“You’re going to kill it.”
In early November, I announced that I’d be reopening Here’s Looking at You, the restaurant I co-own with chef Jonathan Whitener, in Los Angeles. We closed it in July 2020, unsure of what the future would hold.
I’ve been getting a lot of congratulatory messages. I am so grateful everyone feels that way — that they believe in us and are excited for us — but it’s not going to be easy. Opening a restaurant is hard already, to just assume you’ll get the 125 covers you need on a Wednesday night, let alone in this climate. But we’re carrying the debt left from having been closed for over a year and not paying the rent we owe.
Restaurant operators like me are still not okay. There are exceptions, of course. Some restaurants are full, you can’t book a table, and they have enough folks working for them. I call those unicorn restaurants — and I am so happy for them. But I can look at a restaurant that might have a full dining room right now, and I see it in those operators’ eyes: They are so exhausted, and they don’t have the staff. Either they can’t afford them or they can’t find them. They aren’t okay.
I think people might have changed, too. Maybe people are not making as much money, or they can’t dine out as much. A lot of people have really enjoyed cooking at home. A lot of people are acclimating to ordering takeout. If restaurants were a priority for someone before, it’s quite possible that they’re not a priority now.
“You’re killing it,” people say to me. They’ve seen three or four people in line outside All Day Baby, our other LA restaurant. They’ve seen our six outdoor tables full. They think that covers what we need to survive this pandemic. But that restaurant needs hundreds of customers. Every day.
I’ve relived the last five days of Here’s Looking at You many times.
When we announced that we would be closing, there was a huge outpouring of support. But it was hard. It was like saying that you were going to die and then everybody talking to you about how much you meant to them. It was too much, and I personally couldn’t do all the work of taking on those emotions. What was I supposed to say? Thank you? I’m sorry? I’m very lucky the restaurant is as beloved as it is. I knew people liked it, but I really didn’t know how much.
Here’s Looking at You was a full-service restaurant and cocktail bar with an ambitious menu on both fronts. We had pivoted to takeout, but there was ultimately not enough business.
What a lot of restaurateurs would say about the Paycheck Protection Program — certainly when it first launched in spring 2020, or maybe in general — was that it didn’t work for restaurants. When Here’s Looking at You reopened with the first draw of the PPP loan, there was an eight-week deadline to accept and use all the funds. So when I went to hire back staff, there was a minimum number of team members that were required to come back in order for the loan to be used appropriately. We ended up overstaffed.
Day to day, nobody was coming in. One day there were two orders; another day there were no orders. We moved everything online; we moved everything to delivery. We were doing it to try to survive. Our longest-tenured employee was doodling on to-go bags to thank guests for ordering takeout. It was really dismal.
I think back to that time often: Did we not try hard enough? What were we missing?
We put a lot of energy into pivoting in a thoughtful and meaningful manner, but it was just not the restaurant that Jonathan, or I, or our customers remembered or missed. I even found myself not going to restaurants I frequented so often before, which I had loved for their intimacy and their small plates. I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the takeout that they were offering — and I could tell that they were working so very hard. But I just found myself ordering pizza again.
And then there was the timing. We reopened on May 28, 2020, at a time when we were questioning the importance of #savingtherestaurant. The National Guard was outside our restaurant for a week. We were asking ourselves: Who even cares about us at this point? Let’s do what we can for our larger community. We donated proceeds from merch sales to the NAACP. We held a hugely fun and successful taco party to raise funds for the ACLU. But within a day a complaint was put in that we didn’t abide by social-distancing rules. It was a lot.
I tried to open conversations with the two landlords of my two restaurants. To continue operating would mean taking the risk of not being able to pay rent, and just accumulating that debt. Restaurants essentially work by making money each day to pay back last month’s bills. And when you’re only accumulating more debt, at what point do you just have to stop? I was responsible for managing the present and thinking prudently about the future. By early July 2020, with conversations going nowhere, we decided to close Here’s Looking at You and All Day Baby. I thought both closures would be permanent.
My landlord at Here’s Looking at You was initially willing to consider our closure temporary. But a month later, he essentially forced us to put the restaurant on the market. We had never reopened for indoor dining — and then it got re-banned anyway — but he felt maybe another tenant would have made it work. I understood; the landlord was also in a precarious position, and as far as I know, still hasn’t gotten any aid or relief.
