This week we interviewed Leslie Nishiyama, co-founder and co-owner of Picnic Rotisserie in Albany! At Picnic, customers can enjoy delicious take-home meals made with high quality, locally-sourced ingredients.
MAJ: How did you get into the restaurant business and start Picnic? How did you come up with the name for your restaurant?
Leslie: It's a super charming story! My next door neighbor, Susannah Schnick, and I first started talking and hanging out when we had our first children 6 months apart. Susannah had twin boys and I had my first daughter. At the time Susannah was working at Clove & Hoof in Oakland as a butcher and she had come from many years working in industry at beloved local restaurants including Cafe Rouge in Berkeley. She dreamed of having her own restaurant inspired by the hole-in-the-wall neighborhood chicken rotisseries in Spain. She was looking for a business partner who could help build the business and manage the financial aspects of the restaurant. At the time I was working for a lab in the Electrical Engineering department at UC Berkeley and my background had been administrative/financial/operations. I had worked at a tech start up in the early days and so I had experience setting up a business. I was (and still am) a passionate home-cook with a food blog who was dreaming of how to create a career around food. We took a leap of faith and started Picnic together in 2017 with the agreement that I would also be working in the kitchen and she would train me in butchery and sausage making, and she would also be responsible for administrative aspects of the business. So far, we've been a fantastic partnership and have become very good friends. The idea for naming the business Picnic was all Susannah's as her vision for the restaurant was a place to come and get healthy and delicious take away food (pretty amazing that she had this concept even before Covid!). Even today we say that what we have available at the shop is perfect food to get for a Picnic, and lots more. MAJ: What is it like being a small business owner in the East Bay? What are your challenges? What does a typical day look like? Leslie: It's incredible being a small business owner in the East Bay. There is so much support between business owners that we honestly were not expecting when we first opened. We have been lifted up by so many incredible folks and in turn we also like to feature many locally made products in our shop. The biggest challenge for us right now is that we opened in December 2020 during the first winter peak of Covid and we had a very slow opening. We opened just one day a week to begin, online orders only. Now we are open 5 days a week with no pre-ordering at all. I think the timing and circumstance of our opening kept us a little more of a secret to begin with. Now more folks know we're there but we'd still like to reach more of the community. We have plans to participate in more community events in the future, so stay tuned! A typical day for us starts with bringing our kids to school, getting to the restaurant and starting prep for the day of salads, sandwiches, and putting chickens on the rotisserie. We spend the afternoon prepping for the next day, pick up our kids from their after school programs, and head home to have dinner with our families. MAJ: Are you native to Albany? What is your favorite part about living in the East Bay? Leslie: Susannah and I are both native to Berkeley & Albany and we really love the East Bay. Having grown up here, we know all the wonderful things this area has to offer including the great food scene, access to so much beautiful nature while still having the perks of city living, and the wonderful folks who live in this area. During Covid we're especially grateful to live in an area where most people have been so considerate of others in terms of masking and getting vaccinated! Also from a chef perspective, people here really care about their food. Especially since we're a meat heavy business, it's great that people really look for quality in the products they consume such as the farm the animals come from and the way they have been raised. It's how we also like to feed our own families so it's great to be able to offer that to our community. MAJ: How do you balance running a business while raising small children? Leslie: Susannah and I have always agreed that our families 100% come first before our business. We're both raising young kids and there are inevitably days that we need to take off because someone is home sick or vacations we need to take because spending time with our partners and children is top priority. We built our entire business around this concept which is why when we first opened and didn't have any employees yet we closed a lot earlier than we should have, because it's important for us to be home at dinner for our kids. We're incredibly lucky to now have truly amazing staff who keep the business running when we're not there so we can be open for the community later hours and more days. MAJ: Do you ever plan on expanding and opening more locations? Leslie: We currently don't have any dreams for more locations for Picnic. We're still growing the current location to its full potential. There's still lots more we'd like to be doing in that space.
MAJ: What is your inspiration for your menu items? What are your top favorites/bestsellers at Picnic?
Leslie: Our inspiration for our menu is always seasonal. Each week we have rotating salads where you'll always find fresh and in-season produce being used in creative ways. Each week new fruits and vegetables become available and we use that to build the menus each week. The favorites at Picnic would have to be our Saturday porchetta that cooks on the rotisserie and the skin gets super crispy, our rotisserie chickens which go great with our chicken schmaltz roasted potatoes & sauces, and our daily sandwiches are always a big hit! From our deli case people really love our chicken liver mousse that won a Good Food award in 2019 and our Chicken Tikka Masala sausage. When it comes to sausage we make a lot of creative flavors you won't find at other shops and whatever is the newest experiment is usually the best seller that week.