Susan Feniger – Street

November 11, 2010

Susan Feniger - Street restaurantRestaurateur Profile: Susan Feniger

Co-Owner: Susan Feniger’s Street

742 No Highland Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90038

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, November 4, 2010

“My mom was a fantastic cook,” says Susan Feniger, co-owner of Susan Feniger’s Street restaurant. “We always had people at our house, and there were always great things in the freezer, ready to go when we had guests. Everything she did went in the freezer – cheese dreams, peanut butter chutney, bacon toast, and lady finger icebox cakes. Everything was ready so that if people just walked in there was something to serve them. I definitely picked up a lot of Mom’s traits – some people just get it – they know how to season and cook.”

“My first job was at Smith’s Cafeteria in Toledo, Ohio,” says Susan. “I fell in love with the idea of service, and was drawn to the pressure and flow of working in a food service environment. I never really thought that I would cook for a living though!” Susan went to Goddard College in Vermont to study psychology, but dropped out to live in a teepee. “I was rebellious as a kid – I wore Salvation Army clothes. My dad was not happy when I dropped out of college.”

Susan decided to try a second time, this time at Pitzer College. “I was on a tight budget, so I would figure out how many meals I could make out of one spaghetti squash,” she says. “I worked for a cabinet maker and in the cafeteria at Pitzer while I studied Psychology, Economics and Business. I was always very focused and driven.” The cafeteria manager had been a cook in the army, and after two years of having Susan in the kitchen asked why she wasn’t studying to become a chef. “It had never crossed my mind,” she says. “But I talked to my advisors and set up an independent study program with the Culinary Institute.” Susan fell in love immediately. “I was always trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, but once I went to CIA it was a no-brainer. I never looked at my watch when I was cooking. It was just the right fit.”

Susan Feniger's Street restaurantSusan describes being a chef as requiring a lot of right and left brain. “It’s also very physical work and requires focus, business knowledge and a little bit of therapy,” she says. “The restaurant business is all about the people, the community, the relationships with customers, with employees. That is the most important part – how you treat people. The vibe of the restaurant comes from the people who own the restaurant. It’s very natural for me – I like people, I like learning about how they are. I like the physical aspect of being in the kitchen. I like the pressure, the coordination.”

After working in numerous kitchens and building Border Grill with Mary Sue Miliken, Susan was looking for a fresh opportunity to build a new restaurant. “I love Border Grill and everything that we have built,” says Susan. “With Street I was just looking to do something small and on my own.” She partnered with Executive Chef Kajsa Alger and the two got to work on building all of the elements of Street. “Kajsa worked at Border Grill for 20 years, and now she’s a powerhouse. I love seeing people develop and grow. When you’re building a restaurant, everything is important – we wanted the food to be right, but also the aesthetics. The tables are made from recycled paper, and the soap in the bathroom is recycled from our cooking oil. We had the muralist from Border Grill create a different style here, and we create customized music mixes with music from everywhere – Ethiopia, New Orleans, France.” The restaurant opened in March 2009.

In balancing her time, Susan says that she goes wherever there is the greatest need. “We have an extremely strong team at Border Grill that keeps things running really smoothly. Of course, when you open a new restaurant it takes more time, but I’m involved in both businesses.”

“I work a ton – at least 14 hours per day five days per week and one eight-hour day per week. I try to take one day per week off, but it’s hard,” says Susan. “I haven’t taken a vacation for about three years, but this is how I like to spend my time. I want to see it all grow, and I absolutely love what I do. Sometimes I struggle with the idea of ‘do I have enough free time?’, but I’m also sure that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.”


Michael McCarty – Michael’s

October 20, 2010

Michael McCarty Michael's Restaurant Santa MonciaRestaurateur Profile: Michael McCarty

Owner: Michael’s

1147 Third Street

Santa Monica, CA 90403

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, October 12, 20

Michael McCarty, owner of Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica, with another location in New York, grew up “in Mad Men time,” he says. “My dad was an executive at GE and spent a lot of time entertaining and being entertained. The restaurant business in New York was driven by ad companies at the time.” In addition to visiting restaurants, Michael’s parents loved to entertain. “Mom and Dad entertained all the time, and I enjoyed watching them throw great parties with great people. They always combined the best: the best people, food, beverages, design and experience. I was hard-wired for this business.”

Growing up, Michael noticed that the best restaurants were always classical French restaurants. “90% of the people in the restaurant business were Europeans,” he says. “It was not a career choice for Americans, because in the 1950s and 1960s people ate because they were hungry – it was not yet a part of the culture.” Michael’s interest in food grew substantially during his Junior (high school) year abroad in Brittany, France, and began on the ship he and his classmates took to get there. “It was an Italian boat, and at the time in New York, Italian food was pretty bad,” he says. “It took us 11 days to get to France, and during that time I enjoyed the very simple, clean food and the wonderful way the waiters created this very stylish form of hospitality. It was a wonderful, positive experience.”

