Eyeing retirement, The French Gourmet owner maps out his legacy

The French Gourmet restaurant — with its bright yellow exterior and blue shutters framing windows adorned with flower baskets — is a cheery culinary icon, not just in Pacific Beach, but in all of San Diego. Its list of awards is long and legendary, and its owner, Michel Malecot, was even given a knighthood from the French government for distinguished service. Now, after 39 years of success at 960 Turquoise St., Malecot is thinking strategically, not just about the restaurant’s future success, but also about his graceful exit as owner of the PB landmark.

Malecot remembers what drew him to the culinary culture in the first place. Growing up on a countryside farm in Normandy, France, he recalls: “Farm-to-table was a way of life in those days, literally. We’d go in the garden, pick out lettuce and a bunch of tarragon, make a vinaigrette from scratch ... and then get a chicken and (he makes a breaking sound) cook it right there on the spot ... and then get potatoes from the cellar, which were harvested. I enjoyed it. I enjoy food; I’m a bon vivant, as you can tell.”

After culinary school and internships in England and Germany on a cruise ship, he came to America. Why?

“Adventure,” he explains. “It was the appeal of John Wayne. I had a poster of him in my room with his cowboy hat on. I was always fascinated by that, I remember.”

He bought a bakery on Pearl Street in 1979 that was called The Cake Shack, and then moved to Turquoise Street in 1989, where he created much more than just a cozy restaurant. Catering is 70 percent of the business.

Malecot also runs a wholesale bakery, a retail bakery, a rental equipment business (chairs and tables for events), and a wine boutique. The catering business alone brings in hundreds of clients each month.

“It’s very rare that I’d go to an association meeting or seminar or Rotary meeting or Kiwanis meeting where somebody does not come to me and say, ‘Oh Michel, you did my wedding cake 20 years ago’ or ‘you catered my daughter’s wedding.’ So it’s a legacy really,” he says smiling.

These days, figuring out how to define that legacy is top of mind for the successful restaurateur. Malecot is looking longingly down the road at retirement, but he wants to make sure the business is set up for strategic growth before he gracefully exits. But he admits: “Being in business for 29 years, I still think 1990 prices. I’m not kidding. It’s a problem; I’m not a good businessman.”

Malecot is working on a three-year strategic plan that includes building the right management team, with operations manager Ryan Tuskan at the helm. Tuskan started working at The French Gourmet when he was 17 — the same year he started culinary school. But Tuskan had the urge to sow his culinary oats in other places, so he left at age 24, to work elsewhere for five years, until he returned.

“The day before last Christmas, Michel called and said, ‘I have job options for you. You want to come back?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll start out the New Year with you,” Tuskan recalls.

With his key person in place, Malecot said he knew he needed to find the rest of his management team, and the next step was finding a sales person who could replace him. “But I don’t just want people,” he points out, “I want people who have a soul. I want my legacy to continue.” He’s still looking.

Tuskan is helping him in that endeavor as they consider a three-year transition plan. In the meantime, Malecot is still going strong; he works 10-12 hours, five days a week. When asked about his secret to success, he replies: “Just work hard, have thriftiness, respect the food, have good karma, and do what’s right. Always, do what’s right.”

And as they figure out their plans, Tuskan knows he has big shoes to fill. “With this transition, I’m learning a lot more on the business end,” he says. “I’ve been at the top, I’ve been an executive chef, I know how to do my numbers, I know how to do inventory and food costs, but it’s more than that here. We’re a team of 40 people trying to make other people’s dreams come true.”

Tuskan said he grew up on Beryl Street near The French Gourmet, and remembers it as a landmark from his childhood. “This is where I want to be,” he says. “This is home.”

—The French Gourmet, 960 Turquoise St., is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for breakfast and lunch; dinner is available 4 p.m. to close, Tuesday-Saturday. (858) 488-1725. thefrenchgourmet.com

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