Posts Tagged ‘Santa Monica Restaurants’

Michael McCarty – Michael’s

October 20, 2010

Michael McCarty Michael's Restaurant Santa MonciaRestaurateur Profile: Michael McCarty

Owner: Michael’s

1147 Third Street

Santa Monica, CA 90403

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, October 12, 20

Michael McCarty, owner of Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica, with another location in New York, grew up “in Mad Men time,” he says. “My dad was an executive at GE and spent a lot of time entertaining and being entertained. The restaurant business in New York was driven by ad companies at the time.” In addition to visiting restaurants, Michael’s parents loved to entertain. “Mom and Dad entertained all the time, and I enjoyed watching them throw great parties with great people. They always combined the best: the best people, food, beverages, design and experience. I was hard-wired for this business.”

Growing up, Michael noticed that the best restaurants were always classical French restaurants. “90% of the people in the restaurant business were Europeans,” he says. “It was not a career choice for Americans, because in the 1950s and 1960s people ate because they were hungry – it was not yet a part of the culture.” Michael’s interest in food grew substantially during his Junior (high school) year abroad in Brittany, France, and began on the ship he and his classmates took to get there. “It was an Italian boat, and at the time in New York, Italian food was pretty bad,” he says. “It took us 11 days to get to France, and during that time I enjoyed the very simple, clean food and the wonderful way the waiters created this very stylish form of hospitality. It was a wonderful, positive experience.”

After his year abroad Michael returned home for a year to graduate high school, then turned around and went back to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu in 1972. “It was extremely helpful that I had been in France before and spoke the language,” says Michael. “I went to hotel and restaurant school at the same time as attending chef school, and then attended Academie Du Vin, which was the first school to demystify wines.” It was during this time that Michael began to piece together his own style of cooking, “California Cuisine.”

“It is a combination of classic French techniques, Nouvelle Cuisine and my own history of learning about entertaining through my mom and dad,” says Michael. “I got to pick and choose how to blend all three and create this new style and flavor.” After attending a summer program in Hotel and Restaurant management at Cornell University, Michael visited his brother in Boulder, Colorado. “Boulder was incredible: there were farms all over the place and you could get wonderful produce – everything you could want,” says Michael. He began teaching French cooking classes in French at the University and received his own undergraduate college degree while there.

Michael's Restaurant Santa Moncia“When it was time for me to move on, I called Lois Dwan, the Los Angeles Times food critic, and asked which restaurants were best in L.A.,” says Michael. “At her suggestion, I got together with Jean Bertranou of L’Ermitage on La Cienega and we brainstormed on what was missing in California. We figured that what you couldn’t get here was the French ingredients, so we started shipping them in from France – arugula, cheese, fish. We started supplying other restaurants, and then started bringing in the seeds to grow the mache, arugulas, haricot verts, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom beets, and other great produce from France. Then we noticed that you couldn’t get good duck here, so we started breeding ducks and created the first foie gras in America.

In April of 1979, Michael opened Michael’s on Third Street. “It’s a modern American restaurant that serves a new style of modern American food,” he says. “It’s a little bit spa, a little Nouvelle, a little classic … all served in a beautiful indoor-outdoor setting. At the time, most of the restaurants here were 90% inside – with no windows! I found this location and saw that I could build a garden and recognized its potential. I brought in all the best plates, glasses and flowers. My wife is a painter, and we have always incorporated art and jazz. I went to a little-known designer, Ralph Lauren, and he developed our uniforms – a prep look.”

In addition to the food and the location, Michael also focused heavily on the service aspect of the restaurant. “I developed a completely new way of operating a restaurant without snootiness,” he says. “I am about creating an experience of great food, great wine, a great environment and great people

In 1989 Michael opened Michael’s New York. “My whole goal was to design a new style of restaurant experience,” he says. “I broke down the stereotypes to create a civilized dining experience, and our revolution has succeeded. Great chefs like Jon Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton and Roy Yamaguchi all worked here.”


