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Wildflower Café Celebrates 7th Anniversary

From rice bread to feta burgers to eggplant sandwiches, the Wildflower Café whips up fresh, novel food that is as healthy as it is tasty.

The Wildflower Café in Redondo Beach often has people waiting in line for bacon and eggs, especially on Sunday.

True, the bacon is turkey bacon and the eggs are free-range and served in a variety of scrambles and omelets. Only the freshest ingredients are used, things like goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and spinach.

It is a labor of love for Saemi Yook, the hostess and proprietor, who works seven days a week at the corner restaurant on South Pacific Coast Highway, which is owned by Yook and her accountant husband, Davis, of Rancho Palos Verdes.

“I just think fresh food in general should be everyone’s choice,” Saemi (pronounced Sammy) Yook said late one afternoon near closing time. “That’s how I like my food; I wouldn’t serve anything that I wouldn’t eat.”

A customer, Scott Gevertz, 29, agreed. “This is actually one of the healthier places (to eat) in the South Bay,” the Manhattan Beach resident said as he waited for his takeout: chicken tenders, salad and chocolate cake. “The food is very clean, very tasty, great service, great location, right near my work.”

An employee of the nearby Bank of America, Gevertz has been coming to Wildflower since he first tried it late last year. “I actually cook most of my food (and) eat mostly organic," he said. "I come here and my body is still okay with that.”

Open for breakfast and lunch only, Wildflower has become something of an institution since it opened seven years ago this month. From the bright brick-colored exterior (Desert Spice) to the orchids flourishing at the entrance to the various earthen shades of paint in the interior, the café reflects Saemi Yook’s tastes.

“Everything in here is pretty much me,” Saemi, a youthful 39, said. “All the little pictures and frames and decorations, I handpicked. Even the paint colors.”

She also printed hot and cold drink lists in pink script on two framed mirrors: “I got that idea in a little coffee shop in Vegas, and I wanted to do my own little version of it.”

Born in South Korea, Saemi immigrated to the states with her parents when she was 3. Both Yooks grew up in Southern California, she said. Laughing merrily, she added, “I’m actually a Valley girl! I went to school in the Valley—lived there half my life.” First it was in Panorama City, then in Burbank, and after marrying Davis 14 years ago, the couple bought their first home in Northridge.

The move to the South Bay occurred after they located the ideal location on Pacific Coast Highway to open their first restaurant. In its prior incarnation, the café had been an Indonesian restaurant, mostly white with touches of bamboo.

“We gave it a complete facelift,” Saemi said. “We had to knock down some walls ... but the patio was here.”

Although Wildflower’s tiny interior seats only 20, the patio seats 30. If it happens to rain on the weekend, “we’re very limited,” she conceded. “People say why not put a roof over it. The patio is so popular; that’s where everyone wants to sit.”

Fortunately, she added, “There are not that many rainy days.”

As she sat at a small table by the window, late-day sun picking up sparkles on her glittering black top, you would think Saemi had years of restaurant experience behind her when she and Davis bought the cafe in 2006.

“My husband and I were actually both in accounting, and we just always wanted to start our own little business,” she said. Yet her only experience came in co-managing a small coffee shop in Santa Monica for six months ... “up until I realized I was pregnant with my second child.” The Yooks have two daughters, Katie, 11, and Aly, 9.  

“We do have family who have restaurants on the Westside (of Los Angeles),” she said. “So they were a big influence.”

Mainly, it was Saemi’s love of entertaining that inspired the idea of becoming a restaurateur. “I’ve always loved cooking,” she said. “I love food.”

Davis Yook, however, did not quit his day job at Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) in Newport Beach. Although he “helps on the back end” of their business, Saemi does all the day-to-day running of the café, something that did not come easily at first.

She recalled a “nightmare” cook:

“He had a really, really bad temper. Anything could set him off. I was always walking on eggshells. I’d think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is not my restaurant; this is his!’”

The cook even refused to let her hire any new kitchen staff. “It was one of the hardest things I had to go through," she said. "We kept getting busier and busier and he would say, ‘If you hire anyone else right now, I’m not going to help you train them; I’m just going to leave.’”

She fired the nightmare cook, and now has three cooks. Turnover is almost non-existent. “Most of the people I have now have been with me for the last three years.”

On the busiest day, which is Sunday, she has about nine people working. Aside from the cooks, there is a dishwasher, three busers and two servers, including Saemi, who also acts as hostess.

Learning the ropes of a business “from the bottom up” has been tough, but one area where she did have help was in coming up with a menu. That’s where family restaurants, like the Lazy Daisy in West L.A., helped. 

