Admitting you need outside help is never easy for a chef or restaurateur, especially within the first year of business. But with the right advice and guidance from a trusted source, the payoffs were huge for one small Los Angeles restaurant.
— Lesley Balla
When chef Ari Kolender opened his Los Angeles-area restaurant, Hayden, he got a lot of great buzz. The space had a cool vibe, he was devoted to locally grown ingredients from Southern California, and there was an excellent wine list for sip-happy customers. Still, Kolender knew there were things that needed work. What he didn’t anticipate was having to do a major overhaul within the first year, and that he’d need outside help to do it.
“I didn’t open Hayden thinking this is a masterpiece, everything is in its place,” said Kolender. “We had a great space and a bare-bones budget. We were happy where we were, the food and wine programming was where I wanted it, it was good enough to open. But we knew it would be a progression.”
When it debuted in July 2017, Hayden seemingly had everything going for it. The casual cafe and wine bar anchors a corner of Platform, a slick urban mixed-use complex in the burgeoning Hayden Tracht