Echo Park --The neighborhood’s dining and drinking scene has grown more crowded and competitive since Masa of Echo Park opened 15 years ago. But the corner restaurant manages to remain a busy place with a loyal following.
Despite their success, owners Rob Rowe and Rhonda Reynolds weren’t always sure that their restaurant— specializing in Chicago deep-dish pizza—was going to survive. However it has kept going, and now the Echo Park residents share how they got their “Mom & Pop” business on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Lemoyne Street to be a neighborhood staple.
On August 28, Masa will be celebrating its 15-year “Masaversary.”
Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you two meet?
Rhonda: Rob and I met in college. He was a musician (and a cook in a restaurant, where I later got a job waiting tables...of course.) Although Rob's mom used to take him to my grandpa and grandma's restaurant in Chicago when he was a little boy and it is more "romantic" for us to say we were destined to be together. We possibly met when we were young and had no idea until we re-met years later in college.
When did you arrive to LA and whose idea was it to open the restaurant?
Rhonda: After 5 years of dating Rob and I broke up and I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles in 1993 because...why not?
Instead of getting back together, we decided to just get married.
To be honest I don't remember whose idea it was, it just seemed like the perfectly natural thing to do, open a restaurant. We did it with basically nothing—no investors or savings—just will, determination and Rob's “Field of Dreams” mantra "If you build it, they will come." It was crazy in hindsight, but we really, really, really missed Chicago deep-dish pizza. So there's that!
What was it like at the beginning?
Rob: During the first three years that we opened, we had to do everything because we couldn’t afford staff to help. For the first 5 years, I cooked everything.
Rhonda: I would get here and I would open up the store, wait on all the tables, bus all the tables and I was the day dishwasher.
When did you start seeing success?
Rob: We didn’t have a back-up plan. We had to make it work. It forced us into making hard decisions and keep on moving forward. The 2007 financial crash, in a weird way really helped us because a lot of people closed. Farms started planting corn instead of wheat because everyone was using biodiesel. So, flour went from being $8 a bag to $50 a bag.
Rhonda: Rob’s business model or lack there off was caring about our customers and community. Everyone else was increasing their prices as people were losing their jobs, houses and Rob said we aren’t going to raise our prices. He said people still want to go out to feel good; it’s about lifting people up.
Rob: If you can’t afford dinner you want to have, go to Trader Joe’s buy a bottle of 2-buck Chuck come on in and get a deep dish for $15 and people can split it.
How have customers reacted to your pizza?
Rhonda: Chicagoans are very picky.
Rob: It’s funny to me because I grew up in Chicago and I’ve eaten at so many different places for deep dish. My mom loved Giordano’s. I never liked it. However, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t go there when my mom wanted to go.
Rhonda: Rob’s mantra is that the deep-dish pizza is like your mother’s meatloaf. Whichever one your mom made is the good one.
Rob: And no one else can do it any better. However, I’m not a competitor. I’ve never felt there is another restaurant doing deep dish and they’re going to take away our business. Chicago has hundreds and they seem to do ok.
I’m sure you’ve faced many challenges, what are some of them?
Rob: In the world of Yelp and social media, I think people have decided there are extremes. There is a right and there is a wrong. There are people that get super judgmental.
Rhonda: Social media started after we opened. I use to lie in bed reading reviews and he use to get mad. He banned me and he told me I was not allowed to look at the Yelp reviews.
Rob: What’s really funny, there will be a terrible reason we have to get someone have out of here. For example, they’re drunk and making our women who work here feely uncomfortable. I then see their review on Yelp and it has nothing to do with what happened. It’s just complaining about how rude we were and I just go yeah, whatever.
How is Masa of Echo Park a part of you now?
Rhonda: This is our extended family. In 15 years, we’ve seen babies born; engagements, weddings and people have passed away. At table 43, a couple had their first date, then he proposed there and they had their wedding rehearsal here.
Rob: The timeline of seeing all of it, we have a picture collage and people look a lot older, as we do we! Time is really a strange thing.
What is in works for the future?
Rob: I’m working on a lot of vegan options right now.
Rhonda: Our pepperoni we make in house from scratch. We use to get the vegan pepperoni from Tofurky. They stopped making it, so Rob just decided to make it. Now, we are going to have vegan sausage and vegan mozzarella sticks.
Rob: The amount of people who are vegan keeps growing and it is more sustainable. We just can’t do gluten-free because there is so much gluten in the air. The flour particles are everywhere in the restaurant. We take allergies very seriously.
Rhonda: The craziest allergy we’ve heard is a woman told us she was allergic to salt. You hear a lot being 15 years in business. You just kind of have to navigate.
Anything else you would like to share about your 15-year ride?
Rhonda: The Masa Family is what makes Masa...Masa. We have so many people who have worked alongside us for years and years - the Masa "Kids" - contributing to the success of the restaurant and we all share that success as a family. The restaurant world is often a very transient industry, so we feel very lucky.