It’s been nine months since a fire broke out at Rossoblu, an Eater 38 essential restaurant and one of the best Northern Italian restaurants to hit the southeast end of Downtown LA. For owners Dina and Steve Samson, it happened while the world seemed to be exploding — there were adjacent restaurant fires and historic wildfires. To add insult to injury, one of the Samsons’ friend’s homes burned down in the massive Malibu Woolsey Fire around the same time.
Rossoblu’s fire did enough damage to force a closure of several months. And just a few months later, the Samsons would lose their second baby, beloved citywide favorite Sotto restaurant. After so much tragedy, it’s amazing that — today — Steve Samson’s voice is filled with energy and optimism as he sits in the resurrected Rossoblu. Reflecting on the journey of the past nine months, he feels the service and food at his restaurant have never been better. Strangely enough, he says he has the dark times of early 2019 to thank for it.
The beginning of the end of Rossoblu as we knew it happened during a private charity event on September 12, 2018. The open kitchen’s hood system spewed smoke into the dining room. No one was hurt, but the incident caused enough damage to force co-owners Dina and Steve Samson to close the Fashion District restaurant for nearly three months, until December 5, 2018.
Prior to the fire, the business was doing incredibly well — from an average diner’s standpoint, at least. Regulars adored the place. Ratings and reviews were great. Reservations kept streaming in. But the Samson’s had a twinge that parts of the operation weren’t built for the long haul and they were privately in the midst of restructuring operations with the help of general manager and partner Hans Luttmann. The trio sought to improve organization and get Rossoblu to a place where it didn’t need daily hand-holding from them. The big picture was to free their collective bandwidth up so they could focus on building an empire.
Several organizational issues needed to be ironed out so they could get there. For starters, staff trainings weren’t always effective. The Samsons also needed time to think big picture, specifically to ponder whether Rossoblu’s drinks and food had staying power in a competitive city like Los Angeles. They were also starved for more work-life balance, more time to spend with their six-year-old twins. After the fire and the repairs, suddenly, there was space for all of this.
A Tale of Two Closings, Insurance, and a Ticking Clock
While it only took two weeks to repair the physical damage, reopening after a fire is rarely a quick turnaround due to red tape. Waiting for inspections, insurance, and final health department clearance required extreme patience.
The closing piled on a new set of challenges. There was no revenue. Rossoblu’s owners needed to stay connected with frequent guests, figure out how to keep staff, and of course fix the damage before the revenue-generating holiday season began in early-December.
The Samsons also said that the insurance claim moved predictably slowly, meaning they had to wait two months in order to get a partial refund.
“There was smoke and exhaust damage, but no real damage to the restaurant,” says Samson. “Because the office above was involved, the landlord was too, so it took way longer than we thought it would.”
While working with no income and partial insurance payments, the first priority for Dina Samson, who oversees the front of house, was to keep her staff paid during the temporary closure. Yet as of this writing, the final insurance payment still hasn’t arrived. The Samsons were forced to lay off all 78 employees in November.
Swift Company Culture Change
As Rossoblu played the waiting game, the management team got to work on a blueprint for the future. “The fire pushed us, and we turned a negative into a positive,” said Steve Samson. “We decided we were going to take a hard critical look at ourselves and what we were good at and what we wanted to improve.”
Steve Samson’s emphasis was organization within the kitchen, Luttmann deep dived into training and communication, and Dina Samson took the new step of asking team leaders to explain why their numbers were on or off. Meanwhile, there was no way to determine how many staff members would return after Rossoblu’s absence.
“After December 5, we didn’t know what level our business was going to be,” says Luttman. “So the reopening was an opportunity to go with a leaner staff. We didn’t know whether or not we were going to be at our former business levels. It was a week-by-week...to figure it out. At the end of the day, we were able to regrow.”
Steve Samson took an additional step to think harder about Rossoblu’s place in Los Angeles. “The food here [in LA] is vibrant, spicy, acidic, like Thai and Mexican food,” says Samson. “But Northern Italian food isn’t that. Everyone loves it, but if not seasoned right, it can be bland. And with this restaurant, it’s a bit limiting in the sense that there’s not a lot of experimentation, save a few things that are kind of ‘cheffy.’” So Steve Samson started collaborating with Compton’s innovative Alma Backyard Farms to help his team create an additional nightly menu, allowing the kitchen to get more creative.
Throughout the week, Samson now implements this nightly menu, which he says is geared towards regulars. His braised flannery beef short ribs is served on Sundays and traditional osso bucco Milanese with saffron risotto on Tuesdays. According to Luttman, “It’s fun externally for our guests, and internally for our staff to prepare and sell different things.”
The New Rossoblu
Now, six months after the reopening, the interior appears no different. Thankfully, the gorgeous mural by local artists, CYRCLE is still intact. But the caliber of service and the thought going into the food conveys that this is very much Rossoblu 2.0.
On Rossoblu’s reopening December 5, 2018, bartenders and servers sported new tailored pink shirts, customers got a new menu, and one of LA’s acclaimed bar specialists created a new bar experience to accompany the menu.
Prior to September, Rossoblu’s wines hailed from Italy or remained steadfast with big labels from California. Now bottles are also from France, Corsica, Greece, Austria, and small-batch California producers. As long as a wine emphasizes Steve Samson’s food, it has a place at Rossoblu.
Meanwhile, experienced barman Vincenzo Marianella added the Italian touch of pre-and post-dinner drinks and new cocktails to pair with the menu.
“Marianella respects that harmony between the food and the cocktail,” says Luttmann. “He has a proprietary way of making sure there’s a beautiful blend. The campanula sour pairs really well with the Valbruna’s eggplant starter. The Uptown (cocktail) has grappa and Lambrusco wine syrup in it, so you can have it with the salumi board. The acidity and lemon cuts through the in-house beef tallow and salumi. It’s fun, uplifting, beautiful and pairs well with that appetizer.”
Teamwork and Rossoblu’s Future
Thankfully some things haven’t changed. Luttmann’s approach to pre-service lineup has long been a morale booster for the staff.
“His pre-shift meetings have a communal atmosphere,” says director of services and floor manager Skyler Hughes, who has worked with the Samsons for eight years. “Hans will talk about Ford Motor Company, include a sports analogy, or read a poem. He’ll give an underlying reason to give service, that’s not about the restaurant. It’s a way to live your life. Initially, it doesn’t seem like the right environment as a motivational speech, but somehow it works.”
Now Steve Samson finds Rossoblu in a much more stable place, and he sees hope for his team to start working on the bigger projects they’ve always dreamed of. In December, when Rossoblu reopened, he hung a protective Japanese charm in the kitchen, right next to the fireplace. It’s a constant reminder that the entire team turned a bad situation into a good one.
“We’re not saying (the fire) was a good thing. But we turned it into a good thing.” he says. “You usually have one chance to open a restaurant, but we had a chance to reopen a restaurant. How many people get the opportunity to do that?”
Rossoblu. City Market South, 1124 San Julian St, Los Angeles, CA