Posts Tagged ‘restaurant’

Nguyen Tran & Thi Tran – Starry Kitchen Downtown LA

July 30, 2010

Nguyen Tran and Thi Tran Starry Kitchen Downtown LARestaurateur Profile: Nguyen Tran & Thi Tran

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.”

Starry Kitchen Downtown Los AngelesWithin 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!”


Gail Silverton and Joel Gutman – Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe

July 20, 2010

Gail Silverton and Joel Gutman Gelato Bar and Espresso CaffeRestaurateur Profile: Gail Silverton and Joel Gutman

Owners: Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe

4342 ½ Tujunga Ave

Studio City, CA 91604

Yelp: 4.5 stars

Interview Date: Friday, July 16, 2010

Although I grew up in Los Angeles and have spent a good deal of time in Studio City, I had never before been on the short block of Tujunga Avenue that takes you back in time to a simpler, friendlier small town. Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe is a fixture on the street of mainly husband-wife business partnerships, and it was full of neighborhood friends meeting and working over gelato, espresso and Panini.

Gail Silverton is the founder of The Neighborhood School, a well-known nursery school in the Valley. “I was operating three schools, and I love it,” says Gail. “It is a very intense business – the parents and the health and safety concerns are very serious, so I was looking for a business that was lighter … something that felt less serious. As long as we don’t poison anyone, we’re OK serving gelato.”

As she searched for the perfect location that would provide her with the sense of community that she loved about her schools, the location on Tujunga Ave. opened up and she jumped on it. “The building came available and I signed the lease – I didn’t know what it would be yet,” she says. Gail and her sister, Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery, travel to Italy annually and have a deep love of the culture, so when she saw the space, she naturally gravitated to an Italian fixture: gelato and espresso.

The café opened in September 2006, right around the time that Gail met Joel Gutman. In 2007 they were married, and in February 2007 he quit his 23-year career in the advertising business to join Gail in the café business. “We were both looking for a simpler life,” says Joel. “We were paring down as we got older. I thought to myself – if money was no object, would I be sitting at a desk all day?” The answer was clearly “no.”

gelato bar and espresso caffe studio cityThe two were planning to work in the business only occasionally, but their savings were wiped out by Bernie Madoff, bringing them deeply into the day-to-day operations. “Instead of 20 hours per week, we are working 40 hours or more,” says Joel. “But we still go to Italy every year, and are working on tasting every gelato and coffee in the country,” says Gail.

When Gail and Joel added espresso to the menu they undertook it as a learning opportunity and have fully immersed themselves in the coffee business. “Coffee is a moving target and a great challenge,” says Joel. “It is a great challenge not only to learn how to buy and make it correctly, but also to educate our customers about how espresso fits naturally with gelato – as it does in Italy.”

The best part of owning the Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe are comments like “Oh my god, this reminds me of Italy,” says Gail. “Also, we are seeing that people are becoming entwined through the café. They come here every day and get to know each other, and that’s what I really wanted – a community. We survive on about 100 customers who come in twice a day – for coffee in the morning and gelato in the afternoon, with a Panini here and there. Many of the people who come here have gotten to know each other.”

Gail sold two of her schools and has maintained one with 80 students. “I love my school, and I love this, too,” she says. “Scaling the school down was necessary so that I could do both.” Gail and Joel recently opened a second location in Los Feliz, but that location is more hands-off. “We have a great store manager – a friend of mine,” says Gail. “So we basically set up the store and trust her to run it.” As for additional locations, Gail says that they are always on the lookout, but that it really depends on finding the right community-driven location and service-oriented people to help them grow.

These factors are critical because there is something sweet about their lifestyle now. “We live two minutes from here,” says Gail. “And the customers love knowing the owners and knowing that we will do almost anything for them.” For example, one day Joel personally delivered 20 small gelato cups to a child’s birthday party on his way home one afternoon. “We can do that because we’re the owners,” says Joel. “It’s an amazing feeling to be able to say ‘yes’ to almost any crazy idea, and people really love it.”

