Freshness, Serenity, and Hospitality. Since the conception of bakery and cafe Vive La Tarte, these three values have lived at the forefront of its business model. “At the core, Vive La Tarte is about building a new food chain,” co-founder Arnaud Goethals plainly stated to me over the phone. In pre-pandemic times, it was open seven days a week. Every delectable pastry you could buy, including their famous taco-croissant hybrid dubbed the “Tacro”, was baked each day.
The flagship Vive La Tarte is located in SOMA, a refurbished circa-1920 printing house in which the only thing separating the customer from the baker is a copper-clad counter. Goethals and his co-founder and wife Julie Vandersmeech are serious about transparency in the food chain. They want customers to be able to see their croissants being baked and their eggs fried.
Serenity refers to the sense of calm that washes over you as you walk in the door at Vive La Tarte in SOMA, Noe Valley, the Ferry Building, and its newest location in Los Angeles. Guests who have been to any of the four locations know that these spaces build community, and that is by design.
The pair wanted to create a relationship with the neighborhood and see which needs they could fill with their hand-crafted food. The Noe Valley location is more family-centric than the SOMA location. For one, they have a kids menu. The space lends itself for sitting down with friends or family for longer periods of time.
Last but not least: hospitality. “People forget that [running a restaurant] is really about being nice!” They approached each of their locations with the same idea – to hire people that are extroverted, interested in talking to other people.
These ideals stem in part from the couple’s European background. Goethals and Vandersmeech moved from Belgium in 2011, where they both held corporate careers. They felt that their values were not being represented in those careers and that they should pursue something they were passionate about.
“We love food, eating well and wholesome connections with people, that’s what we want to do,” Goethals explained. Vive La Tarte had humble roots in a VW bus, which the pair started selling savory tarts out of at farmers markets. After starting their business in the bus and then catering in the Bay Area, they opened their SOMA location in 2015.
After successfully building the business for the past nine years, Goethals is worried. The pandemic has given him time to think about trends in the restaurant industry in the past five years or so, and he is not particularly optimistic.
“No one understood the economics of restaurants,” Goethals said of the past few years. The costs, mostly rent and wages, skyrocketed while third-party delivery apps such as DoorDash and Uber Eats ate away at profits. Such apps take up to 30% of the profits on delivery. Together, “the restaurant industry was making everybody rich except themselves,” Goethals said.
Vive La Tarte has coped by opening their Noe Valley location every weekend for pre-ordered goods. However, this business alone is not necessarily enough to keep Vive La Tarte afloat.
In the same way that Vive La Tarte craves a shift in our food system towards transparency, this clarity must carry over to running a small business. They recently were approved for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. The PPP loan carries many rules; so many that Goethals refers to it as “a program to put people back to work, not really to help restaurants out.”
One of Goethals’ biggest headaches has been dealing with landlords. Although their revenue stream has been drastically cut, they still are responsible for rent at four locations. He hopes that stronger measures will be taken to protect small business owners from predatory landlords.
For now, Goethals remains hopeful that they will find a way out of this and that “we will all find a way to avoid something like it in the future.” He noted that since beginning the pre-order service, customers have already shifted from buying staple items like bread to being more interested in their specialty goods such as an orange blossom and za’atar croissant.
This shifting palate is an encouraging sign for pâtissières. Julie, the head baker, has been having fun focusing on exceptional products. Vive La Tarte has loyal customers and above all, determined owners. As Goethals said, “It is our project and we are in it together.”