately 15 entrees from which to choose. Among the dinner entrees are such favorites as Chicken Parmesan, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Tortellini, Pork Chops, Mushroom Ravioli, Chicken Saltimbocca, Chicken Marsala, and Ribeye and New York steaks. All dinner entrees are served with your choice or soup or salad at no extra charge. Daily morning and evening specials are posted at the entrance to the cafe, giving hungry customers added options. Beverages available to accompany your meal at include soft drinks, iced tea, milk, assorted juices, coffee, tea, hot cocoa, hand-made milk shakes, and beer and wine selections. Although they do not offer full bar service, Café Soleil offers Mimosas, and recently added several wine-based cocktails, including Margaritas, Cosmos, Bloody Mary’s, Mojitos, and Moscow Mules. The cocktails are pre-mixed, are made with rice wine and are produced by Bar 42.
Jennifer and Todd purchase only the best quality food products to serve at the café, including fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, eggs, meats, fish, and poultry. Their breads and rolls are sourced fresh daily from Richmond-based Maggiora Baking Company, and most everything else is made from scratch at the cafe. For example, they roast a fresh turkey every day, (which makes their turkey club sandwich the best in the area!) They make fresh homemade soups; marinara, marsala, alfredo, and hollandaise sauces; potato salad; garlic mashed potatoes and hash browns; and fresh, fluffy biscuits. Café Soleil is known for their wonderful homemade country gravy, which is made with sausage, bacon and hamburger. The gravy is wonderfully rich and smooth with a hint of garlic and is a main ingredient in the famous Country Special breakfast--biscuits and gravy smothered with cheese, hash browns, scrambled eggs, and sausage—an extremely large meal suitable for sharing!
Within the last six months, Café Soleil introduced a separate Vegan and Plant-based menu, which is rapidly growing popular with regular guests and is also attracting new customers who prefer meatless diets. The menu selections currently vary on a weekly basis as Jennifer and Todd assess the customer popularity of various selections offered. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner options are available, all of which are reasonably priced and served in hearty Café Soleil-sized portions. The Beyond Meat Burger is one of the most popular items from the new menu, a completely plant-based burger that tastes just like a real beef burger! All condiments, cheeses, and sauces used for these menu items are also completely Vegan. If this type of cuisine appeals to you, please request this special menu from your server when you visit Café Soleil.
In the spirit of full transparency, my family has known Jennifer ‘s and Todd for many years. My husband knew Jennifer as a child when they both lived in Nevada but only discovered that she was one of the owners of Café Soleil until about twelve years ago. Jennifer hired our daughter as a server when she turned 16, and she has worked there part-time for ten years. Not surprisingly, we have eaten many meals at Café Soleil over the years, and I can attest that there isn’t really anything that we’ve tried from the menu that we didn’t enjoy. We particularly enjoy the breakfasts, and my lunchtime favorite is the BLAJT (Bacon Lettuce, Avocado, Jack, and Turkey) sandwich, served with a choice of French fries, sweet potato fries, green salad or potato salad. My husband’s “go to” meal is the pork chop dinner, but he also enjoys the spaghetti and meatballs.
On our recent evening visit to Café Soleil, I ordered the dinner special--Top Sirloin Steak (center cut), served with garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed vegetables, and choice of soup or salad, all for $12.98. My husband ordered the two-egg breakfast with ham, home fries, and sourdough toast. The side salad served with my meal was generously sized, and was made with fresh romaine lettuce, black olives, cherry tomatoes, croutons, fresh mushrooms, red onions and parmesan cheese. The dressing was served on the side (not by request) in small portion cups. It was definitely a cut above the salads served in even the most upscale restaurants! My entrée arrived complete with sautéed French green beans and baby carrots, a generous helping of garlic mashed potatoes topped with brown gravy, and the most tender, delicious steak I’ve eaten in a very long time! It was perfect and such a great deal for the price. My husband’s eggs were cooked sunny side up as he requested, and were accompanied by a large, thick slice of ham. He’d requested that his home fries be deep fried (versus cooked on the grill) and they were cooked to a crisp perfection. The following weekend, we visited Café Soleil again for breakfast. My husband ordered the same entrée as before, but this time, I ordered the Bacon, Cheddar, and Avocado Omelet. I opted for a bowl of fruit in lieu of potatoes and ordered an English Muffin in lieu of toast. The omelet was excellent, chock full and overflowing with ingredients! I’d never ordered this particular omelet before but will definitely do so again. The fruit bowl included a whole sliced banana at the bottom, topped with chunks of fresh pineapple, strawberry slices, berries, and red and green grapes. All in all, our dining experiences during both visits were very satisfying and enjoyable.