Russell Barnard – Rusty’s Surf Ranch

September 29, 2010

Russell Barnard Rusty's Surf Ranch

Cindy Pfeifer, Russell Barnard and Carlos Avelar

Restaurateur Profile: Russell Barnard

Owner: Rusty’s Surf Ranch

256 Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, September 23, 2010

Russell Barnard, owner of Rusty’s Surf Ranch, fell into the restaurant business as a natural evolution. “Other than the fact that my mom worked at the drugstore (food) counter when I was a kid, I had nothing to do with the restaurant business until early in the 1980s,” he says. He and his brother owned a design firm and some of their clients included restaurants. When his friend opened a bar in Malibu he found himself naturally extending his design input to restaurant operations. “I was spending a lot of time with him talking about how to run a food business,” says Russell. “So I thought that maybe I should give it a try. In the mid-1980s I opened an espresso bar/café on Main Street in Santa Monica.”

A few years after that in 1987 he opened The Tavern on Main. “My concept was to offer a piece of the East Coast here in the West,” says Russell. “It wasn’t much from the outside but there was a great patio and kitchen inside.” The restaurant is still in operation – he sold it to one of his managers, Rick, who renamed it Rick’s Tavern.

In 1994 Russell found out that a restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier, the Crown & Anchor, was going out of business. “It was basically a Fish & Chips place, and at the time the city really wanted the Pier occupied because the World Cup was coming,” says Russell. “I picked it up and kept it as-is for about a year before I did a full remodel and update. My idea was to blend seafood and BBQ. Of course, then I realized that on a pier people typically are not looking for BBQ – they’re looking for some form of seafood. It took about six years, but our menu adjusted based on what people wanted with a heavy focus on seafood. Interestingly, the Crown & Anchor’s No. 2 best seller was fish & chips, and guess what ours is?”

Russell’s original idea of creating a fun restaurant based around entertainment and good portions has stayed true. “As a large working class family one of the most affordable group activities available to us was road trips,” says Russell. “One of my father’s favorite road trips – which quickly became mine – was to drive from the far corners of the valley to the Santa Monica Pier. In those days, before the 101 and the 405 freeways, it was a long haul for a family of six stuffed into a Chevy station wagon for the hour and ½ trip over the pass for a day of fun. But it was always well-worth the trip.”

Approaching his 20-year anniversary, Russell recognizes that Rusty’s Surf Ranch has evolved over the years. “The first 5-6 years I was just working with the cooks to develop recipes to suit my palate and appeal to our customers,” he says. “I’m all about listening to the customer, but there are also some quirks – like I’m allergic to bell peppers, so for the first 10 years there were no bell peppers on the menu at all, and even today bell peppers have a low presence on our menu.” About eight years ago Russell worked with Danny Harold to revamp the menu, and it has remained relatively stable since then.

Rusty's Surf Ranch Santa Monica Pier“My passion for the restaurant business really revolves largely around the people,” says Russell. “Carlos Avelar, our chef, has been here for 10 years and now he’s a partner in the business. Cindy Pfeifer came with me when I first opened this place as a floor manager. Today she does all band bookings, private parties, marketing and special events. She is also a partner. It just feels better to everybody when you have people who care about you and like working with you.”

Operating a restaurant on a pier provides some unique challenges and opportunities. “This place is largely out of sight, out of mind,” says Russell. “We don’t have local customers eating here three times per week, but we do get locals, so we work hard to be a place that is fun and interesting to tourists without becoming a crappo tourist place. Most tourist places care only about the one-time business – not repeat business, but we care. Sometimes we’ll have tourists come back here 2-3 times while they’re here.”

Russell says that he is interested in another location, but that right now his focus is on renewing his 20-year lease on the pier. “The Pier is a gem, and the people who work and visit there turn it into a teeming microcosm of the world around it,” says Russell. “Listen closely on almost any day and you can hear virtually every language and dialect. Look around and you’ll see the faces of a thousand cultures and observe the customs and courtesies of a world of seemingly unrelated people. Yet the more often you enjoy this experience the more strongly you feel the real connection that keeps us all together as one on this planet.”

Geraldine Gilliland – Lula Cocina Mexicana

September 13, 2010

Geraldine Gilliland Lula Cocina MexicanaRestaurateur Profile: Geraldine Gilliland

Owner: Lula Cocina Mexicana

2720 Main Street

Santa Monica, CA 90405

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Geraldine Gilliland, owner of Lula Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Santa Monica, began her food career as a cooking teacher and caterer with clients ranging from Orange County to Santa Barbara. In 1984 she opened her first restaurant, Gilliland’s Cafe. She opened Lula Cocina in July 1991. “It was not planned,” she said. “I was vacationing in Cabo and had a tarot card reading. I asked whether I should open a restaurant, and the answer was yes, yes, and yes. When I returned home and told my husband about it, he told me that Café Pelican (on Main Street in Santa Monica) was for sale, and we bought it. It wasn’t easy – a lot of people wanted this space – it has a great location, bar and patio.”