Jean Francois Meteigner – La Cachette Bistro

July 16, 2010

Jean Francois Meteigner La Cachette BistroRestaurateur Profile: Jean Francois Meteigner

Owner: La Cachette Bistro

1733 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Monday, July 12, 2010

Jean Francois Meteigner, owner of La Cachette Bistro, was born and raised in France, and he remembers making and selling crepes with a friend that they proceeded to sell to their classmates. Of course – they ate many of the crepes themselves, too!

Jean Francois’ first apprenticeship was at the age of 15, when he worked at a high-end restaurant called Trois Gros. For three years he worked at all of the kitchen stations and learned his craft. “One day a week we would go to cooking school,” he says. “We would go to school in the morning, go back to the restaurant to help with the lunch rush, go back to school and then back to the restaurant for the dinner rush.”

Following that, he went to Bordeaux, where he worked at Le Chapon Fin restaurant for one year, went to the army for one year, and then returned to Le Chapon Fin for another six months before moving on to Paris. In Paris, Jean Francois worked at Le Chiberta, focusing mainly on appetizers and desserts. Then he went to L’ Archestrade – a three-star restaurant run by Chef Alain Sendereus. For a year he worked at the dessert, fish and meat stations.

La Cachette Bistro Santa MonicaJean Francois left France for Los Angeles in 1980 and soon found work at L’ Orangerie, which is no longer open. He started as a cook and became an Executive Chef at the age of 26 years old. After 10 years at L’ Orangerie, Jean Francois opened Cicada with a partners. After two years, Jean Francois sold his shares and moved on to become a consultant with the Bel Age Hotel.

In 1994, Jean Francois opened the first La Cachette on Little Santa Monica in Century City. “We opened in the middle of a recession – I seem to have a tendency to do that,” he says. “I opened it as a bistro – high-volume, affordable food. As the concept developed, however, it evolved into a more upscale restaurant. Every year we upgraded something to make it higher quality.”

In 2008, Jean Francois began working on opening a second La Cachette in Santa Monica, but meanwhile renovations on Beverly Glen Blvd. made it increasingly difficult for guests to access the Century City location. “They basically locked up access to the restaurant,” he says.

After serious consideration, Jean Francois decided to close the original location and move everything to Santa Monica. The new location opened August 28, 2009.

Sixty percent of the menu at La Cachette is French, and all of it is prepared using French techniques, but there is definitely an international approach to food, including some sashimi and specials like beef chilli.

“I was never too French,” says Jean Francois. “My grandfather was from Naples, and I cook a lot of Italian food, along with Californian and Asian … a blend of different styles. The truth is that I’m not that French anymore – I’m more American than French, and I don’t want to be stuck with just one style of food.” Everything for the restaurant is cooked on-site, including the smoked fish, desserts, fruit purees and breads (except for the table bread).

“Everything is fresh,” says Jean Francois. “I go to the farmers market every Wednesday and Saturday and make sure that I get the freshest, best ingredients. I incorporate as many California seasonal ingredients as possible and try to stay green.”

Jean Francois says that he thought the transition from one location to the second would be easier, but he feels he is still getting used to the new space and clientele. The best part of the new location is the more functional kitchen, a newer building, outside seating and nice air quality. As for the hardest part: “The stress of the economy,” he says. “I don’t think it’s about how much I’m working or how great our food is right now – it’s about the economy. One week it’s busy, the next it’s slow. The restaurant business in a recession is hell – you have to watch every single penny.” To boost the restaurant’s visibility, La Cachette engages in lots of marketing. “We do everything – promotions, special events, blogs, Twitter – you name it, we do it,” he says.

And for all of the stress that Jean Francois openly discussed (which I appreciated since most people don’t go into that during these interviews), he is obviously very happy being a restaurant owner. “I’m good at it – it is hard work, but I love it,” he says.

Claudio Blotta and Adria Tennor Blotta – Barbrix Silverlake

July 9, 2010

Claudio Blott and Adria Tenor Blotta Barbrix SilverlakeRestaurateur Profile: Claudio Blotta and Adria Tennor Blotta

Owners: Barbrix

2442 Hyperion Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90027 (Silverlake Neighborhood)

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Claudio Blotta and Adria Tennor Blotta, owners of Barbrix in Silverlake, had two major obstacles to overcome right from the beginning: 1) it took two years for the city permitting process to be completed, during which time they were paying rent on their location and steadily accumulating debt; 2) they opened in the trough of the current economic recession. Luckily, years of experience in restaurant operations and a powerful drive, they made it, and have become a fixture in Silverlake.