After his year abroad Michael returned home for a year to graduate high school, then turned around and went back to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu in 1972. “It was extremely helpful that I had been in France before and spoke the language,” says Michael. “I went to hotel and restaurant school at the same time as attending chef school, and then attended Academie Du Vin, which was the first school to demystify wines.” It was during this time that Michael began to piece together his own style of cooking, “California Cuisine.”

“It is a combination of classic French techniques, Nouvelle Cuisine and my own history of learning about entertaining through my mom and dad,” says Michael. “I got to pick and choose how to blend all three and create this new style and flavor.” After attending a summer program in Hotel and Restaurant management at Cornell University, Michael visited his brother in Boulder, Colorado. “Boulder was incredible: there were farms all over the place and you could get wonderful produce – everything you could want,” says Michael. He began teaching French cooking classes in French at the University and received his own undergraduate college degree while there.

Michael's Restaurant Santa Moncia“When it was time for me to move on, I called Lois Dwan, the Los Angeles Times food critic, and asked which restaurants were best in L.A.,” says Michael. “At her suggestion, I got together with Jean Bertranou of L’Ermitage on La Cienega and we brainstormed on what was missing in California. We figured that what you couldn’t get here was the French ingredients, so we started shipping them in from France – arugula, cheese, fish. We started supplying other restaurants, and then started bringing in the seeds to grow the mache, arugulas, haricot verts, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom beets, and other great produce from France. Then we noticed that you couldn’t get good duck here, so we started breeding ducks and created the first foie gras in America.

In April of 1979, Michael opened Michael’s on Third Street. “It’s a modern American restaurant that serves a new style of modern American food,” he says. “It’s a little bit spa, a little Nouvelle, a little classic … all served in a beautiful indoor-outdoor setting. At the time, most of the restaurants here were 90% inside – with no windows! I found this location and saw that I could build a garden and recognized its potential. I brought in all the best plates, glasses and flowers. My wife is a painter, and we have always incorporated art and jazz. I went to a little-known designer, Ralph Lauren, and he developed our uniforms – a prep look.”

In addition to the food and the location, Michael also focused heavily on the service aspect of the restaurant. “I developed a completely new way of operating a restaurant without snootiness,” he says. “I am about creating an experience of great food, great wine, a great environment and great people

In 1989 Michael opened Michael’s New York. “My whole goal was to design a new style of restaurant experience,” he says. “I broke down the stereotypes to create a civilized dining experience, and our revolution has succeeded. Great chefs like Jon Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton and Roy Yamaguchi all worked here.”

Mary Sue Milliken – Border Grill

October 16, 2010

Mary Sue Milliken Border Grill RestaurantRestaurateur Profile: Mary Sue Milliken

Co-Owner: Border Grill

1445 4th St.

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of Border Grill with partner Susan Feniger, grew up in Michigan in a family that celebrated with food. “My mom was a good cook, and food was very important to our family,” she says. “She was a single mom from the time I was 12, and so we didn’t have a lot of money to go out to eat – instead we would buy great food and cook it together – we celebrated with home-cooked food.”

A home economics class during high school was the inspiration for Mary Sue to pursue a career in food. “I hated high school, and was determined to finish it as quickly as possible,” she says. “That home economics class made a big impression though and my sister said it was stupid to get a college education and that I should take up a trade. She introduced me to a chef, Greg, and as soon as I graduated high school (at 16 years old), I moved to Chicago and started working in kitchens.”

At 17 ½ Mary Sue gained entry to chef school. “I was immersed in food 24/7 and loved what I was doing,” she says. In addition to school, she also worked in restaurants and bakeries. Her sister’s friend Greg hired her, and she soon fell in love with his partner Rob. “We lived upstairs from the bakery and when we had any time off we would eat at the best restaurants in town. One of the best was Le Perroquet, and I decided that I wanted to work there.”

Mary Sue approached the owner, Jovan, and he said “I would love to hire you, but I could never have you in my kitchen – the guys couldn’t handle it.” Mary Sue says that she he offered her a job as a hat check girl. Not one to be discouraged, “I started a letter writing campaign,” she says. “He finally got back to me and let me work in the kitchen. I ended up overachieving pretty spectacularly and then one day Susan walked in and he offered her a job on the spot – I think he figured that if I was such a hard worker, she must be, too!”

Too Hot Tamales Border Grill RestaurantJovan became an important mentor to Mary Sue. “He was a dear friend and guided me,” she says. “Susan and I worked there together and did a great job. We learned more in that kitchen than anywhere else. Then Susan moved to California and I decided that I needed to get away too. Jovan was going to France and offered to take me along and help me get a job. I went to France without a job and I couldn’t speak French … nobody would hire me.” On their last night out before Mary Sue would have to return to the U.S. Jovan took her to a restaurant run by a woman chef. “She hired me on the spot,” she says. Mary Sue quickly assimilated, renting an apartment and taking intense French classes for four hours every morning. She worked there for about a year, all the while keeping in touch with Susan, who during that year moved to the South of France for an apprenticeship.

