Co-Owner: Starry Kitchen
350 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Yelp: 4 stars
Interview Date: Monday, July 26, 2010
A year ago, when Nguyen’s wife Thi was laid off from her job in advertising, Nguyen encouraged her to follow her cooking passion. But this isn’t your typical husband – he didn’t suggest that she go to cooking school or find a job … “I said, let’s open an illegal restaurant in our apartment!”
And so begins the highly unusual story of Starry Kitchen.
“Thi had been updating her Facebook profile with photos of different dishes she had cooked for several months, so people were already thinking of her as a chef,” says Nguyen, a film producer. “When she updated her status to let people know that she had been laid off, she got 27 replies, all telling her to cook – to get a food truck or something. She thought we were all crazy, but I told her ‘Everyone in the whole world knows that you love to cook except for you!’”
At the time, food trucks were hitting it big, led by Kogi. Nguyen and Thi agreed that Vietnamese food paired even better with Mexican food, and began thinking about developing a food truck based on Pan Asian comfort foods. “For three weeks we played with everything we could think of, and then I said – let’s start it – why not?” says Nguyen. “We opened our illegal restaurant in our apartment on Sundays for lunch, offering one dish per day and asking for a $5 donation.”
Within a few weeks, friends and neighbors had spread the word. The service on Sundays increased from 25 people to 75 people, and then Nguyen and Thi added dinner on Wednesdays. “Once people came in, they liked it, they brought in more people, and the buzz just grew,” says Nguyen. “We had Yelp reviews about our apartment. In fact, we were the No. 1 rated Asian restaurant on Yelp, and No. 2 was a five-star restaurant! It was amazing!”
“Eventually the health department found us,” says Nguyen. “Although we were technically a dinner party with donations, they shut us down, and I told my wife it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
The timing worked out – a friend had been operating a struggling sushi restaurant in the Grand Plaza. “We had been thinking of doing a truck, but at the time the rent for this space was the same as rent for a truck because at the time everyone wanted a truck,” says Nguyen. “We did some test runs on Saturdays to see if we wanted to do this, and we really liked it.” They took over the lease in mid-January and opened February 16, 2010.
Some financing was gathered from friends and family, but there weren’t many startup costs. “The only thing we changed is the paint and the stickers (signs),” says Nguyen. He put his film career on hiatus and took over as “marketing” for Starry Kitchen, while Thi is Executive Chef. They are both on-site every day, and seem to love what they are doing. The day that I visited, Nguyen wore a sandwich board sign to promote some of the specials and had a conversation with every single customer who walked in the door. The menu is simple and changes constantly. It all falls under the general heading of Pan Asian cuisine and is priced under $10.
Without a doubt, Nguyen says that the best part of owning a restaurant is the customers. “I’m a very intense personality – I know that. Whatever I do, I figure out how to make my personality work for us, and so far it’s working here!”
Nguyen and Thi are planning to expand Starry Kitchen, especially since the work has actually been easier and more enjoyable than they expected. “I thought we would be working a lot harder for a lot fewer customers,” says Nguyen. “But we have had such a great response, our timing is great, and our sub-$10 price point for fresh food means that people are willing to taste it, and then when they taste it, they love it and come back for more!”