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.
During 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.”