Staying afloat in L.A.’s restaurant biz

What does it take to run a successful restaurant in a major metropolitan area like Los Angeles? Chefs, managers and owners weigh in.

Working in the restaurant business is a constant hustle and an unpredictable enterprise. A decade ago, Ohio State University researchers found that 6 out of 10 restaurants fail within their first year of being open. More recent findings reveal the median lifespan of a restaurant in the western part of the US to be just 4½ years. We asked five restaurateurs for their stories of life in the business.

Vincent Williams, chef and owner of Honey’s Kettle

Vincent Williams has been tweaking his fried chicken recipe for 35 years. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

At age 22, Vincent Williams was working the graveyard shift, standing in 3 feet of ice and prepping poultry for the Golden Bird company. Ten years in, Golden Bird offered him the reins to one of its failing locations in Compton. Williams jumped at the chance, though he had no earthly idea of how to run a restaurant. “I only looked at it as an incredible opportunity. And it was a dream that I just wanted to hang onto, no matter how tough it got.” In 2004, he renamed his business “Honey’s Kettle” when he began frying his birds in kettles, and opened a second location in Culver City. Most days, Williams can be found there, having closed the Compton location. He says life in the business has been a long journey of hills and dales. “You’re climbing hills all the time. And you think, ‘Is there something on the other side of the hill? Like, you’re going to eventually get to this pot of gold?’ And somewhere around maybe a quarter of a way into it, you say, ‘This is an impossible situation.’ What keeps you going is that you have to believe that the impossible can be turned to possible. Because that’s what restaurateurs are doing a lot of times.”

Ann Kwon, manager and owner of Biergarten

Ann Kwon began running Biergarten six years ago, at age 20. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

Ann Kwon was a 20-year-old media major at UC Riverside when she received a life-changing phone call. It was from her brother, Neil, who was asking if she would take over the operations at Biergarten, a Korean- and German-themed sports bar and restaurant he had just opened in Koreatown. Kwon shelved her plans for the future to lend a hand. “Since it was a family restaurant, I was next in line.” At Biergarten, she began to experiment with the menu, inviting chef Eddie Hah to create German-Korean mashups in lieu of typical Korean and German dishes. Six years have passed and Biergarten has since become a destination for sports fans who want to enjoy the game with craft beer and a plate of German fried rice. The house specialty is made with bratwurst, sauerkraut, Sriracha, soy sauce, gravy before being topped with an egg. Kwon has no regrets so far. “It’s still a struggle and a daily grind, but I’m getting better at it.”

Shawn Pham, chef and owner of Simbal

On July 1, Shawn Pham popped up at Cofax to make Vietnamese street food. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

In 2015, Shawn Pham and his family took out a lease on a 3,200-square-foot space in Little Tokyo to open Simbal. With seven years under his belt at the Patina Restaurant Group, the Bazaar, Craft and Sona, Pham had the chops to run his own restaurant. He had also just returned from a four-year stint in Vietnam with plenty of fodder for a menu inspired by Southeast Asian cuisine. Simbal got rave reviews, so it surprised many when the family made the decision to shutter the restaurant in February. The biggest obstacle was making enough cash to cover daily operations and the $1 million it cost to open the restaurant. “It’s so incredibly expensive to negotiate a lease, pay for the construction, the staff, the inventory, the food, the wine, the furniture, the fixtures, all these things that come in that are part of opening a restaurant. But then people come in and say, ‘Why does this cost this much?’” Some nights, all their reservations were no-shows. The experience finds Pham wondering if he’ll ever open a restaurant again in LA. “Wanting to do a restaurant is one thing. But having a good location, having a good landlord, having a good lease, having a good business partner, having good investors and staff, all those things have to fall into place.” In the meantime, you can still enjoy his creations at pop-ups around town.

Andy Ricker, chef and owner of Pok Pok

Andy Ricker said opening Pok Pok in Chinatown was simply “a bad business decision.” (Photo courtesy of Pok Pok)

At five Pok Pok locations throughout Portland, Oregon, and one in Brooklyn, New York, Andy Ricker serves hundreds of diners his take on Thai food each week. Until March, his empire included a restaurant in LA’s Chinatown. Ricker closed up shop here for a number of reasons, including intense competition for good Thai food in Los Angeles and the high density of Asian restaurants in Chinatown. Pok Pok’s Portland business is made easier by having a commissary kitchen to service all five restaurants. “If three restaurants serve, say, the chicken wings, and you can cook them all in one spot and then drive them to the different locations and finish them at the location, instead of three different locations all needing the equipment, the labor, the raw materials that get delivered to each individual location to do exactly the same thing, you can see how there is an economy of scale there.”

Michael McCarty, chef and owner of Michael’s

Michael McCarty, at his post at the front of the house at Michael’s in Santa Monica. (Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW)

In 1979, Michael McCarty opened a restaurant specializing in California cuisine in Santa Monica. He named it Michael’s. Ten years later, he opened a second location in New York City. Both are thriving today, having weathered recessions, earthquakes, fires and the collapse of the aerospace and construction industries. McCarty believes the next challenge for his restaurants will be to remain sustainable amid the rising hourly minimum wage laws. (On July 1, the city of Santa Monica raised the minimum wage to $12 an hour for servers working in the front of the house. That goes up to $15 in 2020.) Instead of paying higher wages to servers who already get tips, McCarty says the extra funds should be allocated to the back-of-the-house staff, “people that work twice as many hours, usually, in a day. They toil under much fiercer circumstances. Due to the economics of restaurants, it’s virtually impossible to pay them any more than the $12, $13, $14 or $15 an hour. Therefore, if the state of California enacted a ‘tip credit,’ then those additional funds could be utilized to supplement the incomes of the people in the kitchen.”

PORTRAIT OF ANDY RICKER COURTESY OF POK POK. ALL OTHER PHOTOS BY STAN LEE, FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH STUDIOS AND 2016 JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION VISUAL STORYTELLING AWARD WINNER