Los Angeles’ pop-up food scene struggles as patrons return to restaurants

Chef Jazzy Harvey’s Jamaican fusion star Anjahles smashed the pandemic era pop-up game in 2020. A year ago, she launched her Crenshaw business with creations such as sliders jerk jackfruit, seafood porridge, oxtail burritos, and keto-friendly rice cauliflower with peas. Every week, Harvey advertised his dishes on Instagram, only to find that regulars would buy everything in a matter of hours.

But a year later, Harvey says his business has fallen 20-30% in the past few months. “Now that more and more people are getting vaccinated and the world is opening up, events are starting to be what people want again,” Harvey says. “This is where the demands have been, to focus more on catering, events and [as a] private chef. Mine is definitely the type of business that has had to change. “

Over the past few weeks, Harvey has changed her business model: she now hosts fewer pop-ups and cooks more private dinners. She is also developing a subscription service where customers can have meals delivered weekly, and she just signed a publishing contract for a cookbook. His next effort is to ditch the pop-up and sign a lease for a restaurant. “I have been so patient,” she says. “Hopefully we will be open before Father’s Day or at least in July when people can come and sit and enjoy the food.”

Harvey is one of several Los Angeles-based pop-ups trying to figure out how to be successful at reopening the city. For most of 2020, pop-ups and ghost kitchens were a big hit for the worst year in restaurant history. While the people of Los Angeles took shelter in their homes, these take-out restaurants thrived. With daily traffic generally moderate, people moved around town for meals in new underground locations, like Jeff’s Table’s Hot Kim Cheezy Sandwich in Highland Park and My New Orleans Creation Muffle. Dad’s Gumbo.

Jerk Chicken from Anjahles
Anjahles [Official photo]

But now the race to reopen is wrapping up its final laps. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom set an important date, announcing that life could resume as it was pre-pandemic on June 15. On May 10, LA County health officials projected that the region could achieve herd immunity by mid-July and this week the LA Times reported that two-thirds of Californians had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In a surprise move last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even said those vaccinated were no longer required to wear masks, indoors or out.

The surge in demand for pop-ups accompanied a drop in on-site restaurants through 2020. But now that 51.5% of county residents are at least partially vaccinated and the seven-day average of new infections hovers around of 200, diners are ready to leave their homes to sit with their friends and family. Head to Resy or Tock for reservations, and it’s hard to find tables at places like Gasolina Cafe in Woodland Hills, which just debuted with its new dinner menu, or in Cha’s beautiful patio. Cha Cha in the arts district. Hollywood’s L’Antica Pizzeria is well booked despite trying to squeeze as many patrons as possible onto the patio. Restaurateurs, of course, are happy to make up for lost time and money while operating at 50% capacity.

Los Angeles residents may be exhausted with the food and take-home food and just want to be adored by the restaurant staff. Or they want a cocktail that takes five minutes to prepare while soaks, music, and friends buzz around them. Los Angeles resident and real estate agent Milla Goldenberg says the return to the restaurant is long overdue. “I’ve been waiting for this for over a year,” she said. “I missed my community the most. A big part of dining out is seeing my friends and breaking bread with them. Food, drinks, restaurants create the perfect backdrop for laughter and connection, which is ultimately what I missed the most during my 40s.

The growing demand for table-service restaurants comes at a time when the underground scene is softening, signaling a shift in models of new restaurants in the post-vaccination era. Lowkey Burritos owner Matt Stevanus said the drop in sales started in February. Prior to that and since mid-2020, Stevanus has hosted a weekly service booth in Koreatown and ongoing pop-ups at Lord Windsor Coffee in Long Beach, where he easily sold his cheese-encrusted breakfast burrito. He even announced a permanent K-Town storefront last October. Stevanus says he’s hired additional staff to meet expected demand in his Koreatown pop-up, but still saw a 40-50% drop in sales.

“During the pandemic, we were [selling] between 280 and 320 burritos on our busiest day, ”he says. “As things started to open up to the outdoors, the space we had planned to open in Koreatown went from an average of 200 to 280 when it was very busy, to 80 by day, ”he said.

Like Harvey, Stevanus is considering events to help boost business, which he had focused on before COVID-19. He says the recent drop in demand has taken a toll on his once viral business. “We can adapt, but with that comes things like longer wait times,” he says. “I can’t have eight employees when we only sell 80 burritos. While I appreciate the 80 people who showed up that day, I did the same numbers two years ago. I’m not trying to chase places that don’t even pay gasoline to get us there. Stevanus has since delayed the opening of the Koreatown storefront.

Nana's Pasta, Tacos & Green Beans.

Nana’s Pasta, Tacos & Green Beans
Matthew kang

Nanas de Redondo Beach notes a similar drop in activity in March and April. Co-owner Jonathan Anzaldi says his revenues are down 25% for the month of April compared to the start of the year. “We’re happy that life is getting back to normal, but it’s having an impact on our business,” he says. “It’s almost like we’re the forgotten child now.”

Anzaldi opened her South Bay Ghost Kitchen with her fiance George Torres in early January. The couple quickly found a suite at Redondo Beach, where Torres combines recipes from their Mexican and Italian grandmothers. But they worry about staying in power. “We really appreciate the low overhead and higher margins,” says Anzaldi. “But we’re at a point where we need to be aware that our next step is to know that people are more eager to leave their homes or travel. We don’t want to sacrifice our money and what we have saved. If we move to a smaller space, the cost should be okay with us. “

A contingent of customers asked how they could continue to support Nanas, knowing that business had slowed down. Anzaldi also says he has regulars who still aren’t comfortable dining out and who keep the business afloat with weekly orders.

However, not all pop-ups are in decline. At La Canada, Maynard Llera’s Kuya Lord pop-up is having a record year. This former Bestia sous chef has been busy preparing and selling Filipino dishes like kare kare peanut stew and lechon. Her weekly menu still sells, but Llera says her biggest concern is finding employees to work each week. “My sales are improving surprisingly,” Llera says. “I just started last year. But I’m looking for my own space now because I need to do more production. “

Other pop-ups have solved the drop in revenue by partnering with other businesses that have a place for diners. Long before the pandemic, the Melody wine bar offered pop-ups at least five days a week. Husband and wife owners Eric and Paloma Tucker provide the wine, while the unmanned kitchen becomes a blank canvas for operators like Lowercase Deli to make sandwiches or De La Nonna to make thick crust pizzas. The Tuckers create a recurring pop-up program for concepts that correspond to the airy Virgil Village space. It’s a viable collaboration, whether people are social distancing or eating out. Eric Tucker says more pop-ups are approaching him than ever before. “I’ve never seen Los Angeles so ready to go out,” he says. “Even in the heat of the pandemic, we have been open and busy.”

With declining sales, rapid operational changes, and difficulty finding employees, most food companies have a myriad of challenges related to the pandemic in common. These rapid and significant changes over the past 14 months could amplify another hospitality need: new business models. Secret Lasagna chef Royce Burke – who also works at a ghost kitchen – highlights the difficulty of opening a restaurant in Los Angeles and hopes established restaurants and pop-ups in the city will determine a new path.

“I understand this push to open a restaurant, but it’s so short-sighted to do the same thing over and over again,” Burke says. “Bricks and mortar have insane additional costs. But it is incredibly difficult. I want to see companies come out of [ghost kitchens] and find new ways to be successful. “

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