By Eric Nakano
It’s hard to remember when Butter Cafe wasn’t part of the fabric of San Dimas even though it only opened five years ago, but the way pastry chef and co-owner Heather Sulaeman tells it, Butter Cafe almost never came to be.
“Opening Butter was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life… It was also the hardest decision I’ve ever [made],” Sulaeman laughs before finishing her thought. “I still grind until I die every day mentally, but I wouldn’t change it.”
Sulaeman’s mother and father, both dentists, encouraged her to go to college and follow in their footsteps. After a short stint at University of California, Riverside, Sulaeman dropped out to attend Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena.
A few years later, Sulaeman worked as a pastry chef at a high-end restaurant in Pasadena. It was there that Sulaeman met Ryan Angelo Buan, who joined the Pasadena restaurant as a line cook. The two immediately hit it off. Once Buan worked his way up to manager and got experience running a restaurant, they decided to quit their jobs and open their own restaurant together.
“We work well because there’s not a lot of disagreement about what the goals are,” Buan said.
Initially, the pair looked at Claremont as their restaurant location. Both wanted to open a place on the outskirts of L.A. County because they felt L.A. and the surrounding cities were too competitive. But Claremont’s high rent gave them pause and instead they began looking at nearby cities. After driving around La Verne and San Dimas, Sulaeman spotted the shopping center on Bonita and San Dimas Canyon.
“As soon as we came across this location it was like, this could be our new home,” Sulaeman said.
The restaurant has a minimalist aesthetic with clean, white walls and two long rows of mission style tables and chairs. The interior design feels light and airy with a slight hipster vibe–a place you might expect to find in Echo Park or the Arts District but with suburban undertones. Just like the cafes in L.A., Butter serves as a quasi-community center. Which is exactly what Sulaeman intended.
“Honestly, I love the simplicity of it,” said Margeaux Hogue, a regular at Butter. “Anybody can feel welcomed there, you don’t feel like you don’t fit in.”
Prior to COVID-19, patrons packed the restaurant’s tables in groups of two and four, sipping lattes or chowing down on the restaurant’s signature breakfast burrito while engaging in lively conversations with friends. Hogue said on a typical day you might see cyclists, bible study groups, families, law enforcement officers, and young people–a diverse crowd–all gathered in the space.
According to Buan, their goal is to serve the best artisan pastries, specialty coffee, and comfort food. Butter offers gourmet coffee, in-house pastries and a full breakfast and lunch menu.
“Our menu is pretty big for how small we are,” said barista and server David Lavine.
Even with an expansive menu, there is one item that outsells the others–their breakfast burrito. Sulaeman chocks that up to both the burrito’s quality and the fact that it transports well.
“We wanted to do it all. We wanted to serve the community and provide quality food at a good price and felt that we could provide that,” Sulaeman said.
Offering so many items has its drawbacks. The biggest is the cost of labor. To pull off Butter’s menu they needed someone who could do gourmet coffee, someone who could cook, and someone who could bake.
“Usually people do not come with all three sets of skills,” Sulaeman said.
To keep costs low, Sulaeman hires younger staff, some with limited restaurant experience. Lavine started as a dishwasher with Butter two years ago. He usually works up front now, running the cash register, making drinks and serving food. Lavine also helps with cooking sometimes.
“I feel like it’s a little more difficult than a regular first job,” Lavine said. “You just have to do more. You’re not just working at one station.”
Sulaeman takes an active interest in her staff’s careers and forges close relationships with each of them. Many have gone on to become successful sous chefs in San Francisco or downtown Los Angeles and continue to stay in touch with her, she said.
“At Butter, I was trained in the entire restaurant,” said Kris Lara, who was hired as part of the opening team when she was in high school and currently works at Californios, an upscale Mexican restaurant in San Francisco. “I learned pastry production, working on the line, how to run the front of the house.”
Sulaeman’s focus on relationships also includes Butter Cafe’s customers, many of whom she has come to know personally.
“I know [many] of my customers’ names,” Sulaeman said. “I know their kid’s names, what they do for a living, what their order is, what their drink is.”
Like many restaurants in California, when COVID-19 began to spread in March, Butter Cafe shut down. As restaurants began reopening in Los Angeles County in May, some of Butter’s loyal clientele drove to the Upland location–which had opened early per San Bernardino County guidelines–to support Sulaeman and her staff.
“I’m incredibly grateful to the community because of the people who have supported us and who have relationships with my staff and want to make sure that we survive,” Sulaeman said.
Butter has rent relief and loans to sustain it until December, after that, Sulaeman isn’t sure what will happen. She may have to expand to other locations or perhaps experiment with expanded hours. For now, her focus is on San Dimas and staying true to Butter’s mission, offering quality food at a good price with a personal touch.
No matter what stresses a pandemic or economic uncertainty may bring, Sulaeman is grateful for the opportunity for her and Buan to navigate this current moment and find success on their own terms.
“We wanted something of our own,” she said, recalling the early days in their careers where she and Buan would work in other kitchens, often in tight spaces and under constant pressure.
“We want our own name, we want our own legacy,” she says before interrupting herself to say goodbye to the few remaining customers from the morning rush.
She regains her thought and stops for a moment before saying, “It’s been pretty good.”
**Butter Cafe is open from 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. seven days a week and is located at 671 E Bonita Ave, San Dimas. Customers are advised to give the breakfast burrito – and many other items a try!
Correction: In the photo caption for the print version of this article, we incorrectly identified Ryan Buan as Heather Sualeman’s husband. Buan and Sualeman are business partners.