Posts Tagged ‘Culver City’

Michelle Nigro – Lunch

October 2, 2010

Michelle Nigro Lunch Culver CityRestaurateur Profile: Michelle Nigro

Owner: Lunch

3829 Main Street

Culver City, CA 90232

www.eatatlunch.com

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.”

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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

www.beacon-la.com

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.”