Adria is an actress who worked at numerous restaurants to support her acting career. “After acting school, I became a cappuccino waitress and got to know the food at the upscale restaurant where I was working,” says Adria. “Then I noticed that I actually got a lot of acting work from making friends with people at the restaurant.”

After working at numerous Los Angeles restaurants, Adria began working at Campanille restaurant, where she first met Claudio. “I never thought I would end up marrying him and opening a restaurant with him,” laughs Adria. “He was just my hard-ass boss at the time!

Barbrix Restaurant SilverlakeClaudio was born and raised in Argentina; he moved to Los Angeles in 1981 with the goal of becoming a commercial pilot. He lived with his uncle, who was the General Manager of the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Sherman Oaks, and although he had no restaurant experience, he got a job as a waiter.

“I was learning to fly and working at the restaurant, and then I realized that I wasn’t going to become a commercial pilot,” says Claudio. When Princess Cruise Lines opened a restaurant, Princess, in Century City, Claudio joined as a busboy and left three years later as a Dining Room Captain. He repeated that process at Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills, where he joined as a waiter and left as a captain.

“Then in 1989 I got the best job of my life – a waiter at Campanille,” says Claudio. Again he rose up the ranks and became a managing partner at the restaurant. He was there for 11 years, at the end of which Adria joined his team and worked as a waitress.

Claudio and Adria were no longer working together when they met at a funeral in 2001, and that’s when Claudio asked Adria out on a date. “We went on a few dates, but I said I wasn’t ready to be dating anyone, which I thought was a nice way to get rid of him,” says Adria with a smile. “Then I took a pole dancing class, called him, and asked him out.” Adria ended up writing a one-woman show about the experience, called Strip Search, which she performs a few times per year.

The inspiration for Barbrix came over dinner with friends. “We were talking about how many great wines there are that are very reasonably-priced, and we had the idea to open a casual, fun, homey-looking restaurant,” says Adria. “We wanted a neighborhood place where people would come a few times per week – not just a few times per year.”

“Our goal was to find smaller producers, hand-crafted wines,” says Claudio. “We enjoy exposing our guests to different varietals, different wines than they are used to drinking.” The pairing of high-quality foods and wines were the foundation of Barbrix … as long as they were presented in a non-threatening manner. “We want people to feel like they are in their living room here,” says Claudio.

“There were times when we wanted to give up,” says Adria. “That would have meant losing everything, but as an actress I’m used to banking on a dream – pushing through the “nos” and turning them into yeses.” It was Adria’s optimism that kept the pair driving towards their goal despite the endless curveballs they encountered. “We realize now that we had to go through this to be truly grateful for what we have here,” says Adria.

The restaurant opened in May, 2009. “A few days before we opened, we went to the Rose Bowl swap meet to get all of our furniture,” says Claudio. “When we got back, we turned on the music and cried like babies. That was when we realized that this was really going to happen. It was the highlight of my career.”

Evan Silver – Buddha’s Belly

June 26, 2010

Evan Silver Buddha's BellyRestaurateur Profile: Evan Silver

Co-Owner: Buddha’s Belly

7475 Beverly Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90036

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Monday, June 21, 2010

Evan Silver, co-owner of Buddha’s Belly, got his start in the liquor business – his grandfather was co-owner in Vendome Liquor, one of the most famous liquor stores in Los Angeles. Pioneers of the holiday gift basket, Evan found himself working in the store and making deliveries during school holidays.

While he was in high school, his parents’ neighbor opened a cool new restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen, in 1985. “It was the ‘hot,’ cool place to eat and work,” says Evan. “I got a job there at sixteen as part of the opening team of the second location.” After just one summer, he was part of the team, and he continued to work when he could during breaks from high school and college.

