For those who can remember a time when Lakewood Ranch did not even exist, the drive out east east can be a bit of a culture shock as new businesses crop up at a mind-boggling pace. Despite the explosive growth, however, there is one thing that is surprisingly hard to come by out east: Good, no-frills mom and pop breakfast joints.
Referred to as a “hidden gem” by their customers, Sea Star Café is the answer to that dilemma. Tucked away in Lane Plaza on Palmbrush Trail – just east Lakewood Ranch Blvd on State Road 70 – Sea Star Café has developed a loyal following since it first opened its doors in 2008.
Co-owners Casey Anderson and Matt Cardwell met in 2006 while working in a chain restaurant in Bradenton where they quickly forged a friendship. When Cardwell was laid off from his job in 2008, the pair began to discuss the possibility of opening their own restaurant.
Anderson grew up in west Bradenton, where she currently lives with her husband, Ben. Recognizing the rapid growth in east Manatee County and Lakewood Ranch, she suggested opening a business out east.
“We knew that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it out east,” she recalled. “Downtown Bradenton was our other option, but it wasn’t quite what we wanted. Lakewood Ranch is booming right now and there’s more of a fixed population with a set income in that area. It just made sense to us.”
One month after they initially discussed the idea of opening a restaurant they took the leap. Anderson and Cardwell purchased the space that would become Sea Star Café on June 13, 2008.
“It pretty much all went down in a matter of two weeks from when we decided we were actually going to do it,” Cardwell said.
“I don’t even know how it happened,” Anderson added with a laugh, “but I’m glad it did. This has all gone really well so far.”
Perhaps it is even going too well.
“We’re going through some growing pains,” she confessed. “We never really thought we would outgrow our space, but we already have.”
“We thought those growing pains would be the operational stuff,” Cardwell added, “but we’ve actually tripled and quadrupled our orders from vendors since the day we opened. Sometimes it feels like we have more business than we know what to do with.”
Anderson and Cardwell attribute Sea Star Café’s popularity to a number of things, but both agree that exceptional customer service and home-style cooking is what set the café apart.
During the six days per week the restaurant is open, at least one of the co-owners is working. While Anderson is usually on the floor and interacting with customers, Cardwell is in the kitchen cooking up the restaurant’s most popular breakfast and lunch dishes such as coconut French toast, eggs Benedict and Reuben sandwiches.
“Almost everything is made fresh from scratch,” Cardwell said. I think a lot of places have grown away from that, so it’s a big part of what sets us apart.”
Sea Star relies almost entirely on word-of-mouth marketing and some social media, but its loyal customer base helped the restaurant achieve an impressive spot amongst the final four in the 2012 Patch Readers’ Choice Poll for customer service. The competition included 64 businesses when it began on March 12.
Although they didn’t make it to the final round, Anderson and Cardwell say they were pleased by the support they received from their customers.
“We kind of knew we were done for once we were up against a vet clinic. It’s tough to go toe-to-toe with puppies,” Cardwell joked.
Although the Sea Star Café is beginning to outgrow its space, Anderson and Cardwell have no plans to go anywhere – or at least not anywhere far away.
“We may look for a bigger space once the lease is up in 2013, but if we do, we don’t plan on moving more than a mile or two away from this location,” Cardwell said.
“We like it here and our customers like having us here, so we’re not going to go anywhere.”