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Pocha opened in mid-April in Highland Park.
Pocha opened on York Boulevard in Highland Park in mid-April.
Wonho Frank Lee

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Debuting in a Pandemic, These Restaurants Are Ready for Whatever LA’s Future Dining Scene Looks Like

Restaurants that opened under lockdown are uniquely positioned to adapt to Los Angeles’s new normal

As Angelenos sheltered in place for the last two months, established restaurants have scrambled to alter staffing, menus, and spaces in a radically different landscape — where dining rooms sit empty, food is boxed to go, and foot traffic has all but disappeared. However, a handful of new restaurants, born during the pandemic, are in a unique position to be more nimble. With flexible overhead costs, malleable restaurant layouts, and still-developing menus, they’ve been able to adjust to the reality of running a restaurant in a strange new normal.

Ria Barbosa of month-old Filipino restaurant Petite Peso is one of the reluctant hospitality professionals adapting to the changed conditions. Set in Downtown’s Jewelry District, the 500-square-foot restaurant serves Pinoy comforts like lumpia and chicken adobo, along with an impressive array of scratch-made pastries. Barbosa, who spent years spearheading the daytime menus at Sqirl as the chef de cuisine and at Forage as co-chef, never thought of baking as her strong suit. But she started her business amid stay-at-home orders and now spends her days kneading, proofing, and baking sweet breads while executing the rest of the menu too. “We were planning on bringing on a pastry chef to help with production, but we’re just having to do a lot more ourselves to maintain the sustainability of our business,” says Barbosa. With the restaurant only earning 50 percent of pre-pandemic projections, keeping costs low from the get-go by forgoing additional labor has been essential to surviving.

A group of restaurant workers stands in front of their new restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles.
Ria Barbosa, third from left, and her team at Petite Peso in Downtown.
Wonho Frank Lee
Two Filipino desserts on a metal tray, golden and ready.
Petite Peso’s freshly baked ensaymada and strawberry mamon.
Wonho Frank Lee

Employing a small staff from day one has been an important overhead-saving measure for first-time restaurateurs Michelle Serafin and Claire Risoli as well. The two signed a lease in February and were ready to welcome diners into their 90-seat Mexican restaurant Pocha in Highland Park, complete with a live mariachi band and Yucatan bar bites, when shelter-in-place orders came down. “This pandemic helped us figure out that we can run very lean. I work the hot and cold line every day, all day,” says Serafin, the chef and owner of Pocha, who previously consulted on the menu at Mixto in Silver Lake. “As much as it is hard, it’s my happy place and I’m gonna feel weird when I’m not doing it myself.”

Angie and Daniel Kim opened Interstellar in Santa Monica the first week of April. The Kims envisioned their first restaurant as a daytime hub for locals and tourists seeking fancy coffee and global fare, with a menu including dishes like a Moroccan-inspired harissa pappardelle and a Japanese branzino ochazuke alongside cappuccinos and pastries. A stalled 16-month buildout timed Interstellar’s opening with the pandemic, which led the Kims to overhaul every element of their cafe, from menu to hours of operations. “It is all hands on deck,” says Angie Kim. “We’re both running Interstellar seven days a week — Daniel runs the front of the house, while I lead the back of the house. And when we’re not busy with customers, we’re manning everything on the back end to keep our business going.” While wearing multiple hats and working overtime is not sustainable in the long run, for now it’s making it possible for these young businesses to cover immediate operating costs like food, utilities, and labor.

Coffee and pastries at Interstellar in Santa Monica.
Coffee and pastries at Interstellar in Santa Monica.
Ariel Ip
Daniel and Angie Kim outside Interstellar in Santa Monica.
Daniel and Angie Kim of Interstellar in Santa Monica.
Interstellar

Meeting rent is proving to be an ongoing pain for new and established restaurants alike, as long-term leases were negotiated prior to the citywide lockdown. “Our initial goal was to not cover rent, but to break even and pay for food and employee costs,” says Kim. “Ultimately, we have to pay our rent at the end of the day.”