Susan came up to Paris for a visit and “over a few bottles of wine we decided that we should go into business together,” says Mary Sue. “We left Paris with almost no money – Susan went to California and I went back to Chicago. Six months later, Susan called and said I should move to California. I said ‘no way,’ but she’s very persuasive!” Susan had been running City Café – there was no kitchen, just two hot plates, but a lot of freedom and opportunity. “I agreed to move out as long as we got a stove, which we did,” says Mary Sue. “I did not leave Los Angeles for three years after initially coming – I was completely immersed in the café. You know, you go to chef school, you apprentice in France, and then you end up working in a tiny café with one stove, but we were having the time of our lives – going to the market, finding cool things.”

The owners of the café quickly recognized Mary Sue and Susan’s potential and made them partners in the business. “After working in all those fancy restaurants, it felt very free and lovely to be calling our own shots,” says Mary Sue. “We were able to really be our own bosses for the first time, and we started getting a lot of attention while cooking from our hearts – cooking food we love.” Soon they needed more space, and opened City Restaurant, which was 500 square feet, and turned the original café into a taco joint. “We weren’t sure whether we would do tacos or Japanese noodles or a really good hamburger stand,” says Mary Sue. “We went on a 3-week research trip to Mexico and drove around to get inspired. We discovered that we loved the street food, not the restaurants, and that’s what we decided to bring back.” Their concept – the Border Grill – was a hit, and they quickly outgrew their space and moved to the Santa Monica location in 1990.

Border Grill Food TruckMeanwhile, the partners had written two cookbooks together and got a show on the Food Network, Cooking With Too Hot Tamales (Note: this was the first cooking show that I ever watched religiously, and I still use many of the recipes!). They sold the City Café in the early 1990s and opened Ciudad in 1998. (Note: The week that I met with Mary Sue, they were in the process of converting Ciudad into a Border Grill; the process is now complete.) In 1999 they opened the Border Grill in Las Vegas and added a kiosk in downtown Los Angeles and two food trucks. “The food trucks are really fun,” says Mary Sue. “We’re able to feed customers where they are and do so many things that we love to do.”

Mary Sue’s favorite part of being a restaurant entrepreneur is the opportunity to constantly surprise and delight people. “When you are in the restaurant you get to cook the same thing every day, so you can constantly tweak and refine every part of every recipe,” she says. “When you’re obsessed with food like I am, you notice how small changes impact a dish and enjoy constantly improving it.”

Michelle Nigro – Lunch

October 2, 2010

Michelle Nigro Lunch Culver CityRestaurateur Profile: Michelle Nigro

Owner: Lunch

3829 Main Street

Culver City, CA 90232

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, September 23, 2010

Michelle Nigro, owner of Lunch in Culver City, has always been a sandwich fan. “It’s been my go-to lunch food forever,” she says. “In college there were these fabulous sandwich places – Beyond Bread and Bison (in Tuscon, AZ), and people were always trying to get them to franchise, but they won’t. So even when I graduated and came to LA, I always kept the idea of having a great sandwich place in mind.”

After attending high school in New York and New Jersey, where there are many great delis and sandwich shops to choose from, and then being so close to Beyond Bread and Bison, Michelle found Los Angeles lacking in great sandwich shops. She worked in development for film and television for several years. “I was always looking for places with a quick lunch that was nice,” she says. “Places like the Urth Café and The Counter started popping up, and I thought ‘this is exactly what I want to do but for sandwiches.’”

“So I quit my job and worked in sandwich places that I loved for six months in Arizona,” she says. “Then I went to New York and did the same thing for six months there. I worked at the restaurants and figured out how they worked. Then I came back here and worked with chefs to come up with my own menu.”

Michelle knew that Culver City would be a good location for her first restaurant. “Culver City is definitely an up and coming area,” she says. “It has a huge business center with all of the studios, and there aren’t really that many restaurants around here. There is a youthful, energetic vibe that fit really well with what I was looking to do.” Her current location was a hardware store, so it required massive remodeling to become a restaurant. “It took forever to build this place,” says Michelle. “I signed the lease in May 2007 when the hardware store was still operating. We began construction in January 2009.” The remodeling complete, Lunch opened in February 2010.

Lunch Culver CityDuring the construction, Michelle continued to develop her product. “I focused on tastings, perfecting the menu and creating the branding and marketing,” she says. “I also had some friends who were going through the process of opening a restaurant, so I learned from them.” To support herself, Michelle worked freelance jobs. “I also lived at home for four years too long to figure all of this out,” she says. She relied on personal savings and bank loans for startup capital.

