Running successful restaurants in Los Angeles for decades is a feat on its own, but running food and beverage at an 18,000-person venue takes something special.
— Lesley Balla
There’s no one way to build a restaurant empire. Some restaurateurs create a family of unique entities that fill gaps across one city landscape. Others hit on a fast-casual idea that’s easily replicated across the country. For longtime business partners chef Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne it was a little bit of both. But then they added an 18,000-person venue to the list.
Under the Lucques Group umbrella, the two oversee three acclaimed restaurants in Los Angeles — Lucques, their first, which turns 20 this year, A.O.C. and Tavern — plus three casual Larder cafes that offer counter service and a strong grab-and-go component, a full-scale catering arm, and a wholesale bakery business. So when they were approached to take over the food and beverage operations at the iconic Hollywood Bowl for 2016, they had reservations.
It meant creating food and beverage programs for the various venues throughout — three full-service, sit-down concepts, three marketplaces, standalone kiosks, in-seat service and catering — from May through October. Experiences that go way beyond the typical concession-stand fare.
“Our first thought was wow that’s exciting,” said Goin. “The second was how would we do it? The funny thing is it falls in line. We just looked at everything from the perspective of our restaurants and broke it all down.”
Being the summer home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a main stop for concert tours for everyone from Paul Simon to LCD Soundsystem, The Hollywood Bowl is one of the most respected concert venues in the country. Expectations are high. As a rite of passage for Angelenos, many take their own picnics and even beer and wine to dine on the grounds and in their seats. But having quality options to buy on-site is key, especially if you don’t plan ahead or simply don’t want to lug a few bags up the steep hillside.
From 2000 to 2015, Joachim Splichal’s Los Angeles-based Patina Group exclusively oversaw all food and beverage for the venue. When that contract was up, Sodexo, which oversees all food and facilities operations at the Bowl, helped recruit the Lucques Group.
“We knew it would be important to find a local partner to help us deliver a unique and high-quality dining experience for the patrons of the Hollywood Bowl,” said Moses Debord, vice president of operations for Sodexo.
For the most part, Goin and Styne replicated their restaurants and catering options. There’s The Wine Bar by A.O.C., a full-service, mostly reservation-only spot; The Backyard, a grill-focused outdoor dining room; and Lucques at the Circle, a fine-dining experience for Pool Circle subscribers only. Similar to the Larders, several marketplaces carry pre-packaged salads, sandwiches, fried chicken, cheeses, snacks, wines, beer, and other beverages. There are also street food stalls selling pizza, banh mi, tacos, hot dogs, popcorn and more. Concertgoers can order full-spread picnic baskets ahead of time to pick up on the way to their seats. Those in the coveted boxes can have the picnics delivered and set up by servers.
With so many moving parts each night, when at full capacity, the group will feed thousands at a time. And it takes an army — more than 480 food and beverage employees. It starts with executive chef Jeff Rogers, one of the few year-round employees, to keep the Bowl program going. Having worked at Highlands in Carmel for 10 years, and he ran the food program for Cindy Pawlcyn at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, he has the perfect combination of experience, Goin said.
“We have the same sensibility,” Goin said. “He knows what we like and don’t like. And he’s taken on more of the recruiting as time has gone on, which is so important. To do something on this scale, you realize what you need and build staff and crew from there.”
Recruiting and Retaining Staff
Just like any restaurant, staffing is a big challenge. There’s a labor shortage for dependable kitchen workers everywhere, and the temporary nature of a seasonal venue adds a layer of difficulty. The team first tries to hire from within the group, but also hold job fairs. When the season ends, she tries to place the best cooks at the restaurants or catering, and if there aren’t enough spots, she tries to help them find work elsewhere.
Partner Sodexo manages human resources and financial decisions rest on them, allowing Goin, Styne and their team to focus on the creative side. The menus range from extensive to simple; the reservations-only wine bar features the most items (29) and the street-food stalls serve just a few. All wine and beer selections, whether served in the restaurants or sold at the marketplaces, are curated by Styne.
Success at Scale
More 19,000 guests were served in the wine bar dining room in 2017, and The Backyard exceeded 10,000 covers. There were more than 24,000 picnics served in the box seats.
Sodexo said sales have increased 48 percent since the Lucques Group took over. “It’s a combination of reinventing the dining program,” says Debord. “That through our partnership with Suzanne and Caroline, event goers now have access to a variety of new food options across multiple price points.”
It’s been a win for the Lucques Group on multiple levels. Having a mostly local clientele at the Bowl has generated more business for the L.A. restaurants. Not only does it help attract new people who’ve never dined at Lucques, A.O.C., or Tavern, it inspires those who haven’t recently visited to come back.
But taking on more large venues isn’t necessarily in the game plan for Goin and Styne. While other Los Angeles-based groups like Patina and Wolfgang Puck manage multiple food and beverage programs for concert venues and museums across the country, Goin says it’s not really their goal. (Although if something local came up, they’d consider it, she said.)
“I can see us doing a couple more things in L.A. if it’s the right thing, the right partner, the right venue,” Goin said. “But we’re busy enough. We’re not so ambitious that we want to open something in New York, San Francisco, or Cleveland. I think we make the Bowl work because we’re so attached to it. We grew up going here. It’s so a part of the fabric of L.A.”
Lesley Balla is a food, drink and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in regional, national, and online publications including Angeleno, Zagat.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly, Eater, Tasting Table and many more. When she’s not discovering the best eats around town, you can find her walking and hiking with her husband somewhere in the San Gabriel mountains, eating oysters and picking berries in the Pacific Northwest, and strolling whatever farmers market is nearby. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LesleyLA.