After building successful empires in Portland, Oregon and New York City, Pok Pok's Andy Ricker announced last week that he's setting his sights on Los Angeles. The celebrated Thai-food ambassador — who owns concepts like Pok Pok, Whiskey Soda Lounge, Sen Yai (his Portland noodle house), and the bottled Pok Pok Som drinking vinegars — plans two restaurants in the city's Chinatown. One will be a noodle-focused Pok Pok Phat Thai and the other, a 6,000-square-foot Los Angeles Pok Pok, will be the largest of Ricker's restaurants. "It takes a few years to really hit your stride," Ricker says of the California expansion, which comes three years after he branched out to New York City. "I think we've finally really hit our stride in New York. So I feel like, at this point, I am able to do something else, and LA seems the next logical step."
Ricker recently chatted with Eater about his LA plans and the world of Pok Pok moving forward, including his strategy to encourage neighborhood "regrowth and rejuvenation," the importance of diversifying, and hints that Pok Pok's iconic Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings may soon be coming to a freezer case near you.
What made the timing right to open in LA now?
The reason we chose LA is pretty simple. I'm tired of opening restaurants in cities that are in Pacific Northwest and [the Northeast], where the climate is polar opposite — not quite polar opposite — but pretty far fucking opposite from the right climate to grow the stuff that we need. So I swore that if there was going to be any more expansion at all, it would only be in cities where getting our product was not only not an issue, but hopefully close to places where they actually grew the stuff that we need.
I lived in LA in the mid '80s, and at the time, it was good: I was 22 years old and it was a fun time to be there, but it was also kind of dire, it was kind of bleak… I had just seen some really ugly crap on the streets and I just started hating it, I felt like it was a big soulless metropolis and I was done. I left and I swear I'd never go back. I started going there for business stuff over the last couple years, and every time I go down, I'm like, "Wow ... LA's cool." More stuff is happening. There's a booming food scene: You can really feel it when you're in a city where things are starting to [take off] like that. It's how Portland felt 10 years ago. LA is a little bit past that, but it's got that same vibe, there's stuff happening. It seems like a good time to be there.
Why Chinatown in LA? What attracted you to that neighborhood?
Chinatown is interesting. Part of it was built more or less as... I have to look back on the history to really get it straight, but it was built as an amusement park almost. It was built to look like China. It's kind of got this crumbling glory. There's all these old buildings and plazas that look really cool. There was a boom in the '70s when they built all these plazas there. So it's this very odd but very cool mixture of Chinese folks who have stuck around for a long time and held on to some of their stuff, and a big Vietnamese influx.
There's also been an influx of artists, architects, design firms, that kind of thing — photographers, creatives, musicians — that have been living there for a long time now because of the proximity to downtown, central location, and the rents were cheap. You could get a cool space down there. Then for us, which is awesome, there's a very large Thai grocery warehouse called LAX-C — that's huge, it's like going into a Costco, except there's full of Thai stuff. The proximity to that is great. It's going to take some work, but I just feel like there's a lot of opportunity there.
It allows us to plant our flag and do our thing at a price point that makes sense to me.
My philosophy and the M.O. of the restaurant is to go into neighborhoods that are in relatively close proximity to other interesting neighborhoods [but] are under-served a little bit, don't have as many amenities as some of the more densely-populated neighborhoods. It allows us to plant our flag and do our thing at a price point that makes sense to me: Get in there at a rent that's reasonable and not only take advantage of that, but be part of the regrowth and the rejuvenation of neighborhoods. We're not moving into residential neighborhoods and creating a commercial thing. We're moving into old commercial neighborhoods that have seen their better days, coming in, and trying to help be part of the regrowth.
How instrumental do you think a restaurant is to boosting neighborhood growth in the way you're talking about?
I think that restaurants are social-gathering places: They're places to go drinking, and now, in these days, it's where young people go to hang out. It's the main social hub, I feel, of young to middle-aged folks. That's what we do now. We don't go to movies, we go to restaurants… So do restaurants help drive development? Yeah, absolutely, I'd say.
For you personally, what's the strategy behind opening several concepts within, literally, a stone's throw of each other? [In Portland, three of Ricker's restaurants are within a three-block stretch; in NYC, the Lower East Side location of Pok Pok Phat Thai is in the process of moving to Brooklyn, closer to Ricker's other restaurants.]
It's just an economy of doing business. Because here's the thing. If you open multiple concepts, anybody with a good head on their shoulders is going to have a central kitchen. If you have a central kitchen and you then deliver to a whole bunch of different neighborhoods, that's logistically difficult. But if they're all lined up in a row, the truck pulls up at each one and boom, you're done... logistically, it makes sense.
Number two, we opened Whiskey Soda Lounge [in NYC and Portland] out of a need. We needed a place because we were busy at Pok Pok. We don't have a bar there for people to hang out in. Traditional restaurants have a bar lounge, waiting area, and then you go sit in the dining room... We didn't have that. So people would show up and go, "Well, can we sit in the bar and have a drink?" We were sending them across the street to another bar. We were creating a situation where the person was having two hospitality experiences: ours and whoever we sent them to. And those two philosophies are not the same, right? It became increasingly more difficult to get people back and to get people back happy. Then the other thing that was happening is that we got busier and busier at Pok Pok. We were running out of kitchen space, so we needed another kitchen. So, getting the Whiskey Soda Lounge just made sense... it was a no-brainer.
