Two weeks ago, the website Yelp published its 2017 list of the "top 100 places to eat in the U.S.," and planted firmly in the middle at No. 51 is Sunny Side Kitchen in Escondido.
The 2-year-old breakfast/lunch cafe in downtown Escondido was among the 100 restaurants nationwide to earn the most 5-star reviews on Yelp in recent years. Yelp is a crowd-sourced website, where the public can rate their visits on a scale of 1 to 5 and post photos of and reviews. The only other restaurant in San Diego to make the list is the Classic Malt Shop, a '50s diner in San Diego's Midway district that ranked No. 100.
Sunny Side's married co-owners Kathy and Bob Carpenter say the list published on the Yelp blog Jan. 17 caught them completely by surprise and has already doubled their business.
"When we read the blog we thought 'oh my God, this is huge," Kathy said. "We're very proud of our five-star rating but we had no idea they did this kind of list. It came as a big shock."
Besides a boom in business, she said the restaurant has been getting lots of media attention and has attracted the attention of Yelp fans from as far away as Los Angeles. Most diners who find the restaurant via Yelp are travelers and newcomers, so the list has brought in a lot of new customers.
This is the fourth year Yelp has done a "top 100" list and the first where the rules were changed to spotlight up-and-coming and newer restaurants, rather than major chain and famous restaurants that have amassed thousands of 5-star reviews since Yelp started in 2004. As a result, this year's top 3 finishers this year were newer small-town delis and bistros in Texas, Florida and Virginia.
Sunny Side Kitchen
What: Family-run breakfast/lunch cafe
When: 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Where: 155 S. Orange St., Escondido
Phone: (760) 294-4450
Carpenter said she believes the reason for all the 5-star reviews at Sunny Side Kitchen is its mostly home-made menu with virtually everything cooked and prepared in-house, including soups, roasted chicken, dressings, sauces and baked goods, which are custom-prepared to order.
"Our menu's small but we tailor it for whatever the customer wants when they walk through the door," she said. "I get upset if people aren't happy."
The Carpenters, who married in 2010, both came from a background of journalism. He wrote for car and truck enthusiast magazines and she was a newspaper food and features editor before moving into public relations. When she was laid off from her job in 2011, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of working in the hospitality field.
"My Mom is a gracious hostess and a very good cook and I've always admired her ability to feed people and make them feel comfortable," she said. "I just loved food and always wanted to be the perfect hostess as well, so I decided to start small with the cookies I love eating and making for other people."
Five years ago, the couple rented a booth selling bite-size cookies at the farmers market near the Sikes Adobe in south Escondido. When the market's sandwich maker left, the Carpenters added sandwiches to their product line. Then they added fresh-squeezed lemonade to wash everything down.
"It's been an organic growth process that served us well by bringing people along little by little," she said.
Eventually their customer base grew large enough that they were able to open their restaurant in March 2015 at 155 S. Orange St. in Escondido. It seats 21 inside and 12 on the sidewalk.
Sunny Side serves breakfast and lunch only. The bulk of its weekday business is lunch deliveries to businesses in the downtown area. Their signature items are their mini cookies and the Tuscan panini made with roast chicken, fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and four types of cheese.
Kathy is the baker and head chef and Bob oversees the business and order management. Their next goal is to begin offering a special-menu dinner service two to three night a month. The couple - who have four children and one grandchild between them - work side by side in the restaurant every day, because they want to ensure the 5-star reviews keep rolling in.
"It's truly a mom and pop business," she said. "I feel like it's my responsibility to be there and feel connected to my customers. I want them to be happy and Bob feels the same way."