At Pocha, Serafin says, “legally we can hold off on paying rent, but we don’t want to get behind. If we can pay at least part of it every two weeks, then why have that hanging over our head?” While Petite Peso has paid for rent through March, the restaurant has retained a lawyer to negotiate payments for April and May. Serafin and Risoli plan to revisit the terms of their agreement if forthcoming limited-capacity restrictions keep the restaurant from taking full advantage of its large space.

An unanticipated upside of opening in the middle of a pandemic was having the opportunity to observe how existing restaurants adjusted service and menus during the early days of the lockdown. “One of the things we were struggling with was how to reconfigure our entire restaurant for no-contact takeout and delivery,” says Kim. Opening for business weeks after stay-at-home orders began meant that she and her husband could consult with fellow hospitality professionals on how to rearrange their space and rework their hours. “One of our friends, William Chun of Coffee Code in Orange County, showed us a picture of how he set up his takeout stand. This inspired us to move our merchandise and coffee from the back so customers can easily see what drinks we offer,” says Kim. The shop’s opening hours were also shaped by those in the trenches earlier. “One of our neighbors advised us on what hours people would order for delivery the most, and this was incredibly helpful when it came to scheduling.” As a result, dinner service was added to supplement the cafe’s daytime offerings.

Debuting in mid-April gave the team at Petite Peso time to reconfigure their day-to-day operations with both safety and service in mind. “We installed a pickup window in our front door, added more lighting outside, and moved the pastry display out front,” says Robert Villanueva, who spent his career as a general manager for chef Michael Mina’s restaurant group prior to co-owning Petite Peso. While the restaurant was initially slated as a breakfast- and lunch-only spot, it switched gears overnight to meet diners’ changing needs. “No one orders delivery for breakfast. More people are working from home, so breakfast is not as much in demand as if you were looking for something quick to grab on the way to the office,” says Barbosa. “We scrapped the breakfast menu and pivoted to a lunch and dinner concept instead.”

Claire Risoli and Michelle Serafin of Pocha in Highland Park.
Claire Risoli and Michelle Serafin of Pocha in Highland Park.
Wonho Frank Lee
Vegan chile relleno at Pocha in Highland Park.
Vegan chile relleno at Pocha in Highland Park.
Wonho Frank Lee

Family-style meal kits designed to feed small and large households were tacked on after Barbosa and Villanueva noticed other restaurants selling larger-format offerings. “Being Filipino, it’s always family-style when we eat — there’s a bowl of food in the center of the table and we all share,” says Villanueva. “Our family-style dinners came together organically, so we just needed to figure out packaging and pricing.” Petite Peso opened for business with a menu that matched diners’ newly formed habits and a restaurant layout that not only worked for takeout, but attracted passersby day and night. Being able to bypass trial and error saved the restaurant time and money during its critical early days.

Another silver lining in these seemingly poorly timed debuts has come in the form of an extended soft opening. With a slower trickle of diners, the new operations learned on the job and adjusted on the fly without sacrificing food quality or customer satisfaction. “In my experience opening restaurants, sometimes it’s so busy from the get-go that you’re playing catch up,” says Villanueva. “It’s for the worse because you are making people wait a long time and they get angry. It was a blessing to not get so bombarded in the beginning. We’ve been able to work out the kinks and figure things out.”

Petite Peso’s family-style meal.
Petite Peso’s family-style meal.
Wonho Frank Lee

“We don’t know anything other than opening a restaurant during a pandemic — it’s business as usual for us,” says Serafin.

“This has really given us an opportunity to recognize where our weaknesses are, plug the holes in our boat, and tighten up our systems,” says Risoli. “By the time this is over, we’ll be able to have all these plates up in the air, so it’s actually been the weirdest blessing for us to be able to take bite-sized pieces... to be able to eat this big elephant.”

Though it is too soon to tell whether these early advantages will lead to long-term viability, so far things are looking bright in spite of bleak circumstances. “We feel very blessed and grateful for the business that we do have,” says Villanueva. “Some colleagues and friends aren’t doing the numbers that we’re doing. We definitely feel fortunate that we can operate, do what we’re doing currently, and be somewhat sustainable.”

“We’re going to be known as the two crazy girls that opened a restaurant during a pandemic,” says Risoli. “In these times, it’s not a matter of resources, it’s a matter of resourcefulness. We’ve got some guts, some brains, and some vision. I know we’ll succeed no matter what.”

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