Knowing what goes into running a restaurant, L.A. chef Briana Valdez has “so much respect for anyone who can open the doors.” It’s unglamorous work, but today’s restaurants also have the opportunity to create more personal, authentic experiences through the food they serve and the stories they tell. It’s this excitement that drives Valdez (owner of beloved breakfast taco joint HomeState) and fellow L.A. restaurateurs Andrew Ahn (Boo’s Philly Cheesesteak) and Perry Cheung (Phorage and TikiFish), who sat down together for Food for Thought, a panel discussion last month on the constantly shifting industry, hosted by online ordering platform ChowNow.
Moderated by longtime L.A. food editor Katherine Spiers, the conversation covered the role of social media and storytelling, the rising minimum wage, how technology has transformed their business and more. Here’s what the chefs had to say about what Ahn calls “the craziest thing you’ll ever get into.”
On finding authenticity in their food
“You have to have a lot of conviction and trust your instincts along the way, because you put so much of yourself into it. I’m from Texas, so I’m presenting my own experience growing up in Texas. I can’t present what your grandmother and your mother made for you, but I can present what mine made for me, and I hope that you enjoy it. We’re not reinventing the meal, but we are trying to make it the best possible.” – Valdez
“I have a Vietnamese restaurant, but I’m actually from a Chinese background. I grew up in New York with a lot of Vietnamese people, and early in my career, worked at The Slanted Door in San Francisco. When it comes down to Phorage, [Vietnamese food] is very dear to my heart. Even if it’s not your grandma’s food, it’s very grandma/aunt cooking because that’s how I was taught.” – Cheung
On the role of personal storytelling in what they do
“Storytelling is absolutely important if you own a restaurant, go to a restaurant, or you’re involved in restaurants. The first job my dad had in America was making cheesesteaks in Philly. When he was able to borrow some money and open up a cheesesteak joint in Jersey, I was a year or two old. We didn’t have enough money for a babysitter, so he wrapped me around a rope while he was cooking. This is what my parents did to make it happen. They fed us, took care of us, raised us, sent us to school, got to where we got to. Now I’m here in L.A. and I try to tell our story because that is the story of any restaurant. All the pain, the struggles, your family. You’re coming to my house. You’re having our food, so enjoy it, and if you want to have a good conversation, what’s up, I’m here.” – Ahn
On social media and whether a restaurant can survive without an Instagram account
“There are a lot of mom and pops out there with really great food, and it’s just not known because they have no social media accounts. There’s no one driving their car, but they still have business. It’s like you have a 99-cent store and a Bloomingdale’s. One has all the resources to do all the social media and the other is just a 99-cent store, but they’re both successful businesses in their own respect.” – Cheung
“Five years ago, any company or restaurant could definitely get by without a social media person, but now it’s almost essential or you’re unseen. You don’t have to have a big budget. You can do that for free if you’re good at it. Restaurants are storytelling vessels and Instagram is a storytelling vessel, so it can be huge leverage to get people talking about you.” – Valdez
“If I didn’t have a business, I probably wouldn’t have a social media account at all, but I think for a restaurant, it’s absolutely necessary for making it easier for people to find out who you are on different levels. It doesn’t have to be a picture of food. You’re bringing people outside of your circle in. That’s what social media does really, really well.” – Ahn
On what the rising minimum wage means for the restaurant industry
“People should get paid more than minimum wage, but in the end it comes down to what your clientele is open to paying for your product. That’s always the hard part. When you’re paying for an $11 bowl of pho in West L.A., not only are you paying for a product with organic and sustainable meats, you’re also paying for the real estate and labor. The margins are very, very slim. Opening a restaurant nowadays is not as glamorous as people think it is. It’s definitely a passion thing, but it’s also a culture.” – Cheung
“It’s a constant issue that we’re trying to prepare for and think about from all angles. You have built-in costs and a threshold for what guests are willing to pay, so you have to constantly find efficiencies in your business model. To do that, it’s important to think about restaurants as part of a chain. Our food purveyors and farmers, their minimum wage is going up. It’s not isolated to just us. We’ll find every efficiency humanly possible, like working with small-business-friendly vendors, but one day we will have to raise that price and get blow back from our guests. We thought we were going to have to do it two years ago, but we all dug so deep to figure out not only how do we not raise our prices, but how we actually improve our quality and improve our working conditions in the restaurant and offer benefits before we have to.” – Valdez
On how technology and delivery apps fit into their business models
“Delivery is the future of my business, 100%. We have people that just order one cheese steak and they want it within 30 minutes, so how quickly can you get it to them? That’s a question we’ve been having for a while. Then Uber, Amazon, and Caviar came to the game, they start digging into your bottom line, taking percentage of your subtotal, so how do you survive? You’ve got to look at how to grow volume, and so you’ve got to really be on top of how marketing and technology works for you. Every business now, whether it’s restaurant or clothing, has to be a technology company. From SEO to voice search, you’ve got to make yourself known and how people are going to be able to get your information quickly.” – Ahn
“I’ll walk in my restaurant sometimes and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, no one is here,’ and then you go into the back and it’s all lit up [with delivery orders]. There is a change of times and this kind of worries me about mom and pop restaurants, because they’re not ready to get familiar with all this tech stuff. At my locations in West Hollywood, I’m backing on the takeout footprint. I’m not expecting people to sit in too much.” – Cheung
“In this business, a couple of nickels make it to the bottom line, so you have to protect your sliver of the pie. You don’t want to give 10% to anyone because they’re driving your food, so what we’ve done is to choose the delivery partners we use very carefully, choosing business-friendly platforms like ChowNow that aren’t there to take a 20-30% cut. We’re very specific and very aware of what our costs are and what the benefits are to the guests.” – Valdez
Food For Thought is a panel that showcases what it means to be a community chef in Los Angeles today. Keep your eye out for similar thought-provoking events that give insight on the restaurant industry in the future.
Inspired to try a new restaurant in your community? Order online through ChowNow! Hungry for something else? Discover other delicious eats in your area, ready to be ordered.