Lula Cocina Mexicana Santa MonicaOriginally from Ireland, from a family of “terrible cooks,” Geraldine entered a new realm upon opening Lula Cocina by learning about Mexican cuisine. “It started when our cooks at Gilliland’s would cook the employee meals,” said Geraldine. “That’s what first attracted me to the Mexican concept. Then I read an article in Bon Appetit and it profiled the top Mexican chefs, including Lula Bertran. I called the editor of Bon Appetit and asked which of the chefs she would recommend for classes, and she told me to call Lula. The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with Lula and, shortly after, on a plane to Mexico City, where I joined her cooking school in her home. We spent every day cooking, going to the markets, and eating in restaurants to fully explore the food.”

It was during her first trip to visit Lula that the décor for Lula Cocina was sketched out in Geraldine’s mind. “It was my first time in Mexico City, and I immediately noticed the colors,” she said. “Those are the bright colors that you now see in the restaurant. My husband, Theodore Lonsway, owned an antique store and was fascinated with color and art. Together, we designed the colors and decoration of this restaurant – on a shoestring budget, of course.”

Her visit to Mexico City also inspired the name of the restaurant. “I didn’t know what to call it, and then I thought – I wonder if Lula would mind if I use her name,” said Geraldine. “She was so honored, and she and some of the other chefs featured in that Bon Appetit article came here for our first anniversary. We had a huge event – a great party.”

Geraldine and her husband self-funded Lula Cocina, and it was an instant hit. “We had a line out the door on our first Friday,” said Geraldine. “I was terrified because I was in the kitchen. I did 400 dinners and ran out of food. The tickets were spitting out so fast – like a telex machine, and I was in tears. We closed at 7 p.m. that night, but everybody understood, and we worked out the kinks for the next night.”

As Lula Cocina grew, Geraldine never forgot its namesake. “I would travel with Lula – anytime she had a food event, I would tag along as her assistant,” said Geraldine. “We would take groups on trips to Oaxaca, the Yucatan – all over the place.” Although Lula has now retired, Geraldine still travels to Mexico about twice per year. “The only challenges with traveling are my dogs and the fact that I’m the only one who signs payroll,” said Geraldine. “I have to time my travel based on keeping payroll moving.”

The restaurant business is hard, says Geraldine. “I’m lucky – I have cashflow, but the hardest part for any restaurant is making payroll,” she said. “And of course trying to stay up-to-date with the rules and regulations of the restaurant industry.”

The best part of owning restaurants for Geraldine is “I love food, love drinking, and love reading the customer comment cards on Monday mornings. I love creating new stuff, growing stuff, and working with people over time. I have good people in my restaurants.” In addition to Lula Cocina, Geraldine also owns Finn McCool’s Irish Pub and Rancho Chiquita Events, named after her 250-acre ranch where she hosts and caters many special events. She cross-trains her more than 50 employees and shares them throughout the restaurants and catering business.

“My advice for people who want to be a restaurant entrepreneur is to think very carefully about it before you start,” said Geraldine. “Just because you have a location and know about food, you still have no business opening a restaurant, where you have to know how to work Excel, bookkeeping, and a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with food.”

In addition to food, Geraldine is passionate about the protection and rehabilitation of abused and abandoned animals, a cause for which she frequently hosts and supports charitable activities and events.

Thierry Boisson – Acadie Crepes

September 8, 2010

Thierry Boisson - Acadie Crepes Santa MonicaRestaurateur Profile: Thierry Boisson

Owner: Acadie Crepes

213 Arizona Ave.

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thierry Boisson, owner of Acadie Crepes, is originally from the South of France, where he grew up in the crepes business. He opened his first restaurant at 22 years old, eventually opening three restaurants around France before he caught the American Dream and decided to emigrate in 1992. “I came with two crepes makers in my suitcase,” he says. “I was ready to try making crepes in a new place.” Upon arrival, Thierry traveled around the U.S. in an R.V., touring Route 66 and “trying every diner along the way,” he says. “They aren’t all good, but you have to try them!”