“Even with the recession, people still go out to eat and take lunch meetings,” says Michelle. “This is LA – you can’t go home for lunch, and lots of people are looking to grab something easy but also really good. Really expensive places might be suffering more, but we’ve been doing really well. I think that we get even more businesspeople and executives at places like Lunch than we did before the recession.”

“The best part of owning a restaurant is the people,” says Michelle. “Every day is different – different people, different experiences – and you become a part of the community as your restaurant becomes a local joint. I have gotten to know a lot of our customers, and I can even put people together and keep the community really integrated.”

Michelle spends most of her time overseeing all operations, managing, quality control, marketing and brand development. “The hard part is the stress of keeping it going,” she says. “Making sure that we have enough sales to cover payroll is tough, because it’s not just me – I could go a month without being paid, but my staff deserve a paycheck. Everything else is fixable and manageable, but keeping the doors open is the hardest part. It makes you really admire the businesses that keep open for so long.”

Michelle’s advice to anyone considering becoming a restaurant entrepreneur is “Do your research and really work out an idea and a plan in advance. Be over-prepared – there are a million things that will come up that you can’t prepare for, so you prepare for what you can in order to be as ready as you can be.”

Michelle has plans to expand Lunch into additional locations. “The model and the menu are designed for expansion,” she says. “Our next location will probably be smaller, but with the same feel and the same food.”

Russell Barnard – Rusty’s Surf Ranch

September 29, 2010

Russell Barnard Rusty's Surf Ranch

Cindy Pfeifer, Russell Barnard and Carlos Avelar

Restaurateur Profile: Russell Barnard

Owner: Rusty’s Surf Ranch

256 Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, September 23, 2010

Russell Barnard, owner of Rusty’s Surf Ranch, fell into the restaurant business as a natural evolution. “Other than the fact that my mom worked at the drugstore (food) counter when I was a kid, I had nothing to do with the restaurant business until early in the 1980s,” he says. He and his brother owned a design firm and some of their clients included restaurants. When his friend opened a bar in Malibu he found himself naturally extending his design input to restaurant operations. “I was spending a lot of time with him talking about how to run a food business,” says Russell. “So I thought that maybe I should give it a try. In the mid-1980s I opened an espresso bar/café on Main Street in Santa Monica.”

A few years after that in 1987 he opened The Tavern on Main. “My concept was to offer a piece of the East Coast here in the West,” says Russell. “It wasn’t much from the outside but there was a great patio and kitchen inside.” The restaurant is still in operation – he sold it to one of his managers, Rick, who renamed it Rick’s Tavern.

In 1994 Russell found out that a restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier, the Crown & Anchor, was going out of business. “It was basically a Fish & Chips place, and at the time the city really wanted the Pier occupied because the World Cup was coming,” says Russell. “I picked it up and kept it as-is for about a year before I did a full remodel and update. My idea was to blend seafood and BBQ. Of course, then I realized that on a pier people typically are not looking for BBQ – they’re looking for some form of seafood. It took about six years, but our menu adjusted based on what people wanted with a heavy focus on seafood. Interestingly, the Crown & Anchor’s No. 2 best seller was fish & chips, and guess what ours is?”

Russell’s original idea of creating a fun restaurant based around entertainment and good portions has stayed true. “As a large working class family one of the most affordable group activities available to us was road trips,” says Russell. “One of my father’s favorite road trips – which quickly became mine – was to drive from the far corners of the valley to the Santa Monica Pier. In those days, before the 101 and the 405 freeways, it was a long haul for a family of six stuffed into a Chevy station wagon for the hour and ½ trip over the pass for a day of fun. But it was always well-worth the trip.”

Approaching his 20-year anniversary, Russell recognizes that Rusty’s Surf Ranch has evolved over the years. “The first 5-6 years I was just working with the cooks to develop recipes to suit my palate and appeal to our customers,” he says. “I’m all about listening to the customer, but there are also some quirks – like I’m allergic to bell peppers, so for the first 10 years there were no bell peppers on the menu at all, and even today bell peppers have a low presence on our menu.” About eight years ago Russell worked with Danny Harold to revamp the menu, and it has remained relatively stable since then.

Rusty's Surf Ranch Santa Monica Pier“My passion for the restaurant business really revolves largely around the people,” says Russell. “Carlos Avelar, our chef, has been here for 10 years and now he’s a partner in the business. Cindy Pfeifer came with me when I first opened this place as a floor manager. Today she does all band bookings, private parties, marketing and special events. She is also a partner. It just feels better to everybody when you have people who care about you and like working with you.”

Operating a restaurant on a pier provides some unique challenges and opportunities. “This place is largely out of sight, out of mind,” says Russell. “We don’t have local customers eating here three times per week, but we do get locals, so we work hard to be a place that is fun and interesting to tourists without becoming a crappo tourist place. Most tourist places care only about the one-time business – not repeat business, but we care. Sometimes we’ll have tourists come back here 2-3 times while they’re here.”