Jennifer and Todd married in 2003 and their wedding reception was their first catering experience! The couple opted to prepare the food for their own special event, and the restaurant staff served the wedding guests. Following that event, word began to spread and they began to receive occasional requests to cater other events for friends and café customers. Their success was contagious, and soon blossomed into a well-organized catering business that has grown exponentially over the years. Café Soleil has catered countless weddings throughout the bay area and Napa Valley, and occasionally in extreme outlying areas. They are currently contracted as one of fourteen preferred caterers for the East Bay Parks Department, which books over 800 events per year at their various venues, including the beautiful Brazilian Room in Tilden Park. Although many of their current bookings are as a result of this contract, Café Soleil books many weddings and events directly with clients and continues to offer catering services at venues all over the bay area. Jennifer enjoys catering events, especially weddings, because every event is different. She and her catering staff transform each wedding venue into an amazing, beautiful, and elegant space for the couples’ special day. In addition to providing delicious food and beverages, the staff does an excellent job with table set-up and decorations. Jennifer can also provide references for supplemental event services such as lighting, entertainment, photo booths, and much more. Jennifer shared that Café Soleil has booked 72 wedding catering events for 2018, and another 10 are already booked for 2019. They have received countless positive reviews for the amazing service provided to wedding couples, from the initial in-house tastings, throughout the planning phase, and for the excellent food and flawless execution at the events. If you’re interested in catering services, contact Jennifer directly at 510-205-3936 or visit the Cafe Soleil website at Café-Soleil.com. All-inclusive packages start at $59 per person for plated, buffet, or family style dining.
Corporate catering is also an important facet of Café Soleil’s business. They have many long-standing local business customers, including Chevron, Kaiser, Comcast, Pacific Gas & Electric, just to name a few. They also do periodic catering for special events sponsored by organizations such as iHeartMedia, CBS Radio, and the popular Golden State Warriors! Five years ago, Café Soleil acquired cozy banquet room space next door to the restaurant which is perfect for private parties and meetings. The room accommodates up to 60 – 70 guests comfortably and is suitable for birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, baby or bridal showers, or celebration of life events. The space is used regularly for meetings of the Richmond and El Sobrante Rotary Clubs, the Kiwanis Club, and the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD). There is generally no cost to rent the room if Café Soleil caters the event. Call the café for more information about room availability and menu options.
Undoubtedly, many of our readers have visited or are regular customers of Café Soleil. But if you haven’t gone there, you’re missing out on some of the best freshly cooked food in the area! Although Jennifer and Todd are self-taught restaurateurs, they have built a prosperous and thriving cafe with an impressive menu line-up where friends and families return again and again to enjoy good food in a comfortable atmosphere. Saturday and Sunday breakfasts are often standing room only, but the waits are short and well-worth the time spent. Dinners at Café Soleil are a bit slower paced, and it’s a perfect place to enjoy a quiet, peaceful cooked-to-order meal without having to wait. You’ll find familiar faces behind the counters, as many of the cooks and servers at have loyally worked there for 15+ years, ensuring consistency in the food quality and customer service. Jennifer and Todd Arrouzet take great pride in serving hearty portions of some of the best home cooking in the Bay Area. Indulge yourselves and visit Café Soleil soon if you haven’t done so already—or, return soon for a repeat visit! You’ll be glad you did! Oh, and be sure to bring your APPETITE!