“When I finished college in 1991, the economy was not quite where it is today, but it was bad,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what to do, and so I was working as a server at the CPK in Marina Del Rey. My friend who was working there with me got promoted to management, and I figured that if he could do it, I could, so that became my goal.”

Soon after, Evan was promoted to management and ended up working in every CPK in the area. “I saw that there were lots of different ways to do the same thing,” says Evan. He settled in at the CPK Wells Fargo Center and was working there when the L.A. Riots broke out. “They (headquarters) called me immediately to make sure I was OK, which made me feel like I really mattered to them,” he says.

After 10 months, Evan was called in by the HR manager, Don FitzGerald. “I wasn’t sure why I was being called in,” says Evan. “You just never know if it’s going to be something bad.” It definitely wasn’t bad … Don offered Evan the position of director of recruiting based on his knowledge of the company, his understanding of its culture, and the fact that he speaks Spanish fluently.

“It was a phenomenal opportunity for me,” says Evan. “Over the course of seven years, we went from 26 to 84 restaurants, and I was involved in hiring teams for many of them. I was traveling the country to interview, develop and train our management teams. I learned so much about the industry and how to run a restaurant.”

Buddha's Belly RestaurantIn 2000, Evan felt that he was ready for a change. He was hired by an executive search company, where he worked for 2.5 years. “I was ready to stop telling someone else’s story and begin telling my story,” says Evan.

Long-time friend Jonathan Chu had always wanted to open a restaurant, and over the years the friends had talked about many different concepts. “We got together and decided that there was no place where we could get good noodles from all over the world,” says Evan. “Everything from Udon to Pad Thai – it seemed like a great concept.”

In 2002 the friends became partners and hired Hisashi Yoshiara, a classically-trained French chef. They found a great location on Beverly Blvd. “We met with the owner, who was considering multiple offers for the space,” says Evan. “We were really glad that he chose us.”

In January 2007 they opened a second location in Santa Monica, and they are now looking at other Los Angeles locations to further expand the concept. “Our goal since Day 1 was to be multi-unit,” says Evan. “We’re looking to open 1-2 restaurants per year in the next three years and then ramp it up after that.”

In describing what it’s like to own a restaurant, Evan told me “Yesterday I brought a laptop and a pipe wrench to work – that’s a pretty typical of what it’s like to be in this business.” As for what he likes best about working in the restaurant business, Evan says it’s being a part of the community and watching customers achieve milestones over the years.

Joanna Moore – Axe Restaurant Venice

June 23, 2010

Joanna Moore Axe Restaurant Venice BeachRestaurateur Profile: Joanna Moore

Owner: Axe

1009 Abbot Kinney

Venice, CA 90291

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, June 17, 2010

Personally, I was thrilled to interview Joanna Moore, owner of Axe Restaurant on Abbot Kinney in Venice. As my 27th interview, she is only the third woman owner whom I have profiled. It is always exciting for me to see women in the male-dominated restaurant industry. For our interview, we sat outside in the recently opened patio garden behind Axe, which was featured that day in a patio dining story in the Los Angeles times. The garden is lovely, with Mediterranean landscaping that is very restful.

“Owning a restaurant was not something that I dreamed about,” says Joanna. “But it turned out that making food for other people was a good fit for me.”

Axe Restaurant Abbot Kinney Venice BeachA native of Santa Monica, Joanna worked “random jobs” in her early twenties while also attending art school. “I ended up being a server for a catering company, and helped out the chef in the kitchen one day,” says Joanna. “The chef mentioned it to the owner, and asked if I could be transferred to help in the kitchen.”

Meanwhile, Joanna was also working at a culinary store and school on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. “It was a charming shop – beautiful, fresh and new in its vision,” says Joanna. “I was a salesperson, but then the owner asked if I would assist in the cooking school. It seemed like the opportunity to work in a commercial kitchen kept being presented to me.”

“Despite myself, I started learning the different cooking techniques and began cooking more at home and pursuing cooking more,” says Joanna. “I decided to work in a restaurant and was hired as a line cook with no experience. It was great – I was exposed to working on a line and a whole different side of food than I had seen before.”

