WORDS: Brenna Swanston               PHOTOS: Maggie Kaiserman
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Jen and Brandon Manuele settle into two wooden chairs at the corner of a small table, squished against the wall of a coffee shop that’s bursting at the seams with noisy, caffeine-starved customers. Brandon bounces their baby daughter, Frances, on his knee while she bangs a ring of keys on the table, adding to the café’s happy clamor.

Sally Loo’s Wholesome Cafe is filled with personality. Artful menus — hand-scripted meal names sprawled on sheets of butcher paper — hang from walls coated with Tiffany-blue paint and local artists’ work. Customers crowd the coffee shop, escaping the foggy spring morning with coffee and warm sandwiches.

Even amidst the hustle and bustle — proof of the couple’s success with its home-grown business — Jen and Brandon take on absolute modesty.

“We took a chance on it and didn’t really know what we were doing,” Jen said about opening Sally Loo’s in 2009. “We never really thought we would be busy. We just kind of thought we’d make some good food, serve some good coffee and do that. But it’s kind of grown.”

Next week marks five years since the Manueles opened the doors to the cafe, leaving behind their photography careers and taking on a brand new endeavor.

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Planting seeds

Before the spring of 2009, the Manueles family included Jen, Brandon and their pit bull, Sally Loo. The couple worked together in portrait photography, but often dreamed of reinventing their work life, and the idea of opening a restaurant would sometimes come up.

Brandon reminisced about their old tradition of weekend breakfasts: “Sunday morning, we would want to go out and have a nice breakfast and feel really good about the ingredients the restaurant was using,” he said. “And there wasn’t a lot of options for that.”

He and Jen theorized that if they owned a restaurant, they would use the best available quality of locally grown ingredients.

“Not very seriously, we would just talk about the dream,” he said, “without really any real plan of making it happen.”

But then, it did.

The Manueles lived next door to the owner of Café Luna, which occupied Sally Loo’s’ current location. The owner eventually decided to sell the place, and though Jen and Brandon mulled over the idea of using the space for their restaurant pipe dream, they eventually decided they were too busy.

“Someone else ended up taking over the coffee shop,” Jen said, but the buyer got cold feet and closed the doors the following day. “Then we were like, ‘Crap. We kind of have to revisit this.’”

Jen and Brandon bought the building. They gave it a couple months’ worth of decoration, planning and elbow grease, then launched Sally Loo’s in early June.

While one door opened, another closed: The Manueles gave up photography and never looked back.

“We have found that we really like customer service,” Jen said. “It’s a different style of business, owning a restaurant, and we like it better than we did being photographers.”

She shrugged, and summed it up simply: “This fits us better.”

Sally Loo’s began by serving coffee and baked goods. Its small kitchen held only a couple refrigerators and one preparation table.

“I remember the first day, opening the door and looking at Brandon and saying, ‘Okay, so they’ll just come?’” Jen recalled.

And the customers came.

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Not just coffee

Every part of Sally Loo’s — from hand-crafted mosaics near the register to menu items named after famous pit bulls — represents a part of the Manueles family. But the café’s social atmosphere is perhaps the best reflection of Jen and Brandon.

“It’s a collaboration of Jen and myself,” Brandon said. “We definitely wanted it to be a space for interaction, like what’s going on now.”

He gestured to the surrounding customers — some clustered around tables in intimate conversation, others laughing loudly over acai bowls and still others standing impatiently, food in hand, waiting for a seat to open up.

“That’s the most important thing,” Brandon continued. “That it provided a space for community, for rubbing shoulders.”

Jen fell in love with coffee shops years earlier, while working at The Ugly Mug in Santa Cruz.

“My boss called it ‘the third space,’” she said. “It’s not your home, it’s not your work; it’s the third space, and that’s your third space place: in coffee shops.”

There, people are free to unwind, relax and be themselves, Jen said.

“That’s pivotal in what we try to do at Sally’s,” she said.

The “third space” concept has materialized at Sally Loo’s, leaking into every customer and menu item, inviting comfort and conversation. Even after five years, this accomplishment still warms the Manueles’ hearts, Jen said.

“I think it’s really cool to see people come here,” she said. “It’s an honor that they want to come and eat our food and hang out here.”

The Manueles love their produce providers, as well. Since Sally Loo’s opened, Brandon has spent his Saturdays scoping out local farmers’ markets, buying ingredients and befriending the farmers who sell them.

Jen said her and Brandon’s relationships with farmers are more than business — they are friendships.

“Knowing when their crops don’t make it, or going out to dinner with one of our farmers — it’s more than just buying food,” she said.

Having recently moved onto a two-acre property with chickens and berry bushes, the Manueles hope to start placing some of their own ingredients on the table at Sally Loo’s.

“That aspect I’m really excited about,” Brandon said. “Becoming one of those farmers.”

As for their employees, the Manueles don’t even like using the word “employees” to refer to them. They call them the “Loo Crew,” or even their family.

“You become close with your coworkers,” Jen said. “Sometimes you end up seeing them more than your actual family members, and sometimes more than your friends. So with that said, we hire people we love. We end up operating like a family. We love each other.”

Emily Mayfield has worked at Sally Loo’s since before it opened — when she told the Manueles they needed her help, she said.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Mayfield said. “I’ve grown a lot and learned to accept change and growth more. I roll with the punches better than I used to. I feel like it’s really matured me.”

Mayfield credits much of this growth to the natural evolution of Sally Loo’s as a small business. The café underwent countless changes during its first few years, teaching her to let go of old rituals and embrace whatever is in front of her.

More than Sally Loo’s itself, however, the Manueles have impacted Mayfield on a personal level.

“I feel like they really just changed my life entirely,” she said. “I didn’t know who I wanted to be or what I wanted to be, then they took me under their wing. They showed me a whole new side of business I never knew.”

By observing Jen and Brandon’s relationships with their coworkers and each other, Mayfield said she has learned more than just business tactics.

“They’ve taught me how to love,” she said. “I’d say that’s really what they’ve taught me the most of.”

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A family affair

The Manueles left the bustling restaurant space for a few moments to step out to their car, where their two pit bulls, Hank and Sally Loo, waited patiently for attention.

More than 11 years ago, Brandon found Sally Loo in a parking lot, abandoned at only a few weeks old. Brandon rescued her, nursed her to health and raised her. She was not only his business’ muse and namesake, but a family member.

Brandon and Jen wed in October 2004. Since then, their family has added Hank and, most recently, Frances, who grinned as she watched her dogs bound from the car.

“She definitely changes my life entirely,” Jen said of her daughter. “My new motto is ‘Twice as fun, but half as efficient.’”

Frances will grow up in Sally Loo’s, Jen said. She already plays a role by helping Jen take compost out to the chickens every morning.

“She’s going to be a part of it,” Jen said. “She’s going to be a restaurant kid, I think. She’ll do her part and hand out menus or whatever as she gets older.”

Sally Loo’s is unmistakably the product of creative minds — sleepless nights spent crafting decorations and years of casual dreams becoming more serious. But most of all, it is the product — and extension — of a loving family that enjoys serving guests.

“We made the space,” Brandon said. “We provided the coffee and the food, and people come here. That’s pretty magical for us.”

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