A Conversation with Cool Cat Cafe’s Sean Corpuel
By Kent Coules, Publisher
One look at Cool Cat Cafe on Front Street and it’s hard to believe this all started from an 800 square foot hamburger stand making only $300 a day in Atascadero, California.
“My dad Steve bought a place called Tubby’s with his last $15,000 in savings in 1989,” says Sean Corpuel, co-owner of Cool Cat. “I had dropped out of high school in Arizona, and my dad asked me if I wanted to come work with him. We had one employee then and hamburgers sold for $2.35 each. No one knew that we were open for dinner so we spent our nights playing cribbage in one of the booths. I was 17 at the time, learning the business, literally, from the ground up.”
Sean taking on one of his ginormous creations
Tubby’s had no logo, no branding, and surfboards for tables. “When we changed the name to Yazoo’s, we needed a logo. The best tip I ever received was when a regular customer, a local artist, drew a bunny on a napkin for us.”
After a year, Yazoo’s revenues climbed to $1,200 a day. By 1992, Steve and Sean were able to sell it and open the first Cool Cat Cafe, a 2,300 square foot restaurant in San Luis Obispo that is still serving today. “We were looking for a catchy name,” says Sean, “and a cool logo. One day I looked at the bunny and cut off the ears. It looked like a cat. I added a hat and that was how Cool Cat was born.”
It was at that point that Sean got hands-on, working in the kitchen and running the day-to-day business. “We built the business to the point that we started working with a local business broker to get us a location on the main street in San Luis. We weren’t successful, but the broker came back from Maui and told us we should check out this location in Lahaina.”
Steve and Sean visited Lahaina in 2002 and checked it out. The location had been vacant for six years and was on the south end of Front Street, which was very slow. “It was an 8,000 square foot dump,” says Sean. “Don’t ask me why we jumped in; our minds told us ‘no’ but I guess our hearts told us something different. So Cool Cat Lahaina became reality.”
But not without its struggles. “A $100,000 contracting job became $500,000. We had liquor issues. We opened in March 2003 and it was a real struggle. We were happy if the rail tables were filled. Our credit cards were maxed out.”
Business slowly picked up around January. Sean literally pounded the pavement, talking to local concierges and hosting “free burger” parties. The strategy worked. Two years in, momentum was building. Cool Cat started seeing repeat business from visitors and Sean and Steve have never looked back.
Sean with Casey Webb, host of Food Network's 'Man v. Food'
But success in the restaurant business starts and ends with the food. “We make everything from scratch,” explains Sean. “We hand press our hamburgers every day. We buy our buns from the best local bakery, every day. We use Roselani Ice Cream in our shakes, because, in our opinion, they make the best ice cream on the island. One day a competitor asked us if they could borrow some Thousand Island Dressing. We asked them if they had the ketchup and the mayonnaise. They said, ‘what do you mean?’ They were buying their salad dressing from a supply warehouse. We make all of our dressings from scratch.”
Over the years Sean’s culinary skills outgrew Cool Cat's decidedly burger-focused menu. “We started our Burger of the Month club about three years ago. That allowed us to experiment with different flavors and get real-time feedback from our customers. But I wanted to offer different foods. In order to do that we had to create a new concept.”
Enter Captain Jack’s Island Grill, next door neighbor to Cool Cat which also serves as a culinary playground for Sean. “I really wanted to open a Mexican restaurant, given my West Coast roots, but the landlord wouldn’t let us because there was already a Mexican restaurant in the center. So we created the concept around different ports o’ call. Captain Jack’s serves some my favorite foods from all over the world, foods that we tested on the menu at Cool Cats before opening.”
Does Sean ever get a chance to reflect on what he’s achieved in the 30 years since joining his dad as a 17-year-old high school drop out? “I’m most proud of my staff. We now have four restaurants (a Cool Cat in Pismo Beach, California opened a couple of years ago) and 200 employees. We have children of employees who are now employees. I know generations of families who are customers. And one recent thing that comes to mind is I was approached by a customer who said, ‘I just ate here, and I want to tell you your staff was on point. They all have a great attitude.”
That’s pretty cool, Sean. That’s pretty cool.
[Editor's Note: A version of this article appears in print in the July-Sept 2019 issue of This Week Maui, on stands now]
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