Thierry ended up in Santa Monica, where he quickly decided that the Santa Monica Pier was the ultimate place to be. “I stopped here and knew that this is where I want to be,” he says. “I had no money, so I started out with a tent and some coolers and began selling my crepes at the Farmer’s Market on Arizona. I guess the total investment was $2,000 to start my American Dream.”

Over time, Thierry added catering and additional farmer’s market locations to his business, and then he bought a truck so that he could bring his crepes makers to multiple locations. “After five years I finally made enough to open this store,” he says. Acadie Crepes opened in 2000. “It was not the right time – we were going through the tech bust and 9-11, which meant that the French culture was vilified – not a great time to open a typically French café!”

Thierry Boisson Acadie Crepes How to make crepes

Here is a video of Thierry making a delicious Nutella crepes!

In addition to opening the storefront in 2000, Thierry also purchased a food truck, which he retrofitted to accommodate his crepes makers. Then he hit the studios and thus is one of the original gourmet-style food trucks. “We have our truck on a different lot every day – CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office,” says Thierry. “We go to pretty much all of them.” Today, in addition to his catering truck and Hollywood food truck, Thierry is considering another food truck to focus on the street food crowd.

In addition to 4 crepes makers on the Hollywood truck, 10 on the catering truck, and 2 in the restaurant, Thierry also has a small travel crepes maker for small parties and travel. “One time a guy flew me to New York to make crepes for him,” says Thierry. “I just pack my travel crepes maker and it’s easy.” Earlier this year, Thierry taught Chef Gordon Ramsey the crepes-making technique, he has also demonstrated on the Jay Leno show.

With all of his success, Thierry admits that “the only way I survive is I work every day 12-15 hours,” he says. “I don’t feel the pain because I love what I do, but I also don’t have a choice – I have to work hard to make this work. The market moves, and you have to find your way.”

The best part of owning a restaurant is “the freedom,” says Thierry. “I am my own employer, so I have my destiny in my hands. I see other people who spend 10 years in college, then have to pay student loans and are a slave to a company. I’m like a boy scout – I have a good sense of survival and can find a way to make it work.”

The hardest part of being a restaurant entrepreneur is “the hours for sure,” says Thierry. “You are not rewarded financially for the time you spend. I have to work double as someone who works in an office, and I still don’t make as much money as they do. But I do love what I do, so it’s worth it.” Thierry does find ways to get away from the business. “I escape to Kernville – I’ll take two days off, Monday and Tuesday, and relax in the hotel and eat at nice restaurants.”

Thierry has some pretty strong advice for hopeful restaurant entrepreneurs: “If you want to open a restaurant, you have to be ready to be a slave, but you are your own master as well,” he says. “It is very exciting – you create something and make people happy.”

Kim Dubarry – Yankee Doodles

August 14, 2010

Kim Dubarry Yankee Doodles Third Street Promenade Santa MonicaRestaurateur Profile: Kim Dubarry

General Manager: Yankee Doodles

1410 3rd St Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 2.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kim Dubarry, General Manager of Yankee Doodles on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, started in the restaurant business right out of college.

Most of her experience has been in the nightclub business – she began as General Manager of a nightclub in Orange County when she was just 21 years old, and worked there for 11 years until it shut down in 2006.  “I just kind of fell into it,” she says. “I knew the owner and ended up staying.”

Her next move was to Tia Juanas Long Bar and Grill in Irvine, where she was also General Manager. Then early this year the owners of Yankee Doodles made the trip to Orange County to meet her, and she came on as General Manager in March of this year. With five offsite owners, Kim runs day-to-day operations, but still needs to be aware of the owners’ wishes and decisions. “Definitely the biggest challenge is working with offsite owners – making sure that we’re communicating,” she says.

“You have to like what you’re doing to stay in any business this long,” says Kim. “I definitely like the people, and I like working with the owners.” With more than 100 employees and a capacity for 600 guests, Yankee Doodles is a large business that requires constant communication to maintain consistency.

Yankee Doodles Third Street Promenade Santa MonicaTo keep everyone on the same page, Kim says that one of her secrets is not throwing too many changes at the staff at one time. “One change at a time is about what we shoot for,” she says. “For most of our staff, this is just a job – they have other things to do outside of work, so we have to be really clear in our communications.”