Russell says that he is interested in another location, but that right now his focus is on renewing his 20-year lease on the pier. “The Pier is a gem, and the people who work and visit there turn it into a teeming microcosm of the world around it,” says Russell. “Listen closely on almost any day and you can hear virtually every language and dialect. Look around and you’ll see the faces of a thousand cultures and observe the customs and courtesies of a world of seemingly unrelated people. Yet the more often you enjoy this experience the more strongly you feel the real connection that keeps us all together as one on this planet.”

Dave Licht – Kay ‘N Dave’s Restaurant Culver City

September 25, 2010

Dave Licht Kay N Daves Restaurant Culver City

Dave Licht, Jintana Licht, Alejo Grijalva

Restaurateur Profile: Dave Licht

Owner: Kay ‘N Dave’s

9341 Culver Blvd

Culver City, CA 90232

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

“I always thought that one day I would start a business,” says Dave Licht, owner of Kay ‘N Dave’s. “It could have been anything – lots of ideas lured me and I just happened into restaurants. As quirky and odd and challenging as this business is, I’m glad it’s what I settled on.”

Originally a lawyer, Dave found himself at a crossroads in the last big recession in the late 1980s. “I was doing some land development in Rancho California and the recession shut it down,” he says. “Rather than go back to law, I thought: let me buy a little run-down business and see if I can turn it around. I knew that I wanted it to be small so that I could avoid a partnership, and I didn’t have much money. I stumbled upon this shack/cantina on PCH and that was my first restaurant.”

It was called Topanga Beach Cantina, and Dave bought it in 1991. Within one year he had opened a second location in Pacific Palisades and a third in Brentwood in 1995. Dave sold the PCH location in 1998, but after a few years of watching it get run into the ground, he bought it back and turned it into a Thai restaurant, Cholada, which is still there today. Dave sold Cholada to two of his employees a few years later.

Kay N Daves Restaurant Culver CityMeanwhile, the Pacific Palisades location, which was called The Other Cantina, had become known as Kay ‘N Dave’s almost by accident. “We (Dave and his first wife Kay) were always there, and so people just started associating the restaurant with us,” says Dave. “By the time we opened in Brentwood we called both restaurants Kay ‘N Dave’s.” In 2000 Kay sold her share in the restaurant to Dave and Dave married Jintana Licht. “Like me, she has no restaurant experience, but she quickly concluded that I was pretty lousy at running the operations, so although she had no intention of becoming involved, she basically runs everything,” says Dave.

The two opened their newest location in Culver City in 2009. “I have quite a bit of experience with failure,” says Dave. “In 2001 we opened a restaurant five days before 9-11 next to a movie theatre in Hollywood. It was a disaster, but sometimes the most challenging failure is the best experience. That process taught me a lot, so opening during a recession wasn’t really scary for me.”

“In the beginning I took more risks, but after the Hollywood restaurant I recognized that I had a lot of learning to do,” says Dave. “Sometimes you try to grow too fast – you forget that you have to get everything up to speed: staff, know-how, finances. We closed escrow on the Culver City restaurant in the throes of the economy melting down, but for whatever reason I didn’t feel a lot of stress with this one – all the years of learning came together and it’s worked out really well.”

“A lot of what has happened with Kay ‘N Dave’s is based on the original concept at Topanga Beach Cantina on PCH,” says Dave. “It was a little bit healthy, and they had some vegetarian options. Over time, there were many evolutions, and we gradually looked for ways to be healthier and offer vegetarian sauces and broths. It was based on watching, listening and evolving.”

The chef at Kay ‘N Dave’s, Alejo Grijalva, began as a dishwasher and now runs all of the kitchens. “He is self-taught, and uses some of his grandmother’s recipes in our kitchens,” says Dave. “He is part of the heart and soul of this restaurant.”

The best part about being a restaurant entrepreneur, says Dave, is the fun. “It can be a lot of fun – we meet a lot of really wonderful people, and when it’s all working – the music, the food, the people, it’s like hosting a great party.” Dave’s main role at the restaurant is conceptualizing, designing and managing legal matters, all of which are especially well utilized when he is growing the business to add more restaurants. “There are a lot of great opportunities jumping up right now,” he says. “I’m looking, but I’m also not as young and stupid as I was before. The key is finding good staff to make it work – the biggest challenge is getting the right team together so that things run just the way we like it.”

Vicki Fan – Beacon Asian Cafe Culver City

September 20, 2010

Vicki Fan and Kazuto Matsusaka Beacon Asian Cafe Culver CityRestaurateur Profile: Vicki Fan

Co-Owner: Beacon

3280 Helms Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90034

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Friday, September 17, 2010

Vicki Fan and husband Kazuto Matsusaka, owners of Beacon in Culver City are in one of those rare marriages that thrive in the restaurant business. “We divvy up the duties and it all works out really well,” says Vicki. “He does sauces – I’m terrible at them. I do the vinaigrettes though. He loves to eat pastries, but doesn’t like to make them, so most of the time he doesn’t have to. We’re both pretty easygoing and know our own and each others’ strengths.”

