Fresh New Journey for From the Hearth
Where the Family Gathers
By Claudia Mosby
Photo by Erin Claassen
From The Hearth is thriving. With four cafés, a drive-through and a bakery, it is hard to imagine the crooked, yet serendipitous road the company has traveled to success.
After Spencer Tang bought the From the Hearth bakery in 2008 from Phil Simi, he sold sourdough bread through the farmers market and had a couple of restaurant accounts, but with no baking experience, he found running the business a tough go.
Enter John Dix, who met Tang when he was daydreaming about opening a deli. “A lot of people wanted a Panera Bread company to come to town,” says Dix, “so I steered Spencer toward creating our own café concept, similar to Panera, where we would make everything in-house from scratch.”
The problem: neither business partner had the money to fund a start-up, so Tang turned to a movie executive friend in Los Angeles as an investor. An accountant, Dix had no history in construction or restaurants, and admits he was shocked when they secured the funding.
“I had a vision but no practical experience,” he says. “Spencer was preoccupied with the bakery 60 hours a week and I really did not think we would get the money, so when we did, I was scared out of my mind.”
He did the only thing he could do: go to the Redding Library and check out a book on how to start a restaurant for dummies, a couple of cookbooks, and a construction book.
His decision to have lunch at a local restaurant proved fortuitous. While sitting at the bar, an older gentleman (who, unbeknownst to Dix, was a restaurant designer) struck up a conversation with the inexperienced entrepreneur.
When the two parted company, the older gentleman took Dix’s phone number, calling him a few days later and offering to build the restaurant for $5,000. (Enter Ted.)
“I had not really had lucrative careers,” says Dix, “and it sounded like a lot of money to me, so I said I would offer him $4,000. He came back and said, ‘Look, kid, we both know you don’t know what you’re doing. No one in his or her right mind would do it for less than $30,000. You’re going to accept my offer for $5,000.”
Over the next six months, the two worked together almost daily and Dix says, “Ted taught me the entire industry. I am really humbled.”
Six weeks before opening, Dix realized he had another problem: no menu, operating procedures or protocols. He had Googled “international sandwiches” to create unique names for the business plan menu but had never had any of those sandwiches, let alone knew how to make them.
He hired his first kitchen manager, Jean, after she showed up to her interview with two pots of soup. She designed the menu around the sandwich name list Dix provided and went on to become the restaurant’s first general manager. “Except for Ted, she is probably the most significant person in the formation of the company,” he says.
There was a symbolic hair in the soup, however. Dix had spent two years gaining Irish citizenship in preparation for a move overseas once the restaurant opened. He and his wife had sold everything and moved in with the Tang family temporarily.
Then the unexpected happened. Dix was so moved by the relationships he had developed with Tang, Ted and Jean that he no longer wanted to leave. (Vice President Jonah Mills joined as a third partner in 2013.)
The first café opened in 2010 and Dix says the first three or four years were extremely difficult, working 60 hours a week for less than minimum wage.
“I gained 80 pounds. I was unbelievably stressed,” he says. “The first couple years I would go to the bank multiple times a day at payroll to deposit the take from breakfast and lunch. We never bounced a check, but I remember the time we had a 17-cent balance.”
In spite of the financial headwinds, the partners opened two more cafés and a drive-through before they began really turning a profit in 2015. Dix tells a story of expansion almost as magical as that leading to the first café opening.
“I didn’t know for the longest time what Ted’s angle was,” says Dix, who later discovered Ted had lost a young son before walking away from his family and construction business decades earlier. “When I met him, he was in Redding trying to make things right with his daughters. He practiced talking to me in order to talk to them.”
Within a few months of the first opening, Dix learned Ted was dying of cancer and says, “The year before, he had been given six months to live, but he lived five years and ended up reuniting with his family.”
Not surprisingly, the employees (who Dix refers to as “our people”) are From the Hearth’s greatest assets. “We have been so fortunate. We have a loyal, dependable staff,” says Dix. “They care about the food, the company, and most importantly our customers.” •
www.fthcafe.com • Hours: 7 am – 8 pm daily