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.
Meanwhile, 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.”