Joanna next found a position in a family restaurant where she worked under the tutelage of an “Italian Mama.” The kitchen was modern, but the style was old-world. “She didn’t speak much English, but I learned so much from her about working with simple, fresh ingredients and lots of vegetables,” says Joanna. “The Mediterranean style of food appeals to me – the climate and the attitude matches California.”

After working in the restaurant for a while, Joanna struck out on her own at the original location of Axe on Santa Monica Blvd. “I was working and then I had the impulse to open my own place,” says Joanna. “I just went for it – took the leap.” The original concept was a small café with soups and salads. “I wanted to pursue a functional art career simultaneously,” says Joanna. “But running the restaurant kind of took over – I was running it all as the owner and manager.” The restaurant opened in 1990, but the 1994 earthquake caused significant damage, and she closed the location in 1995.

After a few years off while pursuing other goals related to supporting farmers, Joanna opened Axe in the new location on Abbot Kinney in Venice in 1999. “I’m a pretty casual person, and Axe reflects that while staying true to high-quality ingredients,” says Joanna. “I have a strong passion about farmers and supporting organic growers.”

“Restaurants are a vital part of our food chain,” says Joanna. “But so many people have become separated from where food comes from. I love serving good food and helping people understand why it’s so good.” After a lengthy permitting process, Joanna was finally allowed to open the garden behind the restaurant in November 2009.

For now, she is very comfortable celebrating her garden and has no immediate plans for further expansion. “I really like small intimate sole-proprietor businesses,” says Joanna. “Multiple locations can really impact the quality, and I am satisfied with what we’re doing here. I’m looking into how I can be more involved in fundraising efforts for organic farming interests.”

Raphael Lunetta – JiRaffe Santa Monica

June 22, 2010

Raphael Lunetta Jiraffe Restaurant Santa MonicaRestaurateur Profile: Raphael Lunetta

Co-Owner: JiRaffe

502 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 4.5 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, June 17, 2010

From a young age, Raphael Lunetta, owner of JiRaffe in Santa Monica, loved going out to eat. “Going to a restaurant seemed like a special treat,” says Raphael. A Santa Monica native, his two passions are surfing and enjoying eating. “If it’s not good, I won’t eat it, but when it’s good food, I want to taste everything, order everything,” he says.

Part of his passion for good food comes from traveling to France most summers from the time he was seven years old. His French mother would send him to stay with his aunt, who was an incredible cook living on the Spanish border of France. “We ate true French Provencal food,” says Raphael. “And there was a charming fishing village with restaurants, coffee shops, desserts … all of those images are what I associate with pleasure and enjoyment.” As an aside, Raphael told me that he even loved eating the food on his Air France flights!

Raphael had his first restaurant job (as a busboy) in the eighth grade. “Dad was upset – he wanted me to focus only on school,” says Raphael. At heart, however, Raphael’s father could understand the passion for restaurants, as his own father (Raphael’s grandfather) was in the restaurant business. In high school, Raphael and his best friend Josiah Citrin would sell their records so that they could go out to dinner together. As a competitive surfer beginning in Junior High, Raphael focused on surfing and working at restaurants to support himself and to eat really good food. In fact, at that point in the interview, Raphael started talking about the quality of the staff meals at restaurants, and then he jumped up and brought me a sample of what his staff ate for lunch that day. It was delicious!

Upon graduation from Santa Monica High School, Raphael headed to Hawaii to surf, while Josiah went to France to work in restaurants. During Josiah’s breaks, they would travel through Europe together, surfing. In 1987, Josiah asked Raphael why he didn’t stay in Europe and work there so that eventually they could pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. It seemed like a good time, so Raphael stayed and ended up working in restaurants around Europe. “At the time, the restaurant business was not very glamorous,” says Raphael – referencing the fact that today celebrity chefs have elevated the profession. “Also, it is a very difficult business, but also very rewarding.”

Jiraffe Restaurant Santa MonicaIn 1988 Raphael came back to Santa Monica and worked at the Broadway Deli, where he was responsible for all operations and purchasing. At 24 years old, it was a big learning opportunity for him. “It was good, but hard,” he says. “It felt like a big sacrifice at the time, but well worth the effort.” Josiah was working at Patina, and Raphael decided to join him there. “The lesson at Patina was that if you work hard, you will be successful,” says Raphael. “I learned a lot about running a restaurant there.”

