The Christian thing

Young entrepreneur spins hard work into Chico restaurant success story

If it weren’t for his fresh-from-the-kitchen chef’s garb, Christian Steinbach could easily be mistaken for a good-looking Chico frat boy. With perfect hair and a trace of 5 o’clock shadow, he looks even younger than his 32 years.

“They always say, ‘You’re too young to be the owner,'” acknowledges Steinbach, who in reality is a 20-year veteran of the restaurant business.

He is one of Chico’s most successful young entrepreneurs, having built two popular restaurants here: Christian Michaels Ristorante in downtown Chico and California Pasta Productions across town near East and Cohasset. He also owns Pacific Pasta Productions in San Ramon.

By April, Christian Michaels will expand to the neighboring storefront on Wall Street to meet Chico’s hunger for more.

“I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do,” says Steinbach, who at 12 started training with a professional chef. He washed dishes at a family friend’s restaurant and before long was doing prep work and talking to guests at their tables.

“I had a French teacher teach me how to bake a pie, and that was it,” Steinbach says. He was hooked.

By 18, he was managing a restaurant, and at age 22, tiring of opening businesses for other people, the Danville native heeded the pleas of friends in Chico to come to town. His first project was consulting on Franky’s Italian menu. A couple of years later, life savings in hand, he secured a small-business loan from Tri Counties Bank and unveiled California Pasta Productions. A couple of years later came Christian Michaels, a consistently packed restaurant featuring what he calls Mediterranean California cuisine.

While confident, Steinbach knows he doesn’t fit many people’s mold of a thriving businessman. “I never excelled very well in school,” he says, “but for some reason I always understood that I could key in on the business side.” A few continuing-education classes on employment law and accounting form the extent of his post-high-school education.

Currently between chefs, Steinbach is pulling double duty. He cooks at Christian Michaels during the day and then heads to his other restaurant, where they turn out 180 dinners a night. In between, he’s keeping an eye on the construction.

COOKING IT UP Christian Steinbach said one of his favorite parts of owning restaurants is planning the menu selections. At Christian Michaels, diners see about five menus each year.

Photo by Tom Angel

He has signed a long-term lease on the property at Wall and East Third streets, a former hair salon. The nail pounding goes on between meals.

The project will move the restaurant’s main entrance to Wall Street, creating a larger bar and lounge area along with a banquet room. The architectural design is subtler than its predecessor’s: fewer pillars. There will be street-level windows that slide all the way open to look out on Wall Street. Steinbach says that, as it stands now, just a few groups of people stopping by overflows the bar.

He’s hoping to capture the late-night crowd who might enjoy a glass of port or Grand Marnier along with a slice of chocolate cake. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Steinbach says, Christian Michaels is going to “push the limits of serving food later” in a town where everything seems to shut down at 9 p.m.

The addition of a three-piece jazz or blues band should add to an ambiance that Steinbach hopes would make even the most casually dressed feel welcome—even with the linen tablecloths.

At last count, Steinbach had 67 employees. That’s rewarding, he says, but “it’s also scary in that they rely on me to put food on their table for their families or get through school.”

It’s his own family ties that have helped him keep tabs on his San Ramon restaurant, which he bought out and turned into “an exact duplicate of California Pasta Productions.” While in high school, each of his three brothers worked there. Then, as they come to college at Chico State, he pays their tuition and they work in the restaurants.

“I’m on my last little brother,” he laughs. “He’s at Chico State, and I’ve got him for three more years.” Steinbach typically travels to San Ramon once a week, but if that restaurant needs extra attention, he relocates down there for three months or so and returns to Chico twice a week.

He likes to offer his workers challenges: Make a delicious soup of leftovers, for example, or help plan a seasonal menu or match wines. Or he’ll tell them, “We need a new chicken dish for the winter. It has to be hearty.”

“The restaurant business is run on pennies,” he explains, and Chico diners want larger portions but aren’t about to pay Bay Area prices, even though the ingredients are costing the owner the same. A $10 glass of wine is out of the question; at Christian Michaels, lunch can be had for less than $7.

“I think you choose a lifestyle, and this town is a little slower-paced and you can enjoy some of these things,” he says. Most restaurants fail, he said, because “they think it’s easy and it’s just going to come. … I have three booming restaurants, and it’s always a struggle. [I wonder] how do others survive with less traffic?”

As for Steinbach, he’s managed to fit a relationship into his seven-day workweek and became engaged last summer.

“I live off the adrenaline of being busy. My schedule’s been every day,” he says. “I have this love, but I have the other side I have to keep up with—so I have to find a happy medium. … That’s why I work so hard now, because I can’t work this hard and raise a family. These are my three babies for now, and they take a lot of attention.”