The man once dubbed “The Soup Ami” by local media said goodbye to his loyal customers for the last time at downtown’s La Bonne Soupe Café Friday as he retired from a restaurant career that spanned 55 years and two continents.
Daniel Pont, 72, said his retirement is bittersweet, since he loved operating his one-man shop on Eighth Street between I and J streets for the past six years. But he wants to spend time with his family.
“I will probably take the next week and just rest,” he said in the small café Friday afternoon while a handful of customers hung around, sharing wine and thanking him for good times. “No driving, no working – just swimming pool, eating and sleeping.”
He sold his business to a young couple, and he said much of it will remain the same, but he’s hanging onto his recipes.
“I advised them to keep the same concept because it works,” he said. “If I was 10 years younger, I would franchise (the business). I told them to make good food and be nice to the people, because without customers, you have no business.”
The Frenchman is originally from Lyon, and he came to the United States by way of Paris. He worked in Chicago before coming to California. He arrived in Sacramento six years ago.
His daughter and his grandchildren, 7-year-old Sofia and 5-year-old Benjamin, live in Folsom. Pont said he will continue living in the United States, close to them.
Despite the 12-hour days, five days a week that running the business required, Pont said leaving it is sad.
“I liked my customers very much, and I really enjoy what I do,” he said. “But I can’t stop the clock. When you get older, even if your mind is focused, your body can’t always keep up.”
Pont said that when he started the business, he had no idea how much work it would take, and he described it as the hardest job he’s ever had, but one he’s thoroughly enjoyed.
The announcement that he was retiring wasn’t a grand affair – just a simple sign on the door, signed, “Le Chef.”
Some customers Friday afternoon did everything they could to snag one last sandwich.
“I waited an hour and a half in line, and it was worth it,” said Art Scotland, a retired presiding justice who still does some work on Capitol Mall. “It’s not only a great lunch – he’s a maestro of the food. It’s entertainment as well as a wonderful meal from a delightful host.”
Scotland said he went to the café for the last three days in a row for his favorite sandwiches, which included the brie and prosciutto, the lamb and the braised pork.
“And the soups were excellent too,” he added. “It’s extraordinarily good food, an interesting ambiance, and the French music in the background made it such a unique small little café.”
Another customer, Sacramentan Emily Perez, said she has been going to the café for two or three years.
“I’m heartbroken,” she said when she learned of Pont’s retirement, adding that she’ll miss the brie and apple sandwich.
“He always used good-quality ingredients. You can tell when it’s good quality versus when someone uses a lot of salt and sugar to make it taste good,” she said.
Perez added that she enjoyed watching the precision with which Pont prepared the food.
“You could tell he had really good training,” she said.
Pont said he will pass on his cooking skills to his grandchildren, whom he will teach in his own kitchen.
And it’s possible, he said, that he will make a return to the restaurant scene, but in a less-rigorous role.
“If I come back, I will be the owner and have a staff,” he said.
Sacramento artist Karen O’Haire brought Pont a special gift Friday afternoon – a painting of La Bonne Soupe Café.
“I painted that for a plein air (show) in 2009,” she said. “We had to pick our favorite places, and I stood across the street and painted it. He’s just wonderful. It’s a sad loss.”
When he received the painting, Pont smiled and said, “La Bonne Soupe will live forever now.”
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @brandon_darnell.