After two years at Patina, Raphael and Josiah worked together on the opening team of a restaurant named Capri on Abbot Kinney in Venice. “We made very little money, but after eight months we got a little bit of buzz, and there was a line out the door,” says Raphael. The pair had an opportunity to work with Alan Jackson, and became co-chefs at Jackson’s Restaurant, and later Jackson’s Farm. After several years, the pair became excited about owning their own restaurant again.

“We were looking for locations and found this one,” says Raphael of the current location of JiRaffe. “It had been damaged in the earthquake and smelled like an Indian restaurant, but we negotiated a deal – with no money in the bank – and the landlord took a chance on us.” JiRaffe has evolved into an intimate bistro, and it gets high rankings for both service and food quality. Josiah sold his share to Rapahel and opened Melisse on Wilshire Blvd., but the two re-joined to create Lemon Moon on Olympic Blvd. “We do very well both together and separately,” says Raphael. Both have come a long way from selling their records in order to enjoy a meal out!

Pasqual Franqueza LA Paella Restaurant Los Angeles

June 21, 2010

Pasqual Franqueza La Paella Restaurant Los AngelesRestaurateur Profile: Pasqual Franqueza

Owner: LA Paella

476 South San Vicente Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90048

Yelp: 4stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, June 15, 2010

There are two things that Pasqual Franqueza, owner of LA Paella, tells me as soon as I sit down: first, that there are no computers in his restaurant; second, that he is in the service business, not the food business. These two statements sum up a lot of Pasqual’s beliefs about running a restaurant.

Pasqual believes that Spanish cuisine – that is, food from Spain – is confused, misunderstood and ignored. Because of the widespread use of the Spanish language, many people mistakenly believe that Argentinian, Venezuelan, Mexican and other foods from countries that speak Spanish are the same as food from his home country. “We still get people coming in here looking for guacamole and margaritas,” says Pasqual.

Originally from the Valencia region of Spain, Pasqual found his first restaurant opportunity in Paris. He was working in the kitchen in a seedy neighborhood in Paris until he found a job on Avenue Montaigne (a much better neighborhood) that paid more for him to wash dishes. “I made the switch, and that was when I started to understand how customers and neighborhood can shape a restaurant,” says Pasqual.

In 1973, an opportunity with an uncle running a bakery in Connecticut brought him to the U.S. “I found out quickly that my uncle just wanted to squeeze me – he started me working the night I arrived,” says Pasqual. When his Visa expired after several renewals he made his way back to Spain and began working in the town of Javea at an American-owned restaurant called Scotthy’s Western BBQ. “Then I met a woman from London and we decided to go there,” says Pasqual. The high cost of living in London, where he worked as a bartender, soon drove them back to Spain, and Pasqual opened a small bar, Cul de Sac, with the capacity for 22 people … standing. “I was having a ball, and then the opportunity came up to start a restaurant with a partner,” says Pasqual.

Two years later he moved on, this time to Los Angeles. “A successful American restaurateur was touring Spain and a friend introduced us,” says Pasqual. “He promised me a job either with his restaurant or through one of his connections if I ever moved to the States.” So, in 1984, Pasqual moved to Los Angeles and began working at Dante’s Restaurant on Wilshire (which closed a year or so ago). “Everything was working for me,” says Pasqual. “I was always busy at work, and I needed something outside of work to do, so I started taking classes at Santa Monica College.” Thus, while working at two restaurants, Pasqual completed his degree at Santa Monica College and then attended National University, from which he graduated Summa Cum Laude.

Feeling that perhaps the restaurant business wasn’t where he should stay, Pasqual explored other avenues, and was considering pursuing a Certified Public Accountant degree (CPA), but after passing the four parts of the CPA exam and several interviews at big firms in Los Angeles, he discovered that it was unlikely he could find as much happiness in that industry as with a restaurant. After managing a successful restaurant in Malibu for three years, Pasqual felt confident in his path: he was going to open a Spanish restaurant in Los Angeles.

