Ones to Watch | BY LYNNE MILLER
In Sweden, Barbara Ripani and her husband, Anders Ekbladh, discovered a popular chain of quick-service restaurants that specialize in hearty oven-roasted potatoes stuffed with all sorts of fillings. The couple always made a point of dining at the “baked potato place,” as Ripani calls it, whenever they traveled to Sweden, where Ekbladh, who is Swedish, has family.
At home in the Washington, D.C. area, Ripani and Ekbladh decided to translate “potatis” into “potatoes.” The Swedish franchise they loved served as a model for Potato Valley Café, a casual lunch spot the couple launched in 1994 in the heart of the historic district in Annapolis, Maryland. The restaurant’s signature cuisine consists of crispy, oven-roasted Idaho potatoes filled with a variety of meat and vegetable blends and topped with imported Danish roasted onions.
Intended to be a complete meal in itself, the gourmet potatoes are influenced by American, Latin, and Caribbean cuisines. The Cuban Chicken Potato and vegetarian combos are the most popular among the spuds, Ripani says.
The Chicken Curry Mix potato features sweet curried chicken, chunks of pineapple, and vegetables. The Ham and Cheddar potato is seasoned with bleu cheese dressing. The Artichoke Mix includes no meat, but instead is topped with artichokes, mild green chiles, and low-fat cottage cheese.
Customers who want something other than potatoes can choose from among a handful of sandwiches and salads. Sandwich fillers include turkey, bacon, havarti, marinated grilled chicken breast, and turkey pastrami. Salad lovers can order a plate of greens with Cuban chicken as well as lighter options that don’t include meat. Soups are offered in the fall and winter.
The average check is $7.50 at the Annapolis store and $8.50 at the store in D.C.
As far as Ripani’s concerned, Potato Valley Café has no direct competition because its signature cuisine is so unusual.
“It’s much quicker and much, much better than just having a sandwich,” she says. “You’re having a whole meal in a potato. In a sandwich, you don’t get that.”
While the one-of-a-kind menu sets Potato Valley apart from other quick-serves, the idea of a potato as an entrée also requires an explanation that wouldn’t be necessary at a sandwich concept. Getting customers to understand the concept has been challenging, especially since some people still remember the baked potato bars that sprang up in a handful of chains and casual restaurants in the mid-to-late 1980s. According to Ripani, Potato Valley concept is nothing like those.
“It’s very different,” she says. “The perception is it’s a side order. When people get past that it’s not something with melted cheese and broccoli, it’s not a side order, then they really love it. It’s really a whole meal.”
Potato Valley relies on quality ingredients. Restaurant workers use chicken breasts instead of pressed chicken. Rather than bags of pre-cut vegetables, fruits and vegetables are chopped at the stores daily.
At all three locations, employees cater to out-of-town visitors and local office workers looking for a fast lunch they can take back to enjoy at their desks. While the restaurants offer limited seating, most diners place orders to go. Carry-out orders represent 80 percent of total sales, Ripani says.
Restaurants are decorated in a minimalist style with tile floors, faux stone walls, and a sienna brown and black color scheme. The 1,200-square-foot Annapolis store offers seating for 27. The Washington store, at 700 square feet, is attached to a condominium building and has 15 seats plus outdoor dining.
One customer moved to Las Vegas and opened a 2,400-square-foot Potato Valley Café franchise, with dining room seating for 40. Another franchise store is scheduled to open there later this year. There are plans to open a third store in the Washington, D.C. area sometime in the future.
A psychotherapist in private practice, Ripani left her comfort zone when she went into the restaurant business. While her husband used to work at his family’s bakery in Sweden, Ripani is a newcomer to foodservice. Nevertheless, she’s found it useful to have a background in the field of mental health. Every day, Ripani spends time talking to and observing the people who patronize the Anapolis restaurant. From those interactions, Ripani feels like she’s gotten to know her customers and has a good rapport with them.
“I feel like a social worker,” she says with a laugh.