Do people in LA have real jobs? It’s a question that comes to mind when stepping into Joan’s on Third any day of the week. The cafe and marketplace is a constant hub of activity, with lines stretching every which way and diners circling to find a place to sip their morning cappuccino.
This is Joan’s at 11 a.m. on a Monday, which Joan McNamara, the woman behind it all, later described as being “rather slow.” But looking behind the counter tells a different story — there’s a flurry of activity as prep cooks toss the hundreds of Chinese chicken salads and grill the short-rib grilled cheeses that comprise the to-go orders meant to feed writers rooms across the city.
It’s an amazingly complex operation that is so much more than even meets the eye. Beyond those snaking lines — a fixture from breakfast until dinner — there’s a marketplace, catering operation, and second location in Studio City.
In fact, it was that catering business that started it all back in 1995, when, after moving to LA from New York and raising two daughters, Joan McNamara purchased a catering business on what was then a sleepy stretch of Third Street. Three years later, the adjacent storefront became what is now the beloved marketplace and cafe known as Joan’s on Third.
We sat down with Joan to discuss everything from cooking in heels to running one of LA’s most intricate restaurant businesses as the cafe prepares for its 20th anniversary.
What made you want to start a catering business in the later years of your life?
I had always done something with food, first running a cooking school in New York before opening a small restaurant for a few years. After getting married I moved here to California and raised my daughters. I was completely involved as a mother, and was always making sure to do things like have lemon bars in the freezer when their friends would come over. Eventually, I had many friends telling me that I should be in food business or have a restaurant. When the girls went off to college, that’s when I decided to do something.
To avoid empty nest syndrome?
How did you get your start at the Egg Basket in New York?
I worked for a woman named Dione Lucas. It was her cooking school that I ran, and she had several omelet restaurants that she was very well known for. I started making omelets at her restaurant, then we went on to make chocolate rolls and other things. The omelet restaurant was very funny because we had a counter with a mirror looking over the frying pan with the customer sitting behind you, watching you make them. I was younger, so I was cooking with high heels and a mini skirt with no apron.
Omelet making in heels?
Yes, very high heels!
What attracted you to West Third?
When I moved from New York, I didn’t know a soul. So I wandered around to find a place to live. One day I came home to my husband and said, “I found my block!” It turned out that it was Melrose Place, where you couldn’t live because it’s for businesses only. I thought I had discovered some wonderful street, which, obviously, I did not discover. There was something about it that it felt like New York, like a little piece of maybe downtown Soho.
Even all the years that my girls were in school, friends would ask, “if you had a business, where would you go?” And I still can’t believe it, because I used to say, “on Third Street near Fairfax,” and suddenly this place became available to buy. It just felt very comfortable to me. I liked the diversity of the area, which I think is what made it feel like New York, compared to other neighborhoods, like Beverly Hills. I felt like I could go out here in my apron and talk to people.
What was on Third at that time?
Nothing! Obviously the catering company that I bought. There was a locksmith next door, but there wasn’t much.
How did you grow your business if there was nothing there?
Because I bought a catering company, there were a few clients that belonged to the previous business. It was just word of mouth and repeat customers, but it was very, very slow. I mean, I can’t even believe where we are now.
Sometimes Vincent, the first person who ever worked for us, and I would cook until 3 in the morning. We did the dishes, put everything away, then sometimes I would drive him home. I would say, “Vincent, there are no customers!” And he’d reply, “Don’t worry, dear, you want it to grow like a citrus tree, not like a zucchini.”
He said a zucchini grows quickly and then it’s gone. A citrus tree will be there forever.
With the catering business and the multiple cafe/marketplaces, how do you manage such a complex operation?
I have two daughters — very strong, wonderful daughters. I don’t know if I could’ve done it without them. Carol runs the catering and Suzy takes care of the marketplace. If I had 10 daughters, then maybe I’d have 10 locations.
So that’s how I’m really able to do it, with both daughters. They can do it without me. I think of the ideas and where we’ll open another location, but really they do it all.
How does your business respond to changes in labor laws?
We try to keep ahead of the curve. I think that’s the first thing. We have a wonderful HR person. She’s also been with us for years and is constantly looking at whatever is happening, like with the minimum wage. First of all, we’ve always paid over the minimum wage, even before this happened, and we had health insurance for our employees.
We’ve always felt strongly about providing a good life. We love our employees. We want them to be educated and their families to be taken care of. We look at our dishwasher, and if he looks like he knows how to cook, we want to work with him and help him grow. It just gives us great pleasure to do that. So now, with the minimum wage, it actually has not really impacted us, because we’ve always been ahead of it. People were due for raises and they were already at where it was going to be. It feels better than trying to catch up with it all.
What’s next for the Joan’s on Third empire?
Well, first we will spruce up the marketplace. Everyone comments on how beautiful the Studio City location is, so now I want the first location to have the same feeling. We’re going to do a little bit of remodeling and get new cases in. It’s a small job, but it takes a lot of time. When that’s finished, I would love to have another location, maybe bigger. And maybe an online presence with shipping.
What inspires you?
First of all, travel. But I would say just being alive. Everything inspires me. I have that very annoying curiosity. When my friends talk about something that they had, I say, “wait, hold on, let me write that down!” And it just might be an idea. I used to paint years ago, and I worked for a designer, so those sorts of things inspired me too. So just everything, really.
What meals have you enjoyed recently at other restaurants?
I recently went downtown to Manuela and loved it. The hush puppies were so good. There’s a wonderful neon art show in the adjacent gallery, by Jason Rhoades, that is worth going to. Kismet was great. I love the crispy rice! I love the sushi at Izakaya, especially their crispy rice. I realized recently that I must really like rice. So we put a rice bowl on our menu.
Where would you open your third cafe? Do you have any locations in mind?
Downtown, probably in the Arts District. That’s where I’d like to go.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.