As a preview of some of the restaurants participating in our third annual Peninsula Restaurant Week May 19-27, we’re speaking to the restaurateurs behind local eateries. First up in our Q&A series is Geoffroy Raby, owner and restaurateur of Cuisinett Bistro & Market in downtown San Carlos.
For more information about Peninsula Restaurant Week, go to peninsularestaurantweek.com.
Cuisinett Bistro & Market is a San Carlos French restaurant that opened in 2011. Owner and restaurateur Geoffroy Raby opened the eatery as an ode to the neighborhood cafe he grew up with, according to Cuisinett’s website. Since then, it has evolved into a bistro and market offering wine, charcuterie and other goods from France alongside classic French comfort foods like ratatouille, beef Bourguignon, and croque madame and monsieur sandwiches.
I recently met Raby to discuss the upcoming Peninsula Restaurant Week and how the French native is bringing a piece of France to the Peninsula through Cuisinett. We talked about Cuisinett’s plans for Restaurant Week, how its business model changed during the pandemic and how Raby is working to dispel misgivings about French food.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Peninsula Foodist: Can you tell me a little bit more about your backstory?
Geoffroy Raby: I've been in the U.S. since 2001. I'm originally from Lille in the north of France. I studied marketing and finance, but in order to make money, I worked in restaurants. That's how I got the passion for restaurants and the hospitality business.
When I graduated, I did a couple of different jobs, selling insurance mostly to restaurants and leasing restaurant equipment. I am not a trained chef. I didn't go to culinary school. I like the operations: That's my real passion.
In 2011, I knew I was ready to open. We were coming out of the 2008 (economic) disaster. It was a good time to look for a location and everything. I was looking in the Peninsula. My wife and I have twin boys. They are 11 years old now, going on 12 – like the restaurant.
We live in Redwood Shores. We love our community. And so I got (a space in) San Carlos. When I opened the restaurant, it was fast-casual. At that time, there was no fast-casual French restaurant (in the area).
Peninsula Foodist: How have you been impacted by the pandemic?
Geoffroy Raby: When COVID hit, (I realized) that French food to go is not financially viable. I had to rethink the whole business model. So I decided to open a French market.
I wish we would be on a busier foot-traffic street, because this concept basically has proven to work. But San Carlos is not the top-notch place because (the city closed) Laurel Street, so basically we lost tons of foot traffic.
Being on the less-busy street, it's like, “How do we gain people?” The French market is one of the ways to do it; Restaurant Week is another one. We've done some secret items on our menu randomly during the weekdays to improve traffic.
One thing that I've learned through COVID and after COVID is that a great concept will always work, but a great concept combined with a great location definitely has more chances to succeed.
We don't have the foot traffic – the Caltrain attendance went down completely. People are still not in the office. If I look at Redwood Shores, most of the company parking lots are empty. We used to have a very strong lunch business with Oracle, Electronic Arts, Sony and multiple other companies close by. But we saw a drop.
Peninsula Foodist: What would you say makes your restaurant special?
Geoffroy Raby: The restaurant business is really (about) how do you create magic? People come here to shop and stay to eat at the restaurant. Coming to Cuisinett is cheaper than an airplane ticket to France.
We have a pretty big French community as well. I think one of the things that they've really enjoyed is the fact that we went back to a more casual approach. We're trying to stay away from stereotypes that people may have from French food. We don't have a French onion soup, because most French people don't (eat) it. I'm really trying to bring the kind of neighborhood bistros that we have in France. You'll find sandwiches like the Merguez sandwich – the spicy sausage is definitely a classic. We do items that my mom used to make (like) a French grilled cheese.
I go back to France at least once a year because I always like to see what's happening. We haven't reinvented the wheel or anything, which is kind of the beauty of it.
We're open all day, from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and the idea is you should be able to come here to our place for a quick bite, but also for a nice meal. We're very casual, and we want you to be able to have a beautiful, healthy and filling salad or a nice little sandwich at night.
We don't do many breakfast items because we're not a breakfast place. I think sometimes when you try to do too many things, it's difficult to excel in one.
I think we're well known in San Carlos and within the surrounding area. The goal is to open more Cuisinett Bistro & Markets because the concept basically works, it's just now I need to find locations where I have more foot traffic.
Peninsula Foodist: What are some examples of the regional cuisine where you're from in northern France?
Geoffroy Raby: We have a special called carbonnade flamande. The best way to describe it is the cousin of beef Bourguignon. It's a beef stew, but we use dark beer, as well as some brown sugar, and we let it simmer for a very long time, eight to 10 hours. We usually serve it with fries on the side.
You get this beautiful, slowly cooked braised meat and the beer adds a friendly acidity, I would call it, with a touch of sweetness from the brown sugar. And when you dip the fries into the sauce, the starch of the potatoes with the acidity and sweetness, plus a touch of the meat that's slowly braised — it's a great combination. It's super delicious.
We also bring secret items to the menu. We have a French truffle burger that we do. We announce it in email marketing or text marketing, or stories on Instagram, and it brings people in because we do a limited quantity. We have people that line up for it. We use this high-end black truffle spread that goes inside of the burger, and we use brie cheese on top of the beef patty. You have this combination of brioche bun, natural beef patty and the creaminess of the brie cheese, and the earthiness of the black truffle spread. When you do that in one bite, it's an umami moment where you have layers of flavors.
Peninsula Foodist: Tell me more about what you offer at your market.
Geoffroy Raby: We offer anything that's related with French food – French cookies, charcuterie, cheese and wine retail. We do dry goods, such as French olive oil, French vinegars and mustards. Everything is imported, which is challenging, because it gets caught at the port, and we have to wait.
What was great with the French market is we were able to add sales without adding much more labor. But in terms of experience, it added a tremendous amount of that French feeling, like you come in and you feel like you're in a little French world.
France is not just Paris or just Provence. France is made of different regions. Being from the north of France, (I wanted the menu to be) a representation of different areas of France. I didn't want to focus on just one.
Peninsula Foodist: What are your plans for Restaurant Week?
Geoffroy Raby: We decided to go with a prix-fixe menu. It's basically an introduction to discover our menu – a classic, three-course prix fixe with an appetizer, main course and dessert for $44.
When I created the restaurant, in the market research, one of the things people think of French food is (that) French restaurants are intimidating, because sometimes they don't know how to pronounce the name of the dishes or maybe they are too expensive.
Cuisinett Bistro & Market is the opposite of all that. We are a casual French restaurant. You could come here as a casual catch-up with friends or casual work dinner. You can come as a date. And you can come after sports events. We have a few families who come during the week – the kids do either soccer or karate – and they will come here right after because they know that they can have a quick bite and it's not gonna kill them financially.
We're very happy to do Restaurant Week. We're trying to broaden our audience and we're very excited to help people discover French food, especially for someone who hasn't tried it yet. We want (people) to know that it's something approachable, accessible and delicious.
Cuisinett, 1105 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos; 650-453-3390, Instagram: @cuisinett.
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