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shellie bourgault

Point Richmond restaurateur earns entrepreneur award

on November 14, 2011

More than 20 years ago, Shellie Bourgault opened Hidden City Café in Point Richmond at the urging of her then-business partner, who had somewhat of a fantasy about what restaurant life would be like. Ten years into it, she was running the show alone.

“I think a lot of people that open restaurants, they think, ‘Oh, this would be fun,’ and then when they get into the business, it’s a lot of work,” she said. “You really have to have the business side and the creative side. It’s a melding of both.”

Thanks to her perseverance, Bourgault’s business is still going strong today, and for that she is one of the Contra Costa County recipients of this year’s Women Entrepreneur of the Year Award. The annual award is given to women who are nominated through the Woman’s Initiative for Self Employment, a nonprofit that helps underserved women jumpstart their own businesses. The honor is reserved for women in several Northern California counties who juggle running a business with giving back to the community. The El Cerrito resident and Bay Area native has certainly done both.

Bourgault, who kicked off her professional cooking career at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, has helped Hidden City Cafe endure the roller coaster economy over the last two decades. She chalks her success up to her ability to balance change with keeping a few things the same, year after year. At one point, she served dinner. At another, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Today, she is sticking to just breakfast and lunch, a decision that has allowed her to continue serving her regulars the breakfasts they’ve been coming back for for years, while also affording herself the time to pursue other culinary endeavors.

Those endeavors have included time spent at Verde Elementary School, where she taught outdoor cooking classes with food collected from the school’s garden.

“Usually, we’re cooking on little Bunsen burners, but it’s a lot of fun … to be out in the community and doing things with others, especially kids,” she said cheerfully. “It’s almost like peeling garlic for the first time—when you see food through the kids’ eyes, it’s just a lot of fun.”

Recently, she’s been spending her afternoons working with Edison Grains, an Oakland-based company that has reinforced her affinity for sourcing Hidden City Cafe’s food locally.

Her attention to local food was highlighted last summer, when the Point Richmond Farmers’ Market kicked off and she decided to cook weekly farmers’ market dinners. She also sources her bacon, ham and smoked sausages from Hobb’s Applewood Smoked Meats in Richmond, and uses seasonal ingredients to inspire her in the kitchen on a regular basis.

“My basic philosophy is start at the market or farmers’ market or wherever you are, and really see what is available, and let that be your guide,” she said. “I think magazine-reading has always inspired me, too, but I have to say the biggest inspiration is the marketplace. If you really want to make something and have a great time, let the food inspire you.”

She noted a few menu items that keep customers coming back—including her homemade granola, which she makes because she can’t find “anything as good anywhere else”–as well as her scrapple, which she simplifies with a bit of bacon, red onion and herbs. The meat-and-cornmeal dish takes at least four hours to make, and she sells out almost every week, she said.

“It’s kind of a labor of love, but that’s my favorite part—cooking for people and being able to really make them happy through food,” she said. “I think what draws people is that they can get something here that they can’t make at home.”

Hidden City Café is tucked into Point Richmond, a town where she’s seen other restaurants and businesses come and go. Over the years, she’s made sure to preserve the restaurant’s “old-timey” feel, while keeping things inside the restaurant fresh with monthly lunch-menu changes, for example.

“I would say the restaurant is definitely kind of a throw-back to the old days, because it’s a very historical building,” she said, noting that the streets outside were built during the horse-and-buggy days. “And Point Richmond is a very quaint little area, so I decided to keep the restaurant with that fare. It just kind of melds into the town.

The cafe’s charm has been featured in a few Pixar movies—including Monster’s Inc. and Wall-E—thanks to the time the animation studio spent stationed in Richmond, when its employees would hash out ideas over lunch. For that reason, the cafe sometimes lures in curious individuals who may not have visited otherwise.

Ludmyrna Lopez, executive director of the Contra Costa County branch of the Women’s Initiative, has known Bourgault for about five years. She describes the café owner as modest.

“She is very passionate about working with the community in terms of delivering and educating people about healthy food alternatives,” Lopez said.

Bourgault said she was surprised when Lopez told her she was one of the award recipients this year.

“I feel very proud to have been nominated and voted for, only because I know that [the Women’s Initiative] is really well thought-of, and it helps women organize themselves to do something great,” she said. “There’s a lot of women who do a lot of good things out there, and I felt honored to be a woman thought of as somebody to respect and look up to.”

Bourgault will accept her award Monday during a ceremony at Roundhill Country Club in Alamo, surrounded by her family and friends.

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