“I’ve adopted our menu from my husband’s cousin’s restaurant,” she said. “I just tweaked it, added on, took off things and made up my own.”

Fresh food and organic and artisan ingredients fashioned in creative ways have cemented the café’s reputation for many. Take the Wildflower Omelet ($10.75), a signature breakfast dish composed of egg whites, tomato, avocado, mushrooms, broccoli, fresh basil and jack cheese. Roasted herb potatoes and fruit come with omelets and the choices of breads range from rosemary-garlic to tofu.

The Wildflower Stack ($8.95), another popular breakfast, has bananas, walnuts, blueberries and strawberries mixed into batter before pancakes are plopped on the griddle and then served with a flourish of powdered sugar.

Saemi’s favorite luncheon dish is the Mango Chicken Salad ($10.50), a combination of grilled chicken breast, caramelized walnuts, green apples, red onion, mixed greens and homemade croutons.

“The name is a little misleading,” she explained, “because we don’t actually have mango in (the salad); it’s in the dressing. Very good light dressing made out of reduced mango juice, and we add ginger and orange juice.”

The Classic Burger ($8.50) has also proven “a hit,” she said. “I actually got the recipe off the Food Network.” The secret is onion ground almost to a puree, which is added to ground sirloin, along with garlic, seasonings and Dijon mustard. “It makes it juicier and more flavorful.”

The café’s signature burger, Saemi said, is the Wildflower Feta Burger ($9.95), a variation of the Classic, but with the addition of feta cheese, spinach and tomatoes. 

For such a small establishment, the menu is extraordinarily lengthy and includes homemade soups (“The most popular is Cream of Carrot,” Saemi said), exotic sandwiches (grilled eggplant or Portobello mushroom) pastas (tiger shrimp linguini and Wildflower spaghetti) and a selection of coffees, beers and wine.

In the beginning, the café was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “We’d offer breakfast until dinnertime, and people just seemed to love breakfast," Saemi explained. "Eventually, we had employee issues (some worked other jobs), so we decided why not just concentrate on breakfast and lunch.”

Saemi admits she is “pretty much married to the restaurant. I’m here seven days a week. We don’t close. I’ve kind of learned to live with it, that that’s what I needed to do to keep (the café) running.”

After Wildflower closes at 3 p.m., she rushes out to buy the next day’s food and supplies at Costco and Restaurant Depot. “I do most of the shopping,” she said. Only produce and breads are delivered.  She barely has time to pick up her two girls before after-school care closes at the end of the day.

The best items aren’t always available at her regular sources. For turkey bacon, for example, she finally found one brand (Oscar Mayer) that doesn’t taste like cardboard: "It has 50 percent less fat than pork bacon, and I had to choose because our kitchen is small.”

She admitted that most people turn up their nose at turkey bacon: “I say, ‘You need to try it!’ I have people try it here for the first time and they actually get hooked on it. I can’t eat pork bacon anymore because I’m so used to this.”

Pork sausage, ham and Canadian bacon, however, are on the menu.

But it’s the customers that represent the best part of her job. “I’m so very lucky and blessed, because my customers are amazing. Once in a while you get your difficult customer, but I have customers who have been coming here since we first opened.” Her pretty eyes widened. “I even have customers from New Zealand, I’m proud to say. Every time they come into town they will visit.”

Wildflower does a limited amount of catering, mostly for local schools. One big event is Hands on Art, Saemi said. “People on that committee eat here. But we only cater during the hours we’re open.”

The Wildflower Café, at 600 S. Pacific Coast Hwy. in South Redondo Beach, is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and weekends from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Street parking or three dedicated spaces are available. Beer and wine are served; however, the restaurant does not take reservations. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Contact them at 310-406-3808.

tim rusch February 25, 2013 at 01:28 AM
Here's to 7 more years! Tim
Katharine Blossom Lowrie February 26, 2013 at 03:19 PM
I regret that the Wildflower Cafe story was published before I was able to verify certain facts. Just love Saemi, a generous and lovely person to all who know her.
Fish Window Cleaning - Los Angeles South Bay February 26, 2013 at 03:26 PM
The Wildflower Cafe is me and my wife's favorite lunch spot. We highly recommend the Crispy Chicken Salad and a glass of Pinot Noir, while sitting on the balcony during a warm afternoon. It doesn't get much better that that! Saemi and her staff are terrific and we always feel well cared for! Thank you Wildflower Cafe, we wish you many more successful years!
Katharine Blossom Lowrie February 26, 2013 at 03:44 PM
I meant to say that I regret story was published prematurely on Sunday. Happy for today!

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