A friend from college wanted to invest in the business with Pasqual, and their agreement helped get LA Paella on its feet. Pasqual later bought out his partner and now owns the restaurant independently.

“The restaurant business is a team business,” says Pasqual. “It’s like a string of pearls – each pearl has value on its own, but when strung together they are worth much more than the sum of their parts.”

As for the best part of the business, Pasqual gave me my most interesting answer yet: “I never have to go shopping or cook a meal – everything that I need is right here.”

Ray White – The Veggie Grill

June 17, 2010

Ray White The Veggie Grill RestaurantRestaurateur Profile: Ray White

Co-Owner: The Veggie Grill

Plaza El Segundo

720 Allied Way, El Segundo, CA 90245

Three additional locations in Los Angeles and Irvine

Yelp: 4.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life,” says Ray White, co-owner of The Veggie Grill. Originally from Boston, Ray’s father and uncle owned restaurants, and the family was regularly holding clam bakes and otherwise gathering around food. In 1969 Ray had graduated from College when he and a friend drove from Florida to California with no clear goal in mind. “We didn’t know where we were going, but we just kept driving and then all of a sudden we were in Santa Monica, at the beach, and we said ‘we’re here!’” says Ray.

Ray remembers walking up and down the streets of Santa Monica, looking for a job. He finally landed at a pizzeria located on Third Street (before it was the Promenade) – a restaurant owned by Mickey Rooney. “They asked me if I could throw pizzas in the window – I said ‘of course!’” says Ray. When they realized that Ray actually didn’t know how to throw pizzas, they kept him on anyway. “I was throwing pizzas and washing the floors and one day I suddenly had an epiphany,” says Ray. “I thought: why don’t I just open my own restaurant?”

So, at 26 years old, Ray opened his first restaurant. Located in Pacific Palisades, he named it “The First National Food Company.” His second restaurant was called the Cliff House located in Playa Del Rey, and he continued to explore new concepts and opportunities through the 1980s.

In about 1990, Ray was told about a restaurant called The Empty Plate – a vegetarian restaurant on the second floor of a building (not an ideal location, he says). “I went once and I liked it,” says Ray. “Then I found myself wanting to go back, again and again. I took two bites of the Moby Dick Sandwich, which was made with tempeh, and all the bells and whistles went off in my head.” Ray felt confident that vegetarian food and meat-alternatives like tempeh offered a whole new product opportunity. “With every restaurant, you’re looking at the same basic product: meat, fish and chicken,” says Ray. “Now here was a whole new product and I thought ‘what if I take this to mainstream America?’”

The owner of the restaurant, Tanya Petrovna, and Ray ended up going into business together and opened Native Foods together in 1994. “She taught me everything about this product,” says Ray. “She was really way ahead of her time.” During his time working with Tanya, Ray discovered a whole new way of life. “What began as a business opportunity turned into a passion – a spiritual thing for me,” says Ray. “I became dedicated to showing people the benefits of a plant-based diet.”

The Veggie Grill Vegan RestaurantWhile Tanya and Ray were running and expanding Native Foods, Ray’s current partners, Kevin Boylan and T.K. Pillan, were young, successful and semi-retired and became interested in the plant-based food movement. “They both saw an opportunity for a healthy place to eat, and had a passion to do something,” says Ray. When they first approached Ray, the entrepreneurs were not yet vegans, but when they re-approached him and said they had been vegans for six months, he began to seriously consider their offer. The first Veggie Grill was opened in Irvine in 2005, and the company now has four outlets, with two more scheduled for this year, six in 2011, and a business plan to open hundreds of outlets nationwide.

In fact, Ray would like to see enough of a movement for meat alternatives that the prices go down and the restaurant chain can eventually open a drive-through. “Fast food isn’t going away,” says Ray. “But we can influence the way it is prepared and delivered – and eventually what it does to your body. You are what you feed yourself.”

There is no question where Ray’s passions lie – he truly believes in the food-body-mind connection and presents his ideas clearly and without preaching. “With our product, we have the ability to change people’s consciousness and their whole relationship with food,” says Ray. “I’m not saying that everyone has to become a vegetarian or vegan, but it can become a regular part of your mix of food.”