“It’s definitely different to manage a sports bar compared to a nightclub,” she says. “Here we have steady business all day long with big crowds around sports events. At a nightclub you have a lot of people in a really short period of time.”

When I met Kim, it was about a week after the new Santa Monica Place opened, which features more stores and restaurants to attract tourists and locals to the Santa Monica Downtown area. “We have definitely noticed additional traffic from the new mall,” says Kim.

I asked Kim whether she has any advice for a restaurant owner who is hiring a GM. “You should definitely look for someone who has experience on the floor – doing everything,” she says. “When it gets really busy in here, I can jump behind the bar and serve as a bartender. You want someone who can not only teach your staff how to do things, but who can also cover when necessary.”

Stephen Abronson – Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar

August 9, 2010

Stephen Abronson Pourtal Wine Tasting BarRestaurateur Profile: Stephen Abronson

Owner: Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar

104 Santa Monica Blvd

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stephen Abronson, owner of Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar, was in the film industry before making the leap to become a restaurant entrepreneur. In the late 1990s, while pursuing his Masters in Film, he was always looking for good places to go to write. “I wondered why there wasn’t anywhere that I could go to write that served wine – the coffee shops obviously didn’t serve wine, and the restaurants weren’t really open to having you go there to work on your laptop,” he says. “And that was really the beginning of Pourtal – though I didn’t know it at the time.”

He worked in film development for several years. “The industry was – and is – going through a transition, and I decided that I wanted to go into a different direction altogether,” says Stephen. “It just became too hard to do the projects that I really wanted to do.” So in 2005, Stephen decided to open his own casual wine bar where he imagined he would have been able to go with his laptop and enjoy a glass of wine.

Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar Santa Monica“I started researching wine bars and found out about the machines available,” says Stephen. “My vision was to provide a light form of edutainment – a place where you can come to learn about wine and drink wine in a casual, comfortable and fun way. It took about 2 years to find the right location. “I looked around Los Angeles and considered Culver City and West LA,” says Stephen. “But I really wanted to be in Santa Monica since I live here and it’s great not to have a commute.”

The City of Santa Monica clearly preferred that the business be located downtown by the Promenade, so Stephen focused on that area. “The landlords made it hard – they were skeptical about whether I could get a permit but were inflexible about creating an agreement that would allow me to get out of the lease if I was unable to get the permit,” says Stephen. “I spent a lot of time walking around and calling every landlord in town I finally found this place, where the landlord was more flexible.”

After about a year of permitting and construction, Pourtal opened on April 29, 2009. Before opening, Stephen churned through four chefs before finding Chef Sean Takaki right before the door opened. In the beginning it had a very limited food menu, but that changed quickly. “We noticed that our guests really wanted more food to go with their wine,” says Stephen. “We have been experimenting in the last few months and the food has become more integral to our operation.” This can be a challenge given that the kitchen was not designed for heavy preparation work. “We’re adjusting to fit the needs and are figuring out the best way to increase our menu by increasing efficiency.”

The best part of owning a restaurant and bar, says Stephen, is that “even though it took a long time and was hard, we did it. In this economy, every day that we’re open is an accomplishment.” Beyond just being grateful for every day of operation, Stephen has found the overall experience very rewarding. “It’s a lot of work, and can be very stressful and require a lot of hours,” says Stephen. “But it is also very rewarding – you pour so much of your heart into creating the right concept, and it’s great to see it in action.”

“It’s a challenge to maintain the combination of high-quality with a casual atmosphere,” says Stephen. “I think we are still trying to set our guests’ expectations. It’s really about finding the right employees to convey the concept of the bar.” In addition to setting expectations, the staff also needs to be able to educate guests about how to order and operate the wine tasting machines, which offer a broad selection of wine by the ounce. Because some people are looking for a simpler experience, they can also order wine by the glass. “We’re trying to teach people a new concept,” says Stephen. The Italian-made machines not only serve wine by the ounce, they also preserve the wine so that Pourtal can offer wine by the glass that normally wouldn’t be available.

To promote the restaurant and bar, Stephen has made the patio section “dog friendly” and on Wednesday nights offers free dog walking services so that people can still circulate inside around the wine tasting machines. “We try to think of all kinds of fun events,” he says.

