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How Sunbliss Cafe Earned The #6 Spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat

Season 2: Episode 4


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Sunbliss Cafe in Anaheim, California, isn’t your typical coffee shop. With a focus on quality, local ingredients, it seeks to inspire customers to learn about and invest in their health. This popular spot is so beloved by customers it was awarded the #6 spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat. Hear from owner Tani Ahmed on how her Instagrammable space and welcoming staff make all customers, including reviewer Alyssa Mae L., feel comfortable and valued.

On the Yelp Blog: Educating customers on your mission is a proven way to earn loyalty. Read Tani’s three tips for revealing your value to your target audience.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. On Behind the Review I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur… and the reviewer… about the story and business lessons behind their interactions.

This week, we are excited to feature Sunbliss Cafe, which earned the number six spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat list. This year was the 10th anniversary of the list, where Yelp features most popular and highly rated restaurants, according to Yelp users. Let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.

ALYSSA MAE: I basically came to Sunbliss Cafe looking for somewhere to grab coffee. At the time I was coming from Temecula on my way to Disneyland, and it was really early in the morning, and I needed a place along the way.

And it was nice because I was able to get a quick Yelp review in and look for what was close to me along the way. And that’s basically how I decided on a place. And it had pretty good reviews. I think they’re currently still at five stars, so I found it and was like, this is where I have to go.

EMILY: That’s Alyssa Mae, telling us how she stumbled upon Sunbliss Cafe in Anaheim, California, before it even earned its spot on Yelp’s Top 100 list. As its name suggests, Sunbliss is a sunny little spot for smoothies, acai bowls, avocado toast, and unique coffee and tea drinks. Let’s hear Alyssa Mae’s full review of Sunbliss.

ALYSSA MAE: Needed a caffeine pick me up on the way to Disney, and this was a much needed stop along the 91, located in the same complex as Ralph’s off the wire canyon exit. This place wasn’t hard to find, nor was parking difficult. The inside is a bit small with only seating along the window and two tables outside.

This may not be the best place to get work/studying done. Didn’t notice any outlets either. Food and drink wise their menu was plentiful. There were so many options I wanted to try, but I settled for the banana bread latte from their holiday menu since it was something I’ve never seen before.

Because I was so sleepy I also opted for an extra shot. It was amazing. The flavor was so on point and tasted just like banana bread. Because of the extra shot, it was more on the espresso tasting side, but I can imagine it being more toned down had I not gotten the extra shot. Nonetheless, I loved it. I came with three other friends who ordered the mystic matcha mac nut latte, and one of their smoothies, I can’t remember which one. All tasted great, especially the matcha, which was combined with lavender and bee pollen, which was a combination I’ve never tasted.

Service was also sweet and accommodating. I’m definitely making a stop again if I’m ever driving down to 91 to try their creative lattes and acai bowls.

EMILY: What a great, detailed review! And I definitely relate to needing that extra shot of caffeine!

When opening Sunbliss, owner (Say Tanya) Ahmed had no prior restaurant experience, leading her to Google many of her business questions. Let’s hear more from Tani about the beginnings of Sunbliss.

TANI: I’ve actually only worked one restaurant job my entire life, and it was when I was 15 at Denny’s. I was a hostess. So I had always worked in really cool corporations. But most recently I had left a very large beverage company where I did a lot of work with distribution and I met some wonderful restaurateurs that I looked up to that owned mini chains, places with 20 to 30, 40 locations, and they ended up being friends. So I left my corporate job, I took the jump. I learned how to open a restaurant from YouTube.

I mean, how many times can you honestly call your restaurant friends? You can’t call them for every little thing.  So I made sure I pick and choose the right questions to ask a human versus finding the answers on YouTube.

I’m from Chino, so that’s 20 minutes from Anaheim Hills, so that’s why I’m familiar with the area.  Anaheim Hills people are smart. They’re cool, they’re educated. It’s a very strong community.  And honestly, I had been looking for a location while I had my job for about a year. I had contemplated it for a few years, and I feel like I have entrepreneurial blood. It’s in me and it’s something special that you have to have that, it’s like a sick drive of persistence. And if you don’t have that, then you shouldn’t do any of this. You work really hard, you earn, save money and then learn the new skills to do this and get the job done. It’s like jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down.

EMILY: While Sunbliss has grown so much before making its way on the Top 100 list, the beginning was tough for Tani. Sunbliss was originally supposed to open the week the lockdown for Covid began. This encouraged Tani to rethink the store’s menu when she was finally able to open months later.

TANI: It’s wild cuz we were actually supposed to open the week of lockdown in March. I remember sitting on our cold cement floor thinking, um, yeah, that’s not gonna happen, but what can I do in this down period while we wait for the Health Department and everybody to still come back around and do the final inspection?