So is it the same idea with announcing two concepts in LA simultaneously? Like, you're sort of anticipating you will need commissary space nearby Pok Pok LA?
No, so there's another thing that happened. When we moved to New York, I opened the wing shop [Pok Pok Wing] on the Lower East Side. This was going into a new market where we don't know how we were going to be received. We wanted to test the waters in a low-risk, low-rent sort of way... relatively speaking. So we got the spot on the Lower East Side and we opened quickly for not much money, and introduced the brand to New York. That was a very, very good thing, too: We got our name into the media, there was a buzz growing about it. And since we already had something open, we could say, "Hey, here's a sampling of what we're gonna do." Meanwhile, we're working on opening this other one and people start getting excited about the other one.
Same story here. I negotiated, went through the negotiation for the big space, which is 6,000-square-foot, two-floor [restaurant] — so we're going to have a bar and dining room and an outdoor patio. It has more seating than any restaurant we've done. It's a real restaurant. [Laughs] We're going to have a bar in the same building, it's amazing. But this other opportunity popped up in another plaza down the street on North Broadway, in a space directly across the courtyard, inside the plaza, from Roy Choi's Chego. This will introduce the brand to LA. It'll put us into a little community of like-minded restaurants. I really like Roy a lot. We think similar in a lot of ways. He's already created this thing down there with his place.
So since both Pok Pok Wing and Phat Thai are like introductory concepts, does that mean Portland, for example, will never get just a Pok Pok Wing at any point?
Pok Pok Wing was born out of necessity. We had a recognizable product, the Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings that, for better or for worse, have come to personify what Pok Pok is for a certain sector of our clients. For me, it's not. For me, it's about something else. But for some people, that's what it is, and I've done very little to capitalize on that.
A smarter person than me would probably have a string of wing shops by now.
That's probably stupid. We've been on every goddamn TV show and we sell an insane amount of those things without trying at all, and a smarter person than me would probably have a string of wing shops by now. But I'm not that smart. At least I haven't figured out how to do it yet. I mean, I have an idea how to do it, I just haven't put any time into it. But will Portland have that? Probably not.
Right now, what I'm trying to figure out is how to do something besides restaurants. Look, the restaurant business is very, very difficult, always has been. The profit margin is very thin and it's getting harder and harder by the day with... I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, but they're introducing laws that are going to make it more and more prohibitive for restaurants like mine to do business. We're not a kind of restaurant that gets $100 per head. We're getting, like, $30 a head. It's going to be extremely difficult to pay for sick leave, health insurance, a huge minimum wage which doesn't take into account tipping. I'm trying to find a way to do stuff that isn't restaurants to create a revenue stream, so that the restaurants can continue to offer what we offer for a price that I think is what we should offer it at, and so that I can continue to be in the restaurant business. Because if things keep going the way they are now, I don't know what the future's going to bring, to be quite honest with you. We already have the drinking vinegars and that's just now coming into a place where we're starting to make profit after five years.
Five years? Wow.
I haven't taken a dime from it since the beginning. But one of my employees and I have started a charcoal company: It's a natural charcoal from Thailand, an extruded charcoal, that we've been using at the restaurant for about a year now. It burns really clean, it's really good stuff. So we started that. I'm working on developing some snack foods, some sauces. We've been trying to wrap our heads around what it would take to get the chicken wings into a freezer case at a supermarket, and that's something that's been on my mind. There's a bunch of stuff coming down the pike. It's going to take a while, a lot of it's in planning stages. I just feel like there's a whole bunch of opportunity out there to do stuff that isn't restaurants. But I love restaurants.
Do you have an exit strategy?
I don't have an exit strategy, really. I love restaurants, but they are incredibly stressful to deal with. I'm still stuck in the minutia to a certain extent, I'm still advising people on how to fix faucets and stuff. And I have to be pulled out of that eventually because it's going to kill me. I don't have that kind of strategy, but what I do know is that... I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing, and eventually, I plan to not be involved in day-to-day operations of whatever it is that I'm doing to such an extent. I'll never not be involved, but I'd like to back off a little bit at some point in the distant future.
I'll collect the rent and live in a grass shack in Thailand. I'll be all right.
My way of feeling confident and calm about everything is that I own Pok Pok. I own the building, I own the land, I own the restaurant. It's 100 percent mine. I don't have any partners. So if everything goes to shit, you'd shrink it down to that one place, because quite honestly, that's the place that gives me my income. I could shrink it down to that and either carry on with Pok Pok in its current form or change the form. Or I could simply just say, "Look, I'm not doing restaurants anymore," and sell the restaurant to somebody to operate their own damn restaurant, and I'll collect the rent and live in a grass shack in Thailand. I'll be all right. I'm not going to end up on the street.