It’s not easy running a restaurant—but just try opening one during a pandemic. That’s exactly what three local businesses are doing, even as the Los Angeles dining industry reels from the shockwaves of COVID-19 and national policy debates around aid packages continue to rage.
Pocha in Highland Park, Plants + Animals in Eagle Rock, and Lady Byrd Cafe in Elysian Heights have all started food service in the past month, moving forward with openings after the March 19 “Stay At Home” order that forced restaurants to close dining rooms and scramble to set up delivery and pickup options.
The first-time restaurant owners are juggling personal financial risk, staffing, and a commitment to safety measures.
“This community has been incredibly supportive”
“Every day is something new, but the silver lining is it’s forcing us to figure it out, to plug the holes in our boat,” said Claire Risoli, co-owner of Pocha in Highland Park. “Our motto right now is ‘Do it scared.’”
Risoli and longtime business partner Michelle Serafin opened their “modern Mexicana” concept on March 10. The restaurant space on York Boulevard was formerly Villa Sombrero, a family-owned restaurant open for nearly forty years. Rosoli and Serafin are both native Angelenos, growing up in South Bay and Atwater Village, and while they’ve won the approval of the previous tenants with abuela’s mole recipe, the lease forced them into an opening weekend that wasn’t exactly what they had been dreaming of for the past year.
“We went into our bank to finish up our loan and they pulled us into a conference room. They told us: ‘We froze the transaction. 60% of restaurants are expected to fail. The loan is on hold,’” Rosoli said. “We aren’t even eligible for the Payment Protection Plan, because we didn’t have anyone on payroll by February 15.”
The pair, both 46 this year, have opened Pocha with only their own families’ capital. Both are moms—their young kids sometimes sit in the space, wearing masks while they do schoolwork. The last few months have been spent rehabilitating the building, putting together a menu that does their Latina heritage justice, but can still be executed.
“We want our food to be something you have never seen before. Mexican cooking educates … it takes you to a memory,” said Serafin, who runs all things culinary. “For now, we do have a limited menu. Certain food doesn’t travel well. I see the menu doubling in size.”
For many restaurants like Pocha, one salve in the age of COVID-19 has been the loosening of ABC liquor licensing.
“We call it a ‘tequila sunset’. When it gets to be that time, neighbors walk by and get their margaritas to go,” Risoli said. “This community has been incredibly supportive.”
“The days of big parties and event orders are gone"
At Plants + Animals on Colorado Boulevard, owner Chris Register has forged a path forward for his keto, low-carb concept in Eagle Rock. He’s had a successful catering company for the past decade, but now orders for his new Fried Chicken Sandwiches are what keep the kitchen busy.
“The days of big parties and event orders are gone, I can’t rely on that for income,” Register said.
Every day is an adjustment, and the restaurant has introduced two new initiatives since opening on March 23.
“We are working with the Los Angeles LGBT Center to raise money for Triangle Square, which provides affordable apartments to LGBT seniors. For every $10 donated to the GoFundMe, we’re delivering a healthy meal to seniors so they can stay safely at home,” Register said. “My assistant and I are gay, so we really wanted to work with a charity that was giving back in a different way right now.”
This week, he’s launching mix n’ match meal prep kits for people who want to eat right during isolation, or skip out on tense visits to the grocery store.
“This place is inspired by my personal journey. Over the past two years I lost eighty pounds on keto. I became a sort of evangelist for the diet. It re-invigorated my excitement about food. We make comfort food that’s fun, interesting, and you feel good later,” Register said.
Like many other independent restaurant owners, Register is frustrated with the loopholes in the Paycheck Protection Program that have made headlines in recent weeks.
“Big chains like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse got $20 million in aid, because they have less than 500 employees at each location. It’s just a bailout by another name. I’m waiting on my applications—there’s no money left,” Register said.
"I just have to keep moving forward”
Lady Byrd Cafe owner Misty Mansouri has also taken the plunge, without support. Earlier this month, she decided to open the doors to her restaurant, which is tucked into the Elysian Heights neighborhood in the space formerly occupied by Pollen.
“Our grand opening was set for the week in March when it all shut down. I held off for a month, waiting, so everyone could social distance. Eventually, we were doing some work on the space and people just kept trying to get in, asking if we were open,” Mansouri said.
The West Hollywood native has wanted her own local cafe since moving to the Eastside fifteen years ago.
“I’ve been in hospitality for 30 years. I started as a server, bartending, general manager at Vanguard, curating music nights at the Sofitel at Beverly Hills … I spent my career making a lot of people money. I wanted to do something solo. That’s what inspired the name,” Mansouri said.
Opening her own place has been “liberating,” even with the risk involved. Mansouri’s original plan was to buy Pollen, but when that fell through, she was offered the space outright.
“My life savings are tied into this. Restaurants are a labor of love – no one is getting rich off a restaurant. We’re all having to navigate this. Sometimes you take a right instead of a left turn. I just have to keep moving forward,” Mansouri said. “If people want us, I’m going to be here for them.”
Jessica Moog is a freelance writer from Los Angeles, usually busy chasing stories about the local restaurant scene, live music, and cultural events–sometimes, she's just chasing that taco truck. You can find her at jessicamoog.com or on Instagram @jnmprojects.