So I sat there and thought, what else can we do to add the menu to get more people to come? Initially we were supposed to be just juice acai smoothies, more cold product.  I love coffee and tea and I thought, why not incorporate it? So I spent the next three months learning everything I could possibly learn about coffee development and creating like a whole program around it. And being that coffee obviously is the number one drug in the whole country and something that I also love. And tea I took the time to incorporate that into the menu during that down period.

EMILY: When creating the new and improved menu for Sunbliss, Tani brought a unique spin to all of her coffee drinks. Instead of a typical mocha or latte, the menu is filled with Insta-worthy, flavorful drinks like the “Cloudy Coconut” cold brew topped with sweet blue foam. Tani is always innovating the menu and adding special drinks, like the holiday menu that Alyssa Mae ordered from.

ALYSSA MAE: I’m a hundred percent for trying new things. I really love when specifically coffee shops don’t just have the generic like latte, cappuccino, macchiato. So I feel like in general I find myself gravitating towards places that have like unique sort of flavors, drinks that I’m able to try.

That’s what ultimately led me to order something off the holiday menu since I think it was around the Christmas time that I was there. It makes the experience a little more exciting and it makes me more inclined to go back cuz you know, I wanna try these things again or try something else based off of my experience with what I’d originally ordered.

EMILY: In creating Sunbliss’s menu, Tani also wanted to give customers a glimpse into her cultural background and bring back foods she grew up with.

TANI: I really think that everything has a story. For me I think that’s maybe how I was brought up. Everything is a beautiful story and I am so sentimental and attach everything to something. I think it’s important for people to know where you come from, what you’ve loved, why you think it’s special, and why you wanna give that to someone else.

So here’s a really good example. So chai, which you’re familiar with. Chai is pretty important to our culture. It’s like a way you welcome new guests into your home. It’s warming, it’s really sweet, it’s polite and it’s welcoming if anything. And what we do at Sunbliss is we offer chai with a very special cookie and in our culture, this cookie is something that you eat with your chai and you dunk and dip and enjoy it.

And my whole life, people know this though, at Sunbliss and I made sure it’s on all of our stories. It’s my whole life, my grandma gave me that chai. It’s called Parlayang. And it’s a special little cookie with this chunky monkey kid on it. And she just gave that to me every single day with my chai. Left it out with on the table. I went to school with it almost every morning. And what we do at Sunbliss is we include the cookie with the chai and we just basically want everyone to feel as loved and special as I felt growing up as my grandma made me feel.

EMILY: Besides the unique flavor combinations, what makes Sunbliss’s food and drinks so special is the natural, high-quality ingredients used by the store. All sauces and syrups — and even the almond milk — are made in-house from locally sourced ingredients.

TANI: From the start, we already have good quality products, so there isn’t really much you can mess up. We already use locally baked bread that’s made for us every week. So can’t mess up there. We use fresh ingredients, fresh real fruits and vegetables. There’s no additives, there’s no high fructose corn syrup even in the building, so that’s cool. Fresh is good and people can tell what’s good and they’ll pay for good. So there you go with that good quality.

Our sauces and syrups, we’re so busy that we have to constantly be making things so everything’s fresh. So nothing’s really sat over for even a week. It’s barely a day.  Our acai is zero grams of sugar. It’s a hundred percent real. It comes from Brazil from the Amazon, and we don’t use any type of sorbet or ice cream. It’s not loaded with anything besides real fruits, so we’re really proud of it.

We use local honey for Anaheim. We make our own peanut butter. We make our own everything pretty much. I guess like with all of that together is just like a secret success, like all of that together is just equals good success and returning customers is good ROI.

EMILY: Good ROI – or return on investment. This is important! However, a challenge to using these high-quality products is figuring out pricing. Because the ingredients are more expensive, the products have to be sold at a premium. Tani said it all comes down to good marketing to sell the product to customers who are skeptical of the higher prices.

TANI: We do educational based marketing. So if you go on our Instagram or you see every once a week or twice a week on our stories, even in our feed, you’ll see something that says, did you know? Whether it’s in a caption or it’s on a story. Did you know the blue’s source from this type of flower? Did you know that our matcha is ceremonial?  People know that translates to good quality.

People spend $9.50 on a juice, and you know what’s funny is that people don’t really see how important it is that you should probably spend more on your health. The only type of complaints I’ve heard are $9.50 like, they’ll hesitate to buy a juice for $9.50, but they won’t hesitate to buy a $20 drink like a cocktail. 9.50, it’s not too bad, but I mean, it goes a long way. You’re adding good nutrients and good bacteria to your body and none of it’s pasteurized and whatnot.

EMILY: This educational based marketing is such a smart idea! It’s a great way to bring customers to your social media organically and drive them to your store or restaurant.