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.

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.

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!

Jason McEntee and Greg Seares – Bodega Wine Bar

May 21, 2010

Jason McEtee and Greg Seares Bodega Wine BarRestaurateur Profile: Jason McEntee and Greg Seares

Owners: Bodega Wine Bar

814 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jason McEntee and Greg Seares were both in the advertising industry and were both getting ready to move on in 2001. Friends since college, they had previously both worked in cities that had great wine bars, and one night (over a glass of wine) they bemoaned the fact that Los Angeles didn’t have a great wine bar at which they wanted to hang out. There and then, they decided that if they couldn’t find one, they would build one. Within a few days, Greg was driving through Manhattan Beach, where both of them lived, and saw a location. He called Jason and the two began working with a Realtor. A few weeks later they realized that the initial location wasn’t going to work, but they were still committed to the idea.

Bodega Wine Bar Santa MonicaGreg grew up in San Marino, which is right next to Pasadena. He and Jason, who grew up in Arcadia (also by Pasadena), were having a glass of wine (there’s a lot of that in this story!) with Jason’s cousin, who told them about the new Paseo Colorado outdoor mall that was being built in Pasadena. When they called the developer, he said “we have been looking for a wine bar,” and Greg and Jason jumped on the opportunity. “So much of our business feels like it happened a little bit by fate,” says Greg. “Within a couple of days, we had both given notice at our jobs, and figured we would be able to raise the money to open somehow.”

To save money, Greg and Jason moved in with Greg’s parents. “We figured it would be for 3-4 months,” says Greg. They held investor parties and had verbal commitments for the funds they needed within just one month. Then 9/11 happened, which shook everyone and derailed the plans. It took about six more months to actually pull in the money they needed, but they had it by Spring 2002 and signed the lease almost immediately. After getting the space up to their standards, the first Bodega Wine Bar opened at Paseo Colorado in December 2002. Greg and Jason ended up living with Greg’s parents for a total of about 18 months.

Within a few months, the first location was a success, and two years later they found a new location in Santa Monica – the Club Sugar. Raising money for the second location was easier than the first – all of their previous investors were eager to support them. They purchased the Club Sugar, took over the lease, and began renovations that were meant to last three months but extended almost 12 due to city restrictions.

“We’re business people, not restaurant people,” says Jason. “I went into this with the most significant restaurant experience, and I was a host at Islands (I didn’t make it to server) and delivered pizza for Pizza Hut.” Rather than rely on their restaurant experience, Jason and Greg set out to create a business that met their needs as consumers. Their background in advertising served them well in creating a brand, while their deep roots in Southern California and proclivity for networking supported all of their marketing efforts. As partners, they have been able to complement each other’s skills. “He’s great at Excel; I’m great at Illustrator – it works out well,” says Jason.

Jason and Greg have focused much of their energy on hiring and developing a team of employees that reflects their values and, importantly, with whom they would personally like to hang out with. “A Bud Light tastes the same everywhere,” says Jason. “It’s the people who work at a restaurant that make you want to come back.”

“I was the guy who was always throwing parties in High School,” says Greg. “As soon as my parents left town, I was inviting my friends over. Now I tell my parents that such parties were actually great experience for running Bodega.”

Bodega Wine Bar Pasadena Santa MonicaIt can be difficult to find employees who fit into a restaurant’s culture, but Greg and Jason appear to have it down. They told me that of their 25 employees, many have been with them since the beginning, including their general manager, Linda Baffa, who was their first employee. Interestingly, within a week of being hired, Linda met the friend who introduced Jason and Greg, and they married last year. The most telling statistic for me, however, is that they told me they only hire about one person per year. In an industry that typically has trouble retaining employees, that fact is pretty amazing. “We truly have created a family here,” says Greg. “In fact, another good friend of ours is marrying another one of our waitresses this year. We’re not going to hire someone who we don’t want to hang out with.”

Jason and Greg are opening their third Bodega Wine Bar location in July in Hollywood at Sunset and Vine. As for further expansion, they’re taking it one place at a time. “It’s tempting to open more – to go big and get corporate,” says Greg. “But that’s not the life that we want.” Instead, they are working to make each location unique, to fit the local needs, and to hire people who make their customers feel welcome.