For first-timers, République almost always elicits a gasp. The French restaurant on Los Angeles’ South La Brea Avenue greets diners with a sun-dappled courtyard, soaring, cathedral-like ceilings, and a Spanish-tiled fountain bubbling away at the dining room’s center. But while it may look like a place that demands hushed tones, chef and owners Walter and Margarita Manzke’s creation is the rare fine-dining experience without a hint of pretense. Here, communal-dining tables and truly craveable food — crackly-crust fresh bread served with pan drippings, melt-in-your-mouth beef short ribs, overflowing charcuterie boards that can stretch several feet in length — make the atmosphere downright convivial. As our own critic said, République is simply “magnificent.”
As any restaurateur knows, creating front-of-house magic requires a back-of-house operating to the highest degree of coordination, communication, efficiency. At the recent online event On Location With République, food journalist Aarti Sequeira went behind the scenes with République owners Margarita and Walter Manzke, and director of operations Melissa Koujakian for an inside look at how they make it all work — from the ethos that drives them, to the new technologies they’re using to streamline operations. Read on for key insights on how this destination restaurant is continuing to adapt, delight its customers, and propel its business forward.
Shifting focus and supporting customer needs
One key to République’s success is its responsiveness to customer needs. The restaurant’s always had a great pastry program, but in the last year the Manzkes say their bakery became “the backbone of the restaurant.” The day indoor dining closed down, Margarita didn’t want the prepared pastries to go to waste — so she came into République intending to sell the day’s supply only. She quickly sold out: “That’s when we realized we had to stay open,” she says. “People want to come to the restaurant and feel a sense of normalcy, even just to grab a coffee and pastry.”
The restaurant also found itself serving its customers’ newfound love of baking, selling “huge amounts” of flour and yeast. “It’s interesting, nobody had a gluten allergy during this,” Walter jokes. “Everybody wanted to buy bread.”
Sensing the untapped need, the Manzkes found ways to serve customers swiftly and safely. They quickly set up a Square-powered online storefront, where patrons can order a complete menu of items for pickup or delivery, including a wide selection of baked goods — from fresh baguette and sourdough loaves, to rose-scented madeleines and pistachio biscotti — plus coffee and savory breakfasts. Customers can use QR codes and contactless payment methods, and grab their order from an outdoor pickup window to reduce contact. The expanded bakery offerings were an instant hit, and République now does a brisk business from sunup to sundown. Margarita says the tech has made it “so user-friendly” for customers to place their orders: “It’s fast and easy for us and them.”
Offering more options — at higher and lower price points
Director of operations Melissa Koujakian reports that alongside the expanded bakery program, the restaurant’s prix fixe tasting menu has been a top revenue driver. But with much of the business shifting to carryout, how does a restaurateur take a fine dining experience...and put it in a box?
After some trialing, the Manzkes landed on the best ways to package to-go meals to maintain quality during transport, and upped their portion sizes to meet customer expectations of value. They also introduced occasion-specific takeout menus for Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day at a premium price point. And sensing the desire for simpler weeknight meals, the chefs introduced a rustic takeout menu of roasted chicken, salad, fresh baguette, and a dessert on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays — with a lower price point. “We make the menu more courses and more elaborate on Fridays and Saturdays when customers are looking to celebrate a little more,” says Walter.
The success of the expanded prix fixe menus are a change the Manzkes plan to take into the future, and in fact they welcome the chance to continue experimenting — Walter envisions inviting guest chefs to curate special-occasion menus for Christmas or New Year’s Eve. “We’ll be able to do something very nice here, [whereas] before we had to stick to what we knew and were accustomed to doing.”
Cross-training and communication
A well-trained, enthusiastic staff is the cornerstone of every great restaurant. As République brings back staff, they’ve also retrained them to serve in multiple areas of the business. “It’s a requirement now that you don’t just know how to bus the table, but also how to barista, do the juicing, or take orders,” Margarita says. While operating with fewer staff for safety purposes, cross-training helps things run smoothly, and brings a sense of shared purpose.
That philosophy extends to management, too. Koujakian often took customer orders on the line alongside the owners, and Margarita spent many nights in the kitchen baking breads. Koujakian became the restaurant’s communication hub, replying to every guest email, and bringing feedback to the Manzkes to help optimize new menu offerings, portion sizes, prices, and more. Guests also shared memories — “We had the most beautiful letters from guests about meals they’ve had at République with loved ones. A young woman told us she and her grandmother would order the same dinner and eat it at home over Zoom.” Those notes, Koujakian says, “kept us going and made us feel like this matters.”
Using technology to expand possibilities
It seems odd for a restaurant with robust online ordering, but before this year, République had never sold anything online. “The idea was overwhelming — we were so busy that the idea of adding another component seemed impossible,” Koujakian says. But now, they’ve embraced technology as a way to streamline operations while expanding possibilities. First, République was able to get an online store set up quickly using Square. “Now you go to our website, click Order Now, and our whole menu is there,” Margarita says.
Key for a restaurant known for its style, the Manzkes appreciate the Square store’s streamlined look and feel, which keeps their business front and center. “The appearance of our website — it’s about République, not about another company,” Walter says. He also praised the platform’s lower cost (“they’re not charging the way the others are”), and ease of use for both customers and staff.
Koujakian points out that user-friendliness is especially important when navigating limited staff resources — the restaurant was able to train its entire staff on the new system in an afternoon. “I am the least tech-savvy human on earth,” Koujakian says, “and I’m the one putting up the menu every day. So if I can figure it out, it’s pretty easy to do!”
By powering up its tech, the restaurant has also been able to diversify its revenue streams and embrace a multi-concept model. “The daytime café service and nighttime restaurant service are such different concepts,” Koujakian says, and it can be challenging to coordinate the different facets of the business. But luckily, she says, “we have Square working during the café service for pastry pickup and delivery, and then at night for the prix fixe and the bar.” The right tech stack simply helps them do more.
Creating new menu items, harnessing technology, helping staff develop new skills to serve guests better — perhaps the secret to République’s success is its willingness to embrace new solutions and ways of working.
“From the beginning,” says Koujakian, “a fundamental concept for République has been change. Every day, we try to do something better or different than we did the day before. It’s one of the reasons we were able to pivot so quickly. We have been practicing change for years.” It’s a winning philosophy that serves them now, and as they look into the future.