Andy Ricker, the James Beard award-winning chef of Pok Pok fame, knows exactly where he stands. Having opened multiple restaurants each in cities like Portland, New York City, and Los Angeles, Ricker long ago became immune to the micro-shifts of the restaurant industry (and the cities) in which he resides. The surprisingly stoic man speaks slowly, calmly, and intelligently these days, clear-eyed about the fortunes and misfires of his massive Chinatown Pok Pok outlet, which just celebrated its one year anniversary.
Ricker will be the first to tell you that this year hasn’t been easy on him or his empire. He’s closed noodle concepts in three cities, including Pok Pok Phat Thai at Far East Plaza (which has gone on to become an outlet of Eddie Huang’s Baohaus), and his remaining 200-seat Pok Pok just down the street is still operating in the red.
Pok Pok is still operating in the red
But Andy Ricker doesn’t gamble. There’s no way he’s going to reduce the quality of his product in order to increase his margins, and he certainly isn’t here to reinvent the restaurant labor model, despite what you may have heard. Owning any profitable business is a matter of simple math, he’ll tell you, and if the right numbers don’t add up for long enough, you move on. So is Ricker worried about losing Phat Thai, or the future of Pok Pok at Mandarin Plaza? Yes and no.
One year in to his run in Los Angeles, over bowls and bowls of Japanese food at a back booth in a Little Tokyo late night spot, Ricker will remind you calmly that, in his own way, maybe everything happens for a reason. Besides, to quote the soft-spoken man himself: "It’s just a fucking restaurant."
Here now, the story of Andy Ricker’s first year in L.A.
Walk us through the opening of Pok Pok LA.
I have to admit that I was fairly certain that there’d be a fair amount of press around us opening, because Pok Pok is a recognizable brand. Did I think the cult of personality would catapult us to Bestia status? No, absolutely not. Was that a factor, that there would be brand recognition? Yeah, sure.
There is one thing that I miscalculated pretty drastically. My thought process was that LA people are familiar with Thai food, so we won’t be faced with the same ‘what the fuck is this’ sort of thing, when people look at the menu.
Why is it that a white dude gets all this fucking press? Why aren’t Thai people getting that press? Fair enough, you know.
What I really didn’t think through was the fact that because there’s already all this Thai food here, that people might just say ‘Fuck it, we’ve already got great Thai food here, why do we need to go to this place?’ That was a huge miscalculation on my part, and that was … you know, I fucked up. I thought that we’d be a lot busier than we are now, or I hoped we would be. And we’re not.
There was heavy, heavy skepticism. And I understand why. Why is it that a white dude gets all this fucking press? Why aren’t Thai people getting that press? Fair enough, you know.
I’ve been very careful about not claiming this food as mine. It’s a transportation of a style of cooking certain recipes that I feel like we’ve done a pretty fucking good job of getting right, in some cases. But that can also be interpreted as cultural appropriation, and I find that dismaying. I don’t feel like I’m going and stealing shit and profiting from it and claiming it as my own. But that’s something that as a white dude doing Asian food I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my life. And I have no intention of doing anything but this for the rest of my life, I have no interest in anything else. This is it.
I made other miscalculations too. When you’re planning a restaurant, by the time it comes to fruition, a significant amount of time has gone by. In this case it was two years, from the inception to negotiating a place to getting the lease to getting the place built to actually opening. And in that time, a lot of stuff shifted. This labor situation got crazy, rents went through the roof, cooks started disappearing.
But you have to open. You have to try to recoup some of this money that you’ve put into it.
How has it been with such a large space in a neighborhood like Chinatown?
Two and a half years ago, there were all these plans for things to happen in Chinatown. And of course, things take much longer than everyone expects them to take. Chinatown is still a neighborhood where, at 7 o’clock at night, the sidewalk starts to roll up during the weekdays. It just does.
We stopped doing lunches during the weekdays, because it’s the same story. We’d do like 20 covers, and we can’t afford to maintain our staff, we can’t afford to maintain the facility, on 20 covers a day. And we also can’t charge $7 for a complete meal, like you can get in Chinatown. I’m not willing to buy the product I’d have to buy in order to make that happen.
It’s the free rice syndrome, right? You’ve got to have free rice. Well, rice costs money.
The unfortunate thing is, and I know because I talk to a lot of people in Chinatown, is that they feel as if they’re under attack by the Department of Health, because they can’t afford to fix their facilities. They don’t feel like they can charge more money than they can charge, because the people down the street won’t charge that too. And so they’re just kind of stuck doing what they do.
You go out to San Gabriel, and my god the food is fucking fantastic. But you think, how can it be this cheap? How can it possibly be this cheap? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s the free rice syndrome, right? You’ve got to have free rice. Well, rice costs money.
So the question is: Does what we’re doing end up tasting any better? Is the recipe better? Honestly, no. The guys next door have an awesome recipe [for the same dish] as me, and it’s really tasty, and I think what we’re doing is tasty too. But it’s hard when a consumer to walk into Pok Pok and say how dare you charge me $9.50 for this, when I can go down the street or somewhere else and get twice as much for $7. I get it. In all honesty, I can’t do anything about it. This is what I’ve chosen to do, and maybe I’m a fucking idiot. Because I think it’s worthwhile.
You once told Eater that you’d never closed a restaurant just because it simply didn’t work. Is that what happened with Pok Pok Phat Thai?
Oh, absolutely. This year I’ve closed three restaurants. They’re all noodle concepts, in three different markets: Phat Thai here, Phat Thai in New York, and Sen Yai in Portland. And we closed them all for the same reason: they were a nightmare to manage, because in order to execute the noodles to the quality that I want, you have to hire cooks who are the same skill level as the ones I hire at Pok Pok. Guys who have that skill level aren’t interested in making pad thai and pad see ew over and over again, they’re just not.
Guys who have that skill level aren’t interested in making pad thai and pad see ew over and over again, they’re just not.
When you expect cooks to execute at a certain level, you have to pay at a certain level. It’s really hard to make a restaurant profitable if you’re only charging $8 for a plate of noodles, when everyone’s meal is those noodles and a drink, so your ticket average is $13. You’ve got to be doing huge volume to make that work, and we just weren’t.
At the end of the day, you can fix all this shit by doing math, right? Say you pay people this much, your rent is this much, then the food should cost this much. But in reality there’s an entire other market, of what people are willing to pay.
So the lesson I’ve learned is: If I ever want to open a noodle concept again, I either need to do it in a market that’s willing to pay more for noodles and do huge volume, or I need to lower my standards. And I don’t really want to do that.
So what does 2017 at Pok Pok LA look like?
Do I think there’s a scenario where at the end of 2017 we’re fucking killing it? No, I don’t think so. My hope is, I just want to get to a point where we’re operating in the black, and we’ve solidified our crew, worked out our kinks, everything’s consistent. That’s way more important than almost anything else. That’s what I hope for. Whether we make it there or not, I really don’t know.
There are people that are way more successful than me, and they’re looking at the same issues. How do we continue to deliver the product that we want to deliver and still stay in profit? It’s an intersection of passion, pride, commerce, but at the end of the day you have to be a viable business.
When your restaurant is closing, Eater will write "oh, Pok Pok is dunzo" — The Shutter, right? — and for about three days afterwards people will pop up out of the woodwork and say they saw it coming, or that it was a shame.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s just a fucking restaurant. Right? It really is. And restaurants come and go, motherfuckers. And that’s it. If we don’t make it, it’s not the end of the world. It’ll suck for me, because I love LA. I really do. And so just for that reason, I hope that we survive.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
- All Pok Pok Coverage [ELA]