Owners: Taste on Melrose
8454 Melrose Ave
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Yelp: 4 stars
Interview Date: Friday, May 21, 2010
John Halter is no stranger to the restaurant business – his mother and family are restaurateurs, and he has grown up in the business. Family businesses include Lucia in Seattle and Pizzetta in Hawaii.
When John met Morten Kaag, they decided to join forces and develop the sort of restaurant that they would like in the West Hollywood neighborhood. “We were looking for something that was nice, but not too nice; good, but not too expensive,” says John. Five years ago, he says, there were very few options for places that were “not too fancy; not too dumpy.” The original menu at Taste featured items that were all under $20, and the setting definitely fits the “nice” category.
“We were very lucky to get this location,” says Morten. The space was actually a little more on the dumpy side when they found it, but its location was perfect, and there was no question that the little bungalow on Melrose had charm and potential. John says that they were competing with Tobey Maguire, who was apparently trying to secure the location for a friend of his, but Taste was a better fit for the owner.
Since opening Taste on Melrose, John and Morten have watched the changing marketplace: first with the increase in middle-range restaurants similar to their concept, and then the economic downturn. Interestingly, in the beginning of the downturn, Taste saw an increase in business as customers traded from the high-end to the mid-range category. “We had people who normally went to Lucques coming here instead.” It wasn’t until last summer that they saw a dip in their receipts, but John says they are now recovering.
Another change that John and Morten have witnessed is the increasing knowledge of their guests. “People are more educated about food now,” says John. “We have to put in a lot of effort to make sure that we meet their standards.” The advent of guest review opportunities, such as Yelp, has also been an interesting change in the food industry in just five years. “Now, everybody is a critic,” says Morten
After opening Taste on Melrose, John and Morten converted a Lucia restaurant that they were operating in the Pacific Palisades into a second location for the Taste concept. “We had a chef who was more into the fine dining concept, which wasn’t a good fit for the Palisades,” says John. He says the more casual Taste concept is working much better in the family-friendly neighborhood.
John says that his favorite part of being a restaurant owner is the creativity involved. From designing menus to designing the restaurants and coming up with innovative ways to market, he is always working on something new. Morten enjoys graphic design, and says that the creative aspect is his favorite, too. “The hardest part is finding people who care as much as we do about what we’re doing here,” says John. Morten adds that many of the staff are long-term, which may be partially due to the fact that they offer health benefits to all.
“This is an expensive business,” says John. “but having multiple locations allows us to share expenses.” John and Morten have also recently begun promoting their catering service, which, in addition to adding revenue to the business, also provides their senior staff members to earn some extra money. “Owning restaurants is not an easy business, but it is a good business,” says John.
In addition to seeking opportunities to expand Taste, John and Morten are also currently working on a restaurant in Hawaii named Tortilla Republic, scheduled to open Fall 2010