Act II for the Santa Cruz Food Lounge: Popular pop-up hub now in 11th Hour’s hands
With founder Andrea Mollenauer choosing to focus on teaching, she has turned to the brothers behind 11th Hour Coffee to take over the downtown commercial kitchen and event space — and Joel and Brayden Estby have big plans.
When the Santa Cruz Food Lounge opened in 2015, word spread quickly among my friends. Pop-ups were still a new thing but were quickly becoming all the rage. We were all in our 20s and mostly broke, which meant the majority of restaurants in Santa Cruz weren’t affordable for us. Not only were pop-ups less expensive, their ephemeral nature and adventurous, always-changing menus made them exciting. And you had to find them.
Because the Food Lounge offered both a commercial kitchen space to rent and an event space to serve, it immediately became the epicenter for pop-ups and the home base for a new wave of creative minds in the Santa Cruz food scene.
I remember attending Mortal Dumpling’s weekly pop-ups, maybe skipping out of work a few minutes early so I could snag a good place in line. I’d watch steam billow out of bamboo steamer baskets, revealing pillowy bao dumplings, a food that was brand new to me at the time.
Since then, every time I’ve been to an event at the Food Lounge, I’ve experienced something new, exciting and delicious.
Seven years after establishing the Santa Cruz Food Lounge and building it into a community hub of food, art and entertainment, founder Andrea Mollenauer has decided to step down to focus on other projects. She has signed over management of the downtown space to her former tenants Joel and Brayden Estby, owners of 11th Hour Coffee. The transition became official Jan. 1.
In addition to running the Food Lounge, Mollenauer also owns a catering company, Lifestyle Culinary Arts, and is a passionate educator. For the past 16 years, she has instructed high school students about careers in the culinary arts through the Santa Cruz County Career Technical Education Partnership, and two years ago she became a full-time member of the culinary faculty at Cabrillo College.
If that sounds like a lot, Mollenauer agrees that it is:
“I’m really excited for the renewed energy that I think these guys are going to bring to the space, because I didn’t know if I was still doing it justice every day of every week. I love what I do, but I do about five things, and I felt that there were some areas where I wanted to be giving more of my time.”
11th Hour Coffee began vending at farmers markets in 2017, and established its roastery and flagship coffee shop at the Food Lounge in 2018. Since then, the coffee shop has expanded its footprint both inside and outside the Food Lounge. Last year, the Estbys opened a second location, in the Swift Street Courtyard on the Westside of Santa Cruz in what was formerly Kelly’s French Bakery.
The idea to pass the torch to the Estby brothers has been brewing for some time, says Mollenauer. “What I saw in those guys was the energy I knew was needed to put on the right types of events and manage the community,” says Mollenauer. Over the years, the brothers have been enthusiastic about making use of the space for events like live music and comedy, and about staffing the bar more regularly. “So it kind of sparked this little light bulb in me like, ‘Oh, I wonder if ever I was ready to not be the sole owner here anymore if they’d be interested.’”
When Mollenauer created the Santa Cruz Food Lounge in 2015, she envisioned a community hub, a place where people could gather to enjoy food, music and ideas. It was a big space to fill — the 5,000-square-foot building on Center Street in downtown Santa Cruz, which at one time was the original home of restaurant India Joze, boasts a commercial kitchen, dining room, bar, patio and a storefront. Rather than hold a single restaurant, she saw potential for a multiuse space, where small food businesses could use the kitchen and hold events in the dining room.
It turned out to be just what the food community needed. Over the past seven years, dozens of small food businesses have passed through the commercial kitchen. Working closely within the same kitchen allowed these creative minds to share ideas and collaborate. Some of Mollenauer’s past tenants, like Kickin Chicken, Lionfish and Drunk Monkeys, went on to establish their own brick-and-mortar outposts.
The space has also held countless art and live music events, celebrating makers of all kinds from throughout Santa Cruz County.
“It’s not always the same people here, and visitors experience different things every time they come in,” says Mollenauer.
Brayden Estby says that the idea of taking over management of the Food Lounge didn’t appeal to him and his brother at first. But as their own business operations became more established, they became increasingly energized by the possibility. “As we talked more, I just felt like it could be awesome,” he says. “I’m definitely passionate about it continuing and continuing to grow and flourish as a Santa Cruz hub.”
Estby says they plan to continue operating the Food Lounge in much the same way Mollenauer did. The biggest change will be to remodel the bar and open it for regular hours under the name After Hours. The full cocktail, beer and wine list will feature local distilleries, breweries, cideries and wineries. Estby says some of the kitchen tenants may offer special bar snacks, such as fresh-shucked oysters and tacos from La Marea of the Sea, although the details are still being worked out.
They also plan to invest in new infrastructure for the kitchen. Says Estby, “God knows it’s been through the wringer the past few years.”
Andy Huynh’s pop-up, Full Steam Dumpling, has rented the kitchen at the Food Lounge since 2019, and in the past few years its weekly Szechuan Night and Ramen Nights have become hugely popular. Huynh is excited about the Estbys taking over management. “I think they’re gonna do a great job,” he says. “At first, I was a little nervous because I knew what it would take to take over the lease. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s a huge responsibility. And I trust Andrea’s vision. I think that it’s gonna be a blast.”
For now, Mollenaur, who lives in the neighborhood, says she’s not going far and will still be a frequent visitor. While she is emotional about the change, she mostly feels excited about the Food Lounge’s next phase of life. “The space wasn’t always about me,” she says. “It was really about who’s doing cool things behind the scenes, who’s doing cool pop-ups and who’s bringing good energy.”
More information at santacruzfoodlounge.com.
Lily Belli On Food
Lily has you covered on all things Santa Cruz County food. Click here to sign up for her newsletter!