Bulgaria is a European country, bordered by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, and the Black Sea. With beautiful beaches and mountains, it is a big tourist destination and hence, attracts the best service industry professionals.
Stoian “Stoli” Genoff, co-owner of La Crème Café, is continuing a family legacy that began in that vibrant country. His father owned a restaurant, and the family all worked together “in one of the most difficult businesses in the world,” recounts Stoli. He was a bartender, and his younger sister Anna was a waitress.
Stoli moved on to tend bar around Bulgaria, and was promoted to manage one of the top restaurants in the capital city of Sofia. While this was a significant position, Stoli was in his late 20s and had other ideas. He moved to another international tourist destination: the islands between Italy and Africa called Malta.
His initial reason for relocation is unexpected. “First of all, I wanted to learn English.” Malta is an English-speaking ex-British colony. Stoli further explains, “I went for two semesters at one of the most prestigious colleges in Bulgaria. If you practice English for only 45 minutes during class, but are surrounded only by people who speak your language, it’s not as fast as if you move somewhere and are forced by circumstances to learn faster.” While this was a bold move, it had a balance: there’s no winter, and a lot of party in Malta!
He was working as a dishwasher and barback while taking English lessons. But Stoli had a skill that broke all language barriers though – flair bartending – and it was about to change everything.
One slow night he was cleaning a bar, and in a fit of boredom, picked up a bottle and shaker and practiced some flair. Stoli continues, “I believed nobody was watching me, but there was a guy sitting at the end of the bar. It was the General Manager. He asked me if I wanted to work as a bartender.” Stoli was concerned his English wasn’t good enough (“I was mistaking Tuesday and Thursday all the time.”) But the GM gave him shifts, and by year two Stoli was managing four nightclubs.
Stoli set his sights on the U.S. in March of 2006. He believed “America is country with opportunities.” After six months of bartending in chilly Baltimore, he decided to stay in the country. With an open map and the filter of “no winter,” he chose between Florida (“swamps and mosquitos”) and Los Angeles (“names I recognized”). With $430 in pocket, he headed west.
“I believed LA is only beaches and bars,” Stoli recalls. He worked as a certified lifeguard at a private Brentwood club by day, and as a bartender by night. But the night gig was far from what he had known for years. “It was all about appearances – face and body – with all the actors in the industry. I had an accent and a ‘mean’ look.” A former pro boxer (he retired at age 32), he followed some advice: “Grow your hair out, lose muscles, look friendly!”
In the meantime, Stoli’s younger sister Anna had been following a similar international path in the restaurant business as a chef. From Bulgaria she moved to Dubai, then to the Midwest, and then to San Francisco. Now both in the same state, Stoli and Anna forged a plan to create their own business. She moved to Los Angeles and they settled together in Koreatown. “We decided to work hard and save money” for eight years, logging insane hours every week.
They found the ideal location on Melrose and got started on a 54-day remodel with “a lot of love and money.” La Crème Café opened in 2013.
Anna’s international experience and culinary creativity shaped the menu. With a little from all over Europe, La Crème Café features Belgian waffles, sweet and savory French crepes, and Italian panini. The kitchen is simple, and everything made from scratch on the spot. “No pre-cooking,” asserts Stoli. “Paninis take 10-15 minutes. Quality takes time.”
Time and patience are things Stoli and Anna are committed to. It took seven months to develop the best crepe mixture. “We couldn’t find the right recipe! I don’t even know how many customers we lost at the very beginning. But it’s so good now people order them plain.”
Coffee in Europe is serious business, so it is here, too. “You can have the best kitchen, but if you have bad coffee, you’re in trouble,” jokes Stoli. The Café uses only organic coffee and milks.
Juices are freshly squeezed, nothing added or artificial; everything is made right in front of you. No corners are cut. Substitutions are fine, and the staff helpfully makes ingredient-conscious recommendations. “This is the hospitality industry. We make our customers feel happy and special. Our customers are always first.”
What about those macaroons? Handmade, gluten-free, always fresh, around 25 different flavors, Le Crème Café sells nearly 1700 each month. They are so popular, Stoli once delivered three dozen to a customer, “I thought for a party, but it was just them watching TV!”
La Crème Café, like the restaurant in Bulgaria, is a family affair. Stoli is the face of the Café, and handles most of the business. Anna oversees the menu, and kitchen. Her husband supplies the food. Stoli’s wife is often behind the counter. Mom is even involved! “The five of us, and our employees, put a lot of love in it.”
He may be a restaurant owner, but there’s a flair bartender still living inside Stoli. “Sometimes when I get bored, I get two of the syrup bottles and start playing with them. My employees say “Oh, boss you’re good! I thought you were old!’”