Their partnership began in a kitchen: they met while working at ZenZero, a restaurant in Santa Monica that is no longer in operation. “There are two ways to get into this business,” says Vicki. “And we basically came from opposite backgrounds. Kazuto, who was born in Japan, started working in restaurants in Tokyo and moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s. He has worked with great French chefs, including Wolfgang Puck. I grew up in New York and attended CIA because I got a late start and wanted to catch up.”

Vicki and Kazuto began dating in 1995, shortly after he left ZenZero. They married in 1996 and moved to Paris for one year, where they opened a restaurant called Buddha Bar. Although they enjoyed their time in Paris, they moved back to the States to consult for a hotel restaurant. “We knew that we wanted to settle in LA, and so we started looking for locations here,” says Vicki. “We found this spot – it was before the redevelopment of Culver City was really complete and Culver City was an “in between” neighborhood. This space had great open space and lower rent than elsewhere, so we took it in 2004.”

Beacon Asian Cafe Culver City“People thought we were crazy to choose a location in Culver City,” says Vicki. “But things were changing and moving in Culver City, and it was exciting. We didn’t want a stuffy, fine-dining place – we wanted somewhere that people could come for lunch or dinner and just relax and enjoy.”

At the time, the small plate movement was just beginning, and Vicki and Kazuto determined that it was a good way to go for Beacon. “We wanted to have lots of options, like when you go to a Chinese restaurant,” says Vicki. “The portions in the U.S. are so much larger than in other countries, and it can mean that you don’t get to try as many blends and options.”

“As much as we wanted to stay away from saying we are Asian Fusion, that has become the best way to define our food,” says Vicki. “We make classic Asian dishes that have been updated. For example, we have a traditional Japanese udon soup with Chinese pork belly based on a recipe from my mother. This means that the food is familiar yet unique.”

The restaurant opened six years ago to great popularity. “It’s been great – we were crazy-busy – almost out of control in the beginning,” says Vicki. “It was great, but we actually prefer the flow that we have now because we really get to know our guests.”

Vicki and Kazuto’s two-year-old daughter Olivia has also become a part of the restaurant fabric. “We have noticed more families coming in now that we have our daughter here,” says Vicki. “I think they just feel more comfortable. We also feel that it’s great for her – she sees us welcoming our guests and so she does it, too.” When I met with Vicki, Kazuto had just taken Olivia home for a nap, which he does on most days, returning for the evening rush, when they have a babysitter at home. “It’s the reverse of most childcare situations, but it works really well for us,” says Vicki.

“The best part of owning a restaurant is the freedom,” says Vicki. “You can create what you want; you make the decisions.” In addition to having their own family of three on-site most of the time, Vicki and Kazuto recognize that their staff is much like an extended family, and many of the employees are siblings, partners and spouses as well. “It’s fun and exciting to work in a restaurant,” says Vicki. “But you also have to have downtime away from the restaurant so that you can have balance.”

Geraldine Gilliland – Lula Cocina Mexicana

September 13, 2010

Geraldine Gilliland Lula Cocina MexicanaRestaurateur Profile: Geraldine Gilliland

Owner: Lula Cocina Mexicana

2720 Main Street

Santa Monica, CA 90405

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Geraldine Gilliland, owner of Lula Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Santa Monica, began her food career as a cooking teacher and caterer with clients ranging from Orange County to Santa Barbara. In 1984 she opened her first restaurant, Gilliland’s Cafe. She opened Lula Cocina in July 1991. “It was not planned,” she said. “I was vacationing in Cabo and had a tarot card reading. I asked whether I should open a restaurant, and the answer was yes, yes, and yes. When I returned home and told my husband about it, he told me that Café Pelican (on Main Street in Santa Monica) was for sale, and we bought it. It wasn’t easy – a lot of people wanted this space – it has a great location, bar and patio.”

Lula Cocina Mexicana Santa MonicaOriginally from Ireland, from a family of “terrible cooks,” Geraldine entered a new realm upon opening Lula Cocina by learning about Mexican cuisine. “It started when our cooks at Gilliland’s would cook the employee meals,” said Geraldine. “That’s what first attracted me to the Mexican concept. Then I read an article in Bon Appetit and it profiled the top Mexican chefs, including Lula Bertran. I called the editor of Bon Appetit and asked which of the chefs she would recommend for classes, and she told me to call Lula. The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with Lula and, shortly after, on a plane to Mexico City, where I joined her cooking school in her home. We spent every day cooking, going to the markets, and eating in restaurants to fully explore the food.”

