Sara Laurin’s business plan for the Blue Cow Deli in Penn Valley was not your typical one.
“First and foremost, I wanted to open a place where anyone who walked in would feel welcome,” she said. “I base our success on whether our customers feel as though they’re a part of something when they come in.”
Based on that criterion and all others, the small-town deli that opened its doors in 2010 has proven itself to be a remarkably successful venture. But it wasn’t as though Sara, who owns the business with her husband, Jeromy, didn’t already have what many would call a “recipe for success.”
In 2004, the Laurins opened Rebecca’s Mighty Muffins in a converted Grass Valley tire store and soon after changed the name to Summer Thyme’s Bakery, after their daughter. The bakery was — and still is — a whopping success, but the long hours began to wear on the Laurins, who had two small children at the time. In 2008, they sold the business and considered looking for more conventional jobs.
But it took less than a year before they began to mull over the idea of opening an ice cream and coffee shop in Penn Valley, near their home.
“We wanted something simple — we already knew how to do coffee well, and ice cream is always a popular, low-cost treat,” said Sara. “When the economy turned in 2008, we did a little research — during the Depression in the 1930s, sweets always sold well.”
Caleb’s Creamery & Coffee opened its doors in December of 2008 and the Laurins had done it again — the business was instantly popular.
“But it didn’t take long before people began to ask, ‘When are you going to have real food?’’ said Sara. “That got me thinking.”
She knew there was a niche for a small food establishment that offered quick service, no waitresses and food to go.
“The concept was that you generally order at the counter and help yourself,” Sara said.
“Caleb’s gave me confidence, so I began to love the idea of start-ups.”
In 2010, the Laurins opened Blue Cow Deli on Penn Valley Drive — along with business partner and culinary chef Jim Dumars — and have never looked back. Although the Laurins bought out Dumars’ share in 2011 when he relocated, Sara says they are grateful for his expertise and culinary contributions.
“He set us down the path of making all of our sauces from scratch,” she said. “Our goal has been to give basic sandwiches an upgrade.”
Have they met their goal? Just ask regular customers Howard and Judith, who did not mention their last name.
“I seldom come here more than once a day,” said Howard, with a chuckle.
“We love the peaceful energy and feeling of community. We get our social needs met here.”
“I don’t come on Sundays,” said Judith, who knows full well the business is closed that day. “This business really adds something to the community.”
Inside the small establishment are a handful of tables with counters along the edge. Outside, there is a patio with tables and umbrellas.
Popular items include their now-famous South County turkey sandwich, which includes bacon, provolone, lettuce, onion, tomato and a spicy chipotle sauce on a warmed ciabatta roll. Another favorite is the Chinese Chicken Salad with grilled chicken, mixed greens, cabbage, carrots, scallions, cilantro, crispy noodles and peanuts with a sesame soy dressing.
A recent special was the spinach, fig and feta salad, which Sara is considering adding to the regular menu. Hot sandwiches include the “Pentucky” Barbecued Pulled Pork, Chicken Pesto Panini, the Greek Vegetarian Panini and others. If she doesn’t hook them with a sandwich or soup made from scratch, Sara pulls out the big guns: her famous chipotle bacon potato salad — virtually guaranteed to turn a first-time customer into a regular.
Now that their children are 11 and 14, the Laurins have found a way to balance family life with their two businesses. While Jeromy oversees daily operations at Caleb’s Creamery, Sara spends the bulk of her time at the Blue Cow. An added perk is that her mother, Jodi Barnett, owns Jodi B’s next door, which sells reclaimed, repurposed and crafted items, which she refers to as “furniture, funk and fun.”
“We’re humble people, not fancy — we drive old cars,” said Sara.
“But we’re very happy here. We’re very family and community oriented. No doubt about it, I’m in it for the people.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.