As the owner and operator of the Sandusky restaurant The Lunch Box, Branco has more than a little insight regarding what keeps a culinary business running. She even has some solid advice for new chefs or aspiring restaurateurs.
“I never cooked as much as I did until I got here. Because everything is from scratch and I can pull anything together, just about, now,” she explained with a laugh. “Every time I make something I try to improve it a little bit until you get to the spot where it’s like ‘That’s it!’, then you’ve got it down. But it takes awhile until you get it to the point where you really like it.”
For Cindy, the crucial thing is remembering just what changes she made. She said she rarely writes down recipes to the teaspoon, preferring to memorize them. For many chefs, this seems to be standard. After all, there’s no time to refer back to recipes in the middle of work. And for Cindy, the work never ends.
“If you want to be in the restaurant business, you’d better be ready to be there all the time. Especially if you’re going to make everything (from scratch), because it never stops,” she advised. She said she spends much of her time when the restaurant is closed prepping for the next day.
Her best advice for aspiring chefs? Cook at home as much as you can when you’re young.
“When I’d be at home, I’d be always cooking something, always making something, always trying something different,” she said. “Get some experience. Work the hard jobs, or if you’re going to go to school, go to school for restaurants.”
Although her restaurant, The Lunch Box, is turning 10 in January, Cindy said she’s had an interest in cooking since she was a child.
“It started when I was young,” she recalled. “Johnny across the street, LaViola, and I used to cook all the time. He got me interested, so I started making cakes. Then from there, I didn’t do a lot at home (although) I used to help mom. Then I started to work at Cedar Point and I liked food service.”
She attended Ohio State. When she got out, she started working at the Brown Derby Roadhouse where she wanted to be a cook.
“That’s how I started to cook was in Brown Derby, talked to the chefs that worked there. I always liked to cook at home. I always did Thanksgiving dinners all the time, always helped out with those.”
Now, Cindy’s specializes mainly in home cooking, the sort of dishes you might get from your mother. According to her, it seems like few people make those good old-fashioned staples these days.
“Now it’s almost their grandmothers. It’s comfort food. A lot of comfort foods,” she said.
“We do a lot of the standard home-cooking meals, things that are popular in this area like city chicken.”
Johnny Marzetti, a pasta, meat and cheese casserole, meatloaf, beef stew and lasagna are also crowd favorites.
She said she likes to provide “things that you used to make at home that nobody makes at home anymore.”
“Meatloaf is standard. It amazes me, nobody makes meatloaf at home. It’s so easy to make and nobody makes it.”
Along with a change in home cooking recently, Cindy said she’s also seen changes over the years thanks to social media sites.
“You see a lot of stuff that you didn’t see,” she said. “It keeps you on your toes ... It’s not like the old days. If somebody didn’t like something, they just didn’t come back around. Now they’ll put it on social media. So you have to be on your toes, you can’t just let it go. It’s a good thing. It keeps people aware of what’s happening in their businesses.”
She said she likes to keep her menu updated, constantly improving on recipes and taking feedback into consideration. Of course, there are few things better than getting good feedback from a happy customer.
“It feels wonderful,” Cindy said with a bright laugh. “It makes you glow. You go around and talk to the people, and they’ll tell you how much they like the stuff, but it’s nice to see, too, on social media you see a lot of stuff now that you didn’t see (before).”
Cindy can be found in her restaurant most days, located at 154 Columbus Avenue in Sandusky. It’s open for breakfast and lunch every day, and dinner as well on Friday and Saturday.
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Here is a recipe straight from Cindy’s Branco kitchen.
Beef Vegetable Soup
1 can diced tomato
1 small head of cabbage (diced)
1 red potato (diced)
Frozen pea pods
Frozen green beans
Fresh broccoli (chopped)
Fresh cauliflower (chopped)
(Editor’s note: Number of vegetables may be measured according to personal taste. Recommended 6 to 8 carrots, 10 or 12 ounce bags of frozen peas and beans, and one head each of broccoli and cauliflower. This may be adjusted as needed.)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the chuck roast, seasoned with salt, pepper and onion powder to taste, in a pan covered with foil until tender. The time it takes to cook will depend on the weight of the meat (Editor’s note: Recommended 3 to 3 1/2 hours for a single 3 to 4 pound chuck roast). When the meat is done, shred the beef, let the juice cool and remove any fat.
Place the shredded beef and juice in a large pot. Add additional beef broth until pot is half full. Add diced tomato, small head of cabbage and cook until cabbage is tender.
Add potato, carrots and ketchup to taste. Cook until potatoes and carrots are tender. Add frozen vegetables, broccoli and cauliflower. Bring to a boil to finish.