It was during her first trip to visit Lula that the décor for Lula Cocina was sketched out in Geraldine’s mind. “It was my first time in Mexico City, and I immediately noticed the colors,” she said. “Those are the bright colors that you now see in the restaurant. My husband, Theodore Lonsway, owned an antique store and was fascinated with color and art. Together, we designed the colors and decoration of this restaurant – on a shoestring budget, of course.”

Her visit to Mexico City also inspired the name of the restaurant. “I didn’t know what to call it, and then I thought – I wonder if Lula would mind if I use her name,” said Geraldine. “She was so honored, and she and some of the other chefs featured in that Bon Appetit article came here for our first anniversary. We had a huge event – a great party.”

Geraldine and her husband self-funded Lula Cocina, and it was an instant hit. “We had a line out the door on our first Friday,” said Geraldine. “I was terrified because I was in the kitchen. I did 400 dinners and ran out of food. The tickets were spitting out so fast – like a telex machine, and I was in tears. We closed at 7 p.m. that night, but everybody understood, and we worked out the kinks for the next night.”

As Lula Cocina grew, Geraldine never forgot its namesake. “I would travel with Lula – anytime she had a food event, I would tag along as her assistant,” said Geraldine. “We would take groups on trips to Oaxaca, the Yucatan – all over the place.” Although Lula has now retired, Geraldine still travels to Mexico about twice per year. “The only challenges with traveling are my dogs and the fact that I’m the only one who signs payroll,” said Geraldine. “I have to time my travel based on keeping payroll moving.”

The restaurant business is hard, says Geraldine. “I’m lucky – I have cashflow, but the hardest part for any restaurant is making payroll,” she said. “And of course trying to stay up-to-date with the rules and regulations of the restaurant industry.”

The best part of owning restaurants for Geraldine is “I love food, love drinking, and love reading the customer comment cards on Monday mornings. I love creating new stuff, growing stuff, and working with people over time. I have good people in my restaurants.” In addition to Lula Cocina, Geraldine also owns Finn McCool’s Irish Pub and Rancho Chiquita Events, named after her 250-acre ranch where she hosts and caters many special events. She cross-trains her more than 50 employees and shares them throughout the restaurants and catering business.

“My advice for people who want to be a restaurant entrepreneur is to think very carefully about it before you start,” said Geraldine. “Just because you have a location and know about food, you still have no business opening a restaurant, where you have to know how to work Excel, bookkeeping, and a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with food.”

In addition to food, Geraldine is passionate about the protection and rehabilitation of abused and abandoned animals, a cause for which she frequently hosts and supports charitable activities and events.

Thierry Boisson – Acadie Crepes

September 8, 2010

Thierry Boisson - Acadie Crepes Santa MonicaRestaurateur Profile: Thierry Boisson

Owner: Acadie Crepes

213 Arizona Ave.

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thierry Boisson, owner of Acadie Crepes, is originally from the South of France, where he grew up in the crepes business. He opened his first restaurant at 22 years old, eventually opening three restaurants around France before he caught the American Dream and decided to emigrate in 1992. “I came with two crepes makers in my suitcase,” he says. “I was ready to try making crepes in a new place.” Upon arrival, Thierry traveled around the U.S. in an R.V., touring Route 66 and “trying every diner along the way,” he says. “They aren’t all good, but you have to try them!”

Thierry ended up in Santa Monica, where he quickly decided that the Santa Monica Pier was the ultimate place to be. “I stopped here and knew that this is where I want to be,” he says. “I had no money, so I started out with a tent and some coolers and began selling my crepes at the Farmer’s Market on Arizona. I guess the total investment was $2,000 to start my American Dream.”

Over time, Thierry added catering and additional farmer’s market locations to his business, and then he bought a truck so that he could bring his crepes makers to multiple locations. “After five years I finally made enough to open this store,” he says. Acadie Crepes opened in 2000. “It was not the right time – we were going through the tech bust and 9-11, which meant that the French culture was vilified – not a great time to open a typically French café!”

Thierry Boisson Acadie Crepes How to make crepes

Here is a video of Thierry making a delicious Nutella crepes!

In addition to opening the storefront in 2000, Thierry also purchased a food truck, which he retrofitted to accommodate his crepes makers. Then he hit the studios and thus is one of the original gourmet-style food trucks. “We have our truck on a different lot every day – CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office,” says Thierry. “We go to pretty much all of them.” Today, in addition to his catering truck and Hollywood food truck, Thierry is considering another food truck to focus on the street food crowd.

In addition to 4 crepes makers on the Hollywood truck, 10 on the catering truck, and 2 in the restaurant, Thierry also has a small travel crepes maker for small parties and travel. “One time a guy flew me to New York to make crepes for him,” says Thierry. “I just pack my travel crepes maker and it’s easy.” Earlier this year, Thierry taught Chef Gordon Ramsey the crepes-making technique, he has also demonstrated on the Jay Leno show.