Through all of that, I still had responsibilities for our other restaurant, All Day Baby. Luckily, the story was different over there. After hundreds of emails, our landlord was finally willing to speak with us after our appearance in the Democratic National Convention video in August 2020.
We opened our books to them to show how much money we were actually making. Rent, ideally, should only be 5 to 7 percent of your gross sales, based on your other costs. And so we negotiated being able to pay a third of our rent moving forward, and that has since increased to two-thirds. But again, we will owe this rent back.
Then we got a new presidential administration. I feel this proves that some positives resulted from the advocacy work that I allocate my free time toward. I’ve never seen more help come from places that I would never have expected. There are companies giving grants, and policymaking done overnight instead of taking years, like California allowing to-go cocktails, with other states following suit. We got another round of PPP loans with more flexible guidelines around how to use it. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund is available — we applied and received that for All Day Baby, but not for Here’s Looking at You, which was ineligible because it had closed.
Selling the restaurant would not have been a get out of jail free card.
It wasn’t supposed to only be four years old. It was supposed to last longer. It was supposed to be the way Jonathan and I make a living. It was supposed to be how our staff made a living. We have investors that believed in us and that we owe money to. For Jonathan and me, it was about building sweat equity; we never got the opportunity to reap the benefits of owning the business. We paid ourselves so very little money so many times, half of what a minimum-wage income would be.
Contrary to what I think my landlord expected, people were not exactly pounding down the door wanting to take over the Here’s Looking at You space. We definitely entertained a couple of offers, but they were very devaluing. I remember one person was willing to purchase it based on the value of its liquor license, and it was just heartbreaking.
We did eventually engage in a sale; it was for pennies on the dollar, but there was no choice but to go along. It was a slow process with a ridiculously long escrow. Every month that passed waiting was another month’s rent due that would either come out of the sale or that I’d be responsible for.
There was a moment where we could back out — it had been dragging on and on. Our landlord wanted us back. And it was a different time: This was that one window in June 2021 where we didn’t have masks on. At this point we had vaccines, and indoor dining had reopened. So we weighed our options, and went for it.
It took a lot of time to feel safe to reinvest in that restaurant again, and by mid-August I felt safe to start working toward reopening. But then it took me two more months to wrap my mind around getting started — physically, and emotionally. Part of me is ashamed that I took so long, if two months is a long time. But the truth is that it takes years to open restaurants, and it’s not that easy to just flip a light switch and be ready.
Mostly I think I was looking for some sort of sign. One day, I started to measure how many times someone mentioned Here’s Looking at You to me. And it was so clear: It was daily. I couldn’t get rid of the restaurant. We had to reopen.
Overall, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to reopen for this better-than-no chance. The thought of being able to resurrect my first restaurant is an absolute privilege. And I still love what I do. Opening a restaurant takes a year, but I’m doing it in about four weeks while running the other place.
In some ways it feels like going to Vegas to gamble — although I myself am not a gambler. Whereas Here’s Looking at You used to have seven good nights and two days of brunch service per week, we’re going to start with five nights a week. I can’t take the risk of staffing up and then not having enough guests. We used to have four cooks in the kitchen plus the chef; now we might just have two. It’s hard to balance the demand with the potential lack of demand. So things might not be perfect. But I learned to let the expectation of perfection go.
When I look ahead, the best-case scenario is consistent business — that is what all of us in the industry are hoping for. Consistent customers to love on, and tell them how much I appreciate them coming through our doors and spending time with my staff. I don’t want it to be that we open our doors and it’s busy for the first two weeks and then suddenly, no one. It’s about spreading the love. I enjoy going to those unicorn restaurants, too, but I’m much more conscious in my decision-making around going out to eat.
And I do not want to disappoint anybody. Opening up the GoFundMe meant involving my community. In order to do that, I had to feel confident that we were going to come out winning and, especially, listening. I also care a lot about the five employees that I definitely know are coming back, and whoever else we bring on. I take their decision to come on board and to put their trust in me incredibly seriously, so it’s important that I do this reopening correctly.
And when I go out to other people’s restaurants, I’m not going to tell them they’re killing it. I’m just going to keep showing up.
Lien Ta is the co-owner of Here’s Looking at You and All Day Baby in Los Angeles, and a founding member of RE:Her.