Running a Restaurant is Hard AF

Words by
Nguyen Tran

Harder than that, actually. An ode to all those putting in the work from someone who has been there.

There was this quaint and illegally delicious restaurant, called Allumette, that opened in 2013 in the heart of Echo Park, across from a drivethru Little Caesar’s and next to a neighborhood taco joint.

Within months of opening, Allumette was the talk of Los Angeles. Jonathan Gold included it on his revered Los Angeles Times 101 Best Restaurants list. Bon Appétit named it in their annual rundown of the 50 best new restaurants in America. Allumette hit the pinnacle of social success and culinary recognition restaurant owners dream of and almost never get. And they did it in basically a year.

But a few months later, to the utter confusion of eager eaters, they announced they would be closing. How could a place this popular be shutting down already? But experienced restaurant operators at any level completely understood.

Running a restaurant is hard AF.

Having naively started a restaurant with my wife, I get it. Running a restaurant is like orchestrating a destructive symphony–it’s a chaotic organization of many parts that seems bound to destroy itself daily, but somehow must carry through to the end.

We started Starry Kitchen, a culinary riff on all sorts of Asian food we grew up eating, in our North Hollywood apartment just to make ends meet. It was 2009, the economy was deep in a recession, and despite having no formal restaurant or cooking experience we tried it anyway. It was not unlike the start of some of Los Angeles’s most exciting food right now, so much of it borne out of necessity in a pandemic. A recipe for disaster in this business can, occasionally, result in an odd cocktail of success.

Somehow we made it work. People kept showing up at our apartment ready to eat. We probably should have hired cooks to help us keep up with the demand, but it was always just us two. Our little underground apartment restaurant was word-of-mouth popular across the city, mostly for the singular thing we have now served over a million of: our crispy tofu balls.

Six months in, the health department shut us down.

Our first time finding out that…

Running a restaurant is hard AF.

But I saw it as an opportunity. If we were big enough to get their attention, then maybe we were big enough for a brick-and-mortar spot. A few months later, Starry Kitchen went from being a pop-up in our apartment to a permanent lunch restaurant in Bunker Hill. We were lucky to open with some splashy press and early lines of customers. Our tofu balls got bigger. Our “too garlicky” garlic noodles were gaining traction.

Being a lunch restaurant, we were only open four hours a day, with the lunch rush–about a 60-minute window–driving almost the entire business. But our workdays were easily 12 hours. The math is crazy making: 12 hours of work for an unpredictable 60-minute window of sales that may sway based on weather, mood, local events, any number of things. I’m surprised there isn’t a dedicated branch of psychiatry for those who work in restaurants. Then again, even if there was, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t afford it.

Running a restaurant is hard AF.

A little over two years after opening, our partners sold the space we were operating in. We had to close down, pack up, and move out.

We reinvented as a dinner pop-up in the Fashion District, adding a new menu item to our already popular dishes like the tofu balls and garlic noodles: Singaporean chili crab. It caught the attention of chili crab lovers across the city and our first weekend was unexpectedly packed. The next few months were dead. We were fighting for pennies with bank accounts in the red when Jonathan Gold put us on his 101 Best Restaurants list.

J.Gold’s stamp of approval brought us to his annual event where we ran into our old friend, Roy Choi, who invited us to join him at Chego in the new-old promised land of Chinatown. Things were looking up! Now in its fourth iteration, Starry Kitchen was a semi-permanent dive bar pop-up in a hot new food center of L.A. Our chili crab was taking off, and, amazingly, we found ourselves back on the 101 Best Restaurants list for a second year in a row.

But a few months later, half a decade into running Starry Kitchen in one form or another, my wife couldn’t take the restaurant rollercoaster anymore. It needed to be just us again, or else my wife was entirely out—of both Starry Kitchen and our marriage.

Running a restaurant is hard AF.

Much like Allumette, we shut down and celebrated our failure the only way our industry knows how: with a raucous last night of service party.

And we took our first break in over five years.

Starry Kitchen came back in a partnership with the beloved Echo Park arcade, Button Mash. The menu was all Starry Kitchen, with some surprises like a double cheeseburger on there for good measure. Then the pandemic hit and left restaurants scrambling to figure out what to do. By April of 2022, the only way Button Mash could reopen was without Starry Kitchen. We stepped away, not knowing what the next chapter for us will be.

Running a restaurant is hard AF.

Unlike many of the restaurant owners and cooks serving up all of the exciting food L.A. is now known for, we didn’t mean to do this. The necessity of cooking for people to make ends meet is what got us here, and now for some godforsaken reason we won’t leave. We can’t leave. In this way, the restaurant industry chose us first and now we’re members in this club open to anyone where the universal entry fee is hunger and thirst.

What we didn’t count on, in all our naivete, was Starry Kitchen carrying us towards something so fulfilling: feeding and making people happy.

Still, I don’t wish this business on anyone.

It’s grueling, and rewarding, and crushing, and thrilling, and above all it’s incredibly hard work. There is no magic or smoke or mirrors. To run a restaurant is to put yourself out there day after day after day and hope that nothing is off because if it is, customers can feel it and most times even taste it. And then you do it all over again the next day, lured into an industry we love to hate but keep choosing not to get out of.

So, here’s to restaurants and the people who run them. Cheers to the highs and cheers to the lows. We’ll see you at our next celebration of failure.