With all of his success, Thierry admits that “the only way I survive is I work every day 12-15 hours,” he says. “I don’t feel the pain because I love what I do, but I also don’t have a choice – I have to work hard to make this work. The market moves, and you have to find your way.”

The best part of owning a restaurant is “the freedom,” says Thierry. “I am my own employer, so I have my destiny in my hands. I see other people who spend 10 years in college, then have to pay student loans and are a slave to a company. I’m like a boy scout – I have a good sense of survival and can find a way to make it work.”

The hardest part of being a restaurant entrepreneur is “the hours for sure,” says Thierry. “You are not rewarded financially for the time you spend. I have to work double as someone who works in an office, and I still don’t make as much money as they do. But I do love what I do, so it’s worth it.” Thierry does find ways to get away from the business. “I escape to Kernville – I’ll take two days off, Monday and Tuesday, and relax in the hotel and eat at nice restaurants.”

Thierry has some pretty strong advice for hopeful restaurant entrepreneurs: “If you want to open a restaurant, you have to be ready to be a slave, but you are your own master as well,” he says. “It is very exciting – you create something and make people happy.”

David Houston – Barney’s Beanery

August 31, 2010

David Houston Barneys West HollywoodRestaurateur Profile: David Houston

Owner: Barney’s Beanery

8447 Santa Monica Blvd.

West Hollywood, CA

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Friday, August 27, 2010

“I’m really not a food guy or a restaurant guy,” says David Houston, owner of Barney’s Beanery and Q’s Billiard Club. “I sort of got into this business by accident – it was very haphazard like a lot of things you do – things just come up, opportunities show up.”

David is by far the most relaxed restaurant owner whom I have met, and I really appreciated his low-key, realistic view of the business. “This is the restaurant business – not heart surgery,” says David.

“I had a DJ business in the 1980s, and one night my buddy and I went out to drink and play pool,” says David. “We couldn’t get a table and said ‘hey, we should open a pool hall.” The two went out the next day and found the location for Q’s Billiard Club, and thus began David’s career as a restaurant entrepreneur in 1989. “We didn’t really think of it as a restaurant business, it was a pool business,” he says. “But obviously whenever you serve food you have to become comfortable with it.”

In 1999 Barney’s Beanery, originally opened in 1920, came on the market. David and his partner, Avi Fattel, recognized an opportunity to expand their business using the Barney’s Beanery brand. Barney’s is obviously a restaurant, but it also has the bar component, and it also features pool tables. “We were happy to expand more into the restaurant arena rather than just another bar/pool hall,” says David.

Barneys Beanery West HollywoodThe business has been entirely self-financed, with a few bank loans to help them make new acquisitions. In 2002 the partners began expanding the Barney’s Beanery brand, opening a second location on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. (I have to admit that I’ve been there many times and had no idea that it was only six years old, since it definitely has an “established” feel to it.) In 2006 the third Barney’s Beanery was opened in Pasadena, and then the fourth in Burbank in 2007 and the fifth restaurant is scheduled to open in 2010 in Westwood.

“Eventually we will open more,” says David. “We just keep plugging along. Having these different restaurants is like having kids – they each have a mind of their own in some ways.”

“The hardest part is following all the rules and regulations and making sure that we comply with all the agencies,” says David. “And then of course we want to keep a fun, friendly atmosphere here.” The goal at Barney’s Beanery is a casual, laid-back place where “you can get a beer, watch a game, and hang out,” says David. “It’s like a couch. People come back because it’s casual – they never feel like anyone is better looking or richer than they are.”

“The best about owning a restaurant is that you’re around people when they are happy,” says David. “People come in a good mood – all we have to do is facilitate that good time.”

Barney’s Beanery employs about 400 staff members and has a managerial staff comprised of HR and Regional Managers to keep everything on track. “Some weeks are great, others don’t feel so great,” says David. “When the seas are calm the skipper can relax a little bit, but then one store will run into a ditch and we have to get in there and try to get to the bottom of it. Sometimes it takes 1-2 years to get a store back on track.”

As for whether he recommends becoming a restaurant entrepreneur, David is pretty clear. “Unless you really love it and can’t help yourself, don’t do it,” he says. “There are better business models out there that don’t have so many employees, so many customers, and no central location. I was happiest when I owned just one restaurant – it was more controlled. When you start growing it gets harder.”

“I especially don’t recommend the restaurant business if you are a foodie,” says David. “The food becomes such a small part of the business, and your love for food can get crushed under everything else – the payroll, rules, etc.”

A restaurant model that David admires is In-N-Out. “It’s a simple menu, a simple formula,” he says. “They buy the land and grow slowly. They don’t have to answer to shareholders and have resisted all the classic temptations of the restaurant business. To stick with it the way they do requires being very disciplined.”