Another way Sunbliss stands out with its visual storytelling is its Instagrammable interior. Walk into Sunbliss and you’ll see a colorful flower wall, bright signs with catchy phrases, and plants all around.

TANI: I think I learned this at FIDM where a certain color palette attracts a feeling and I think that’s why we have that bright yellow, because yellow to me translates to happiness. So a lot of the color theme that you’ll see are like bright yellows and bright blues and cool calming, but fun. That’s what our name describes us as. We bring like that shine to the community, that happiness.

So really it’s marketing. That garden wall, it also plays along with all of that, just ties in. It’s all very earthy. The greenery from the garden, the blue for the sky, the yellow is like that bright sun.

EMILY: This beautiful interior helped draw Alyssa Mae into Sunbliss when she saw it online. But what made her experience the most memorable was the personal customer service she received and how welcome the staff made her feel.

ALYSSA MAE: They had such an overwhelming menu, but not overwhelming in a bad way. There’s just so many options, so many things to choose from. And I think the service here, really gave me the patience when navigating. And I was also with a group. We were all just standing there like, Hmm, what should we get? And it was early in the morning and I know getting into a group of a morning shift is a lot too, and you just wanna just get through everything. So it was nice to receive that sort of patience, but also get some guiding points on like, this is good and this is good.

And just feeling overall welcomed in this space. I definitely think that service can really, I wouldn’t say make or break because I would say the food is definitely what makes or breaks a place, but the more welcomed you feel in a restaurant or a cafe or wherever you’re leaving a review for, I think the more inclined you are to really see the business for the owner who’s there and who works there and you’re able to speak more to, you know what that restaurant or business establishment really stands for. And in a way it could also make your experience more enjoyable so that you come back.

EMILY: Besides providing the freshest, highest quality products, Sunbliss’s other most important value is customer service. To ensure customers like Alyssa Mae feel welcome, Tani established customer service guidelines all staff members need to follow.

TANI: When people come in, most of the time it’s daytime and it’s their morning. We’re usually their first face that we see throughout the day and we always remind our employees that you are their first impression. They wake up in the morning and they come to us. That’s a long lasting experience. That’s all you have to do. A single good morning or hello.

I love that when Chick-Fil-A does ‘my pleasure.’ Well, for us at the register we always say, ‘nice to meet you.’ When we take the order, we got their name. We always say, how nice to meet you. I think a little bit goes a long way.

We have a big customer service guideline and it’s pretty much every experience that I’ve enjoyed at huge corporations written down. So we make everybody read it, understand it, and then at the end of the day, all of that starts at the top, right? If I’m not delivering or leading by example, then the rest of the staff isn’t.

EMILY: When managing a small business or restaurant, it is important to hire the right people so that your small team operates smoothly and has a strong culture. Tani emphasizes the importance of staff management and creating a collaborative team spirit, which comes across in customer interactions.

TANI: I firmly believe this. Do what you’re good at, and if you’re not good at that, get someone else to help you with it because I promise you, any one of your employees might be better at it than you.

Sarah, our success manager, I feel like I’m like right-brained and everything she does is very left-brained, and I swear just recently this week I walked in and I was, How did she, when did she, she reorganized and made things. I thought things were already efficient. She made them next level efficient. And same thing – our store manager, Kaylee, she has like this beautiful bright spirit around her and ways of totally persuading people to do something and it’s wild. The power some of these people have and like the smarts. It’s really cool. We’re really trying to continue to have a very uplifting girl boss spirit environment where it’s a can do environment.

EMILY: After being open for only a couple of years, Tani is proud of the strong relationships her staff has built with customers, which keeps them coming back.

TANI: We see the same people every single day. Our employees are the reason why we have that following. Yeah. They really are the reason why we have the same customers daily. They always do something special for them. And it’s kind of cute because some of these customers actually bring back gifts and like certain holidays for these employees. It’s really sweet. It really is heartwarming. I don’t wanna bring it down, but, you know, we all, we’re all human.

We experience bad days and anytime we have, all of us have – any time we have had come in with some sad news or just that bad day hovering over us, it feels like almost when you start your shift, everything just turns around because there’s always someone that you recognize or know that comes in and has that self lifting energy that rubs off on you, and I think it’s all just really contagious. It’s beautiful.

EMILY: For any small business, it is important to make new customers feel just as valued and welcomed as the regular customers you see every day. Although she was unfamiliar with the area, Alyssa Mae immediately felt a sense of community when she walked into Sunbliss.

ALYSSA MAE: I’m definitely someone who really, when I’m visiting a place, as someone who’s not from that area, I really wanna see what sort of unique to that spot or that area, am I able to experience even just for a little bit? And I think that’s what makes traveling and visiting a place so much more worthwhile. And I think that’s where I’m able to get little glimpses of an area. And that’s why local businesses and restaurants and cafes are so important because they allow for visitors to get a peek into that.

