1. Chinatown just isn’t ready for a strong dinner scene
Chinatown has a great lunch scene, with places like Chego, Lao Tao, and obviously Howlin’ Ray’s doing very well during the daytime, along with plenty of other longtime restaurants in Chinatown. But the dinner scene is nearly non-existent. The entire neighborhood becomes a bit of a ghost town at night, and it’s slightly creepy/eerie/cool to walk around a place that’s so dead after 7 or 8 p.m. Pok Pok needed to do brisk business in the evenings to make it, and that just didn’t happen.
Places like LASA have proven that dinner business might eventually become successful in Chinatown, but especially the northern edge where Pok Pok was located, it felt very, very quiet when the sun went down. And that’s just not a good recipe for a restaurant.
2. Andy Ricker brought something that most Angelenos think they didn’t need
However, most people are wrong. There’s plenty of room for great Thai food in L.A. and Pok Pok brought a level of finesse and quality that hadn’t really existed in the city before he arrived. Yes, we have Night + Market, Luv2Eat, and Ayara making some fine, elevated Thai cooking, but Pok Pok added something new to the equation. That being said, people have a very strong idea of what they want in a Thai restaurant, and while Ricker’s formula works in Portland and New York, it’s a different game here in L.A.
3. Pok Pok was expensive in a part of town that isn’t used to expensive food
The two times that I went to Pok Pok, I spent well over $50 for myself on food, not including drinks. Sure, the place was a nice spot to grab a cocktail or beer in the area, but I’m probably going to go to General Lee’s for craft drinks and Melody Lounge for craft beers. Pok Pok was ultimately a little too expensive for many of the locals who are used to getting dinner in the $-$$ range (say, up to $25-30 for dinner) in the area.
I don’t know what Pok Pok’s check average was, but I can easily understand if Ricker projected check averages above $40 per person to stay in business. And Ricker’s whole mantra is using quality ingredients as a contrast to your garden variety strip mall Thai restaurant, which tends to cater to a more affordable price point.
4. The service charge and reservation schemes were misplayed
Early on, Ricker did two things to help manage the flow of diners and his labor force at Pok Pok. He instituted a $20 non-refundable fee to make a reservation via Tock, which would eventually be reimbursed once diners actually came into the restaurant. And then he also tacked on a 5% service charge to checks, telling guests that those funds would be for cooks, who by state law aren’t allowed to receive tips from the front of house. These two things only worked to confuse diners who weren’t used to paying a deposit to eat a place, or pay a 5% service fee when it’s more customary to just pay 15-20% as a standard tip.
Labor laws were in flux back when Pok Pok first opened, as well as the $15 minimum wage mandate scheduled for the year 2020, so Ricker was just trying to make sure that his labor situation would be manageable in the years to come. Also, the $20 deposit was just there to reduce the number of no-shows and project staffing for the evening. It probably would’ve been better to think of different way to properly compensate staff, and incentivize guests to actually show up for their reservation.
5. Pok Pok’s brand value didn’t translate for L.A.
L.A. is such a monstrous market that you really need to have a strong brand in order to help gain recognition when you land. I’d argue that a place like Catch has thrived in West Hollywood because most of its core clientele is going to the restaurant after having been to its New York sibling. Pok Pok is based in Portland, and while anecdotally I’ve heard of many people going there, I don’t think a mass of L.A. diners had experienced Ricker’s cooking in another city. L.A. diners are pretty finicky when it comes to brand loyalty, and Pok Pok’s name just didn’t ring a bell for many people here.
Sure, some people had heard of Pok Pok (I really, really enjoyed my meal at Pok Pok in Portland back in 2012). Ricker also didn’t really do a long marketing campaign to reach out to folks in the way that, say, The NoMad is doing with their food truck. If Ricker had the chance to make pad thai at Smorgasburg or do a weekly pop-up series somewhere to help drum up some buzz, I think that would’ve certainly helped.
I can say right now that Ricker never hired a local P.R. firm, and while one might argue that it ultimately doesn’t matter if you hire a P.R. firm (and many restaurants do so smartly or at their own peril), Ricker was decidedly media averse from the get-go. Some restaurants do just fine with that kind of a slow start, while others get too much hype and ultimately fail because of it. It’s hard to say what would’ve happened with Pok Pok if it had some more hype coming in, but we’ll never know now.
6. The location wasn’t ideal
Chinatown and the Eastside in general doesn’t need more Thai food (well, actually everyone needs more Thai food!). But honestly if Ricker had opened a slightly more manageable space in, say, Santa Monica or Venice, I think he would’ve knocked it out of the park. There are more people with more money with much less access to great Thai food on the Westside. As they say, go to the starving crowd. And the Westside, which is still waiting with breath abated for its very own Night + Market, still doesn’t have any truly notable Thai restaurants to write home about. Sure the initial investment and risk in a place like Santa Monica is much higher than the northern stretches of Chinatown, but I think it’s a gamble you have to take if you’re Ricker.
In all, I’m saddened by the fact that Ricker’s Pok Pok couldn’t hold on. To be very honest, I first approached Andy Ricker at Hawaii Food & Wine back in 2014 asking off the cuff if he would ever open in L.A. He didn’t know who I was and I didn’t introduce myself or anything, I was just asking as a fan. And when he hinted that he had considered opening there, I included the intel in my summary of the food festival.
After I submitted my copy at around 12 a.m. local time in Hawaii, I went to bed. Then our national news team summarily assigned a full post speculating whether Ricker would open Pok Pok in L.A., long before I even woke up, because Hawaii is six hours behind Eastern Standard Time. Two days later, Ricker officially confirmed that he was bringing two concepts to Los Angeles.
Personally I was excited to see a well-known, successful Portland chef come to Los Angeles with his flagship brand. I knew that it had the potential to change L.A.’s mentality towards Thai cuisine. I’m not sure who was advising Ricker to open in Chinatown in particular, and especially in such a large space. Perhaps the appeal of the area, with its proximity to the amazing Thai wholesale store LAX-C was too much of a draw. Perhaps Ricker hadn’t taken the time to really explore the various neighborhoods of the city, to really see where the concept would work best.
I’m hoping that Ricker does something with the space that he has, as he still has a hold of the lease. If not, I hope Ricker can muster up the courage to do something in a better location in L.A., because we Angelenos can never have too much great Thai food.