Philippe Gris and Neil Rogers knew nothing about owning a restaurant when they opened Cafe Bizou five and a half years ago.

They didn't know how to get financing or obtain permits, let alone how to run a business. Neither had ever owned his own company before.

What they did know was that the restaurant they were working in Rogers as chef, Gris as maitre d' was going downhill fast, and if they didn't find another alternative, they'd be on the next plane back to their respective homelands.

"It was a do or die situation," Rogers said.

Today the wait for reservations at their Sherman Oaks restaurant can be as long as five weeks for prime dining time on Saturday night. Gris and Rogers have opened a second restaurant in Pasadena and a third is set to open in Santa Monica this summer.

Cafe Bizou, with its formula of large portions of California-French dishes at prices well under what similar restaurants charge, has climbed to the No. 2 spot in the Zagat Survey of L.A.'s most popular restaurants, making it runner-up to the pricey and elegant Patina while besting Spago Beverly Hills.

"That's a pretty classy neighborhood for what's basically a small, neighborhood restaurant," said Merrill Shindler, a longtime L.A. restaurant critic and co-editor of Zagat. "They just do what they do well."

Charging it

Gris, who manages the restaurant, and Rogers, who is the chef, met while working at now shuttered Cafe Katsu in West L.A. Both were immigrants Gris packed up his belongings and moved from Paris in 1986 after spending three months here on vacation, and Rogers came over from Wales in 1988 as a foreign cuisine chef at Katsu.

When business started to slide at Cafe Katsu, all they had between them was a reservation book with the names and phone numbers of steady San Fernando Valley customers and about $5,000 in savings. When Gris noticed a "for rent" sign on a tiny coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard, he persuaded Rogers to join him in opening a restaurant.

"We bought everything on credit cards," Rogers said.

"And we made sure I used Visa, no American Express. We didn't know if we'd have the money to pay the rent at the end of the month," Gris added.

The restaurant opened with little fanfare and a clientele of about 40 regulars culled from the reservation book Gris kept as maitre d' of Katsu. But a little more than a month later, a tiny but positive item in the Los Angeles Times set the phones ringing, and within another month, lines were winding out the door of the tiny cafe.

"The neighbors hated us," said Rogers. "We were taking all the parking spaces. A woman who waited in line for 40 minutes came into the kitchen and said, 'I hope you go down in flames.'"

Angry residents called in complaints to nearly every city agency and inspectors began making regular visits to Cafe Bizou. The restaurant weathered the scrutiny for about six months until one night, enforcement officers from the state Alcohol and Beverage Control department paid a visit.

The coffee shop had no liquor license, and the partners thought they had solved the problem by allowing patrons to bring their own wine.

"These two officers came in and grabbed Philippe and said, 'What you're doing is completely illegal. We won't close you tonight, but if we come back tomorrow and there's wine on the table, we'll close you down,'" Rogers said.

Some patrons took to swigging cocktails in their cars between courses, but most just stopped coming. Gris and Rogers realized they would have to find another location.

Cafe Bizou, which seats about 155 people, was born a few blocks from its initial location. Although the restaurant now has a full liquor license, patrons can still bring their own wine for a $2 corkage fee. Along with its reputation for good food and low prices, the low corkage fee has helped to make Cafe Bizou so popular that on weekend nights, tables can turn over as many as four times, twice as often as the turnover at many other establishments.

"This business was designed to be busy," said Rogers. "It's designed on volume. We're in big trouble if we're slow."

Opening new locations

Gris and Rogers developed their formula from their experience at Cafe Katsu. When the owners there began offering 30 percent coupons, they drew far more customers, but the traffic had little effect on the bottom line.

Katsu's overhead couldn't support the reduced prices, but Gris and Rogers figured that if they could keep their costs down and settle for lower profits, they could offer bargain prices that would attract large numbers of customers.

"We want to make sure people feel they can come here on whatever night, not just for a special occasion," Gris added.

Cafe Bizou, a name derived from the French "bisou" meaning kiss, serves such entrees as lobster in sauce served over handmade pasta, snow peas, tomatoes and mushrooms, for $18.95. The restaurant's most popular dish, sesame salmon sauteed in red wine burgundy sauce with potato pancakes and wild mushrooms, is priced at $13.95.

"It's OK if we make enough to pay the rent and send the kids to school," said Gris. "If you're in this business, you don't do it for the money."

About six months ago, Cafe Bizou opened its second location in Old Pasadena and in July, the company will open in the Water Garden in Santa Monica.

The partners are also toying with the idea of a fourth location in Thousand Oaks, but for now they say they just want to get through the Santa Monica opening.

Both Gris and Rogers still play a hands-on role, with Gris managing the dining room and Rogers cooking. "If I need a cook one day, I have to go behind the line and cook. That's the cook's job," said Rogers. "The dishwasher was down one day and I was hand-washing dishes with the guys. As restaurant owners, we're also restaurant workers."

Added Gris, "With the hours we spend here, we don't do that for the money. We do it because we love it."

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