I think when I was there, it was pretty early in the morning, but it was nice to see that there was also people there. I remember there was this lady with a baby carriage and the fact that as a mom, you’re able to get up and bring your kid with you to go to a specific place, maybe she was running errands. But, to take the time to stop by, I think speaks a lot to business and what they’re able to provide and how great they are in terms of being a place of community.

EMILY: One of the biggest questions I hear from business owners is how to inspire more customers to write reviews. Alyssa Mae gave me some insight into her thought process when she decides to leave a review. She actually views it as a way to give back to the community, which I absolutely love to hear.

ALYSSA MAE: So what got me into reviewing was I just realized the capacity I had in terms of how much I consumed Yelp as someone who looked through reviews. And I think over time I just grew to realize that as someone who’s consuming so much of these reviews, maybe I should do my part and give back to the community.

I think I’m a big community person, even as an outsider, as someone who consumes something that’s part of a community. And I think that’s a big part of  what I guess compels me to write a review for a place, whether it’s a new place or a place that’s already integrated very well into a community.

I think a lot of it is just how great my experience was there, but also how much I want other people to know, especially if I come across like certain experiences  that may or may not help another person in terms of deciding whether this place is something that somewhere they wanna visit. I think that’s also a big part of it too.

But I think generally I try my best to review the places that I check in at, or where food I consume or services I consume, just that I’m able to, hopefully my experience is able to make a difference for another person’s experience and help them decide to choose that business.

EMILY: Sunbliss has a very active Yelp page, with colorful photos and over 600 reviews. However, Tani reads none of her reviews. I will be honest — this is a rarity on this podcast! But I wanted you to hear her perspective.

TANI: When I go to my Yelp business page, I do my best to just bypass and not look at a single one because, one, I get excited, right? There’s always good reviews. I get excited about everything and I get distracted.

But if I see a bad, I immediately wanna fix it. I get distracted for the full day. So I’ve actually assigned one person to go into our Yelp and address only the bad ones. There’s a system where it’s, hey, if you come in, they address the issue.  But I don’t want you to think I’m not open to feedback. I am the queen of wanting criticism and feedback. I welcome feedback and I tell people to tell me directly in our dms. And what we do is at the register, we tell people, oh, it’s your first time. Don’t leave without loving it. So if you need any changes or modifications, just let us know and that’s the feedback we take in.

Other than that, I assign one person to Yelp and then they tell me what the issues are. And trust me, I have heard them and it’s taken me quite some time to rethink them and how to approach them. And some of them I can understand where some of the customers are coming from. And I’ll give you a really good instance. Small coffee shops charge you if you ask for no ice and you want it to be filled at the top. Coffee shops will charge you for the remaining fill because we are charging already for what the drink costs and you’re asking for no ice. And we have to educate you as to the recipe that we’re making in the original balances that you purchased, right? The cup that you purchased. That was my biggest learning lesson where maybe I take the pill and swallow it and very once in a while, someone’ll ask for no ice, but we won’t charge them. So it’s like very silly decision making, but us also trying to understand how we should educate the customer on why we do things like that.

EMILY: Even though Tani doesn’t read Yelp reviews herself, she strongly believes in the importance of implementing customer feedback. In addition to Yelp reviews, Sunbliss staff engages on social media to hear what customers want changed in the store.

TANI: There has been times where people directly DM Sunbliss Coffee, and I send them a personalized voice message or a video if they happen to go to our Instagram to tell me how upset they were about something silly. I actually address the issue and then I tell them like, listen, we never want you to leave unhappy. I am so sorry that you know our housemate almondmilk  wasn’t available for you that day. I invite you to come back in. We want you to enjoy the experience that everyone else is enjoying. We want you to love what we love.

EMILY: Even as Sunbliss grows, Tani wants to ensure customer service still remains a top priority. For Tani, making Yelp’s list of the Top 100 Places to Eat was more than an accomplishment. It was also an opportunity to learn and grow.

TANI: The list came out the day we were on KTLA and it was within that hour we were getting messages on Slack from the employees that were there saying, what the heck? This is crazy. People are coming, they’re all locals. And we’re like, what? It was like within the hour. This is crazy. It’s been nuts. It’s taken four and a half weeks for things to slightly calm down. And you know how and why? Because the rain and the snow all of a sudden in California. But it has been a madhouse.

If you make that list, be prepared cuz it definitely attracts a lot of newbies and that’s the thing, the day we got announced, we made sure our whole staff knew how important it was and that, yeah, it’s gonna be a rough few weeks, but everybody should have a great experience because that’s their first time.

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