Ray Byrne – The Slaw Dogs Pasadena

June 7, 2010

Ray Byrne Slaw Dogs PasadenaRestaurateur Profile: Ray Byrne

Owner: The Slaw Dogs

720 N Lake Ave #8

Pasadena, CA 91104

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Saturday, May 29, 2010

Disclosure: Ray Byrne and I graduated from the same high school – La Canada High School. Although I didn’t know him in high school, I must admit that interviewing a fellow alumnus was exciting!

While growing up in La Canada, Ray’s parents owned a coffee shop in Old Town Pasadena … before the town was completely renovated. Ray says that he worked at the café “reluctantly,” with no idea that it would one day serve him well.

After graduating from high school, he moved to Hollywood, where he and his girlfriend had plans to become famous. Like many aspiring to the entertainment profession, the two supported themselves working in restaurants. In 1993, Ray joined Il Fornaio Italian restaurant in Pasadena. When the company decided to open a location in Santa Monica, Ray was more than happy to be transferred to the new location, where he was a server/trainer for about two years before, he says, he “burned out” and took off for Europe.

“I was just burned out on everything and went to Europe for six weeks,” he says. “I took most of the year off, exploring food until I eventually ran out of money and needed to figure out what I was going to do next.”

It just happened that Il Fornaio was looking for managers with experience with the company for its Coronado location. It was a natural fit for Ray, but “I had to decide if that was a commitment I wanted to make,” he says. “I decided to do it – it was a great location right on the water, and I was the Assistant Manager for about four years.”

“That was my first taste of taking a place that was struggling and being a part of turning it around,” says Ray. He established a relationship with a mentor, George Tegami, the General Manager of the location, and together they increased the business almost five times and carved the restaurant into a really well-known spot in San Diego.Based on his success, Ray was offered the General Manager position at the Santa Monica location. “At 28 years old, I was the youngest GM in the company,” says Ray. “It was definitely an honor.”

A few years later, Ray was introduced to some people who owned restaurants in Malibu, including Moonshadows and The Sunset. “They were super guys – fantastic operators,” says Ray. After a few months of negotiations, Ray joined as General Manager of The Sunset. “It had an amazing location, but needed attention,” he says. “My role was to be there 24/7 and figure out how to steer the restaurant in the right direction and turn it into a successful location.”

The Slaw Dogs PasadenaThe first action Ray took was to secure an excellent chef. He also focused on defining the different areas of the restaurant, which has two levels – fine dining upstairs and a bar/lounge downstairs. After two years of relentless work at the restaurant, Ray and his wife had to make some tough decisions. “I had stretched myself way too thin,” says Ray. “I hit a wall regarding how to keep giving without sacrificing the quality of my attention in any single part of my life.”

Ray made the difficult decision to quit at The Sunset. “It was the hardest decision of my life – I had put everything I had into that role,” he says. Once the decision was made, Ray efficiently created a succession plan for The Sunset and began work on his own concept, which originated during a casual BBQ. “We had a housewarming party in July 2009, and I had made some Thai-inspired coleslaw and hot dogs,” says Ray. “Everybody loved them, and the idea of forming a restaurant concept based on that BBQ sat in the back of my mind for about three months.”

Once free of his obligations at The Sunset, Ray moved quickly to open The Slaw Dogs. “The location had been vacant for three months – it was trashed,” he says. “But I decided that it was time to make the leap.” Ray leased the location in November 2009 and spent every moment of his spare time (he was still transitioning out of The Sunset) fixing up the location. He held his first mock service on January 28, 2010, and the opening party was held on February 8.

After three months in business, Ray says that running his own restaurant is fun. “The best part is getting to see families evolve, grow and change,” he says. “You get to see people come for birthdays, first dates, when they’re pregnant – it’s really cool.” Significant press, including the Los Angeles Times, has made The Slaw Dogs an overnight sensation. Ray’s wife Amy pitches in one day per week, and Ray also called his mother Jennifer in from semi-retirement to help at the restaurant. As for the future, Ray says that his current focus is to make the first restaurant successful, but he is definitely watching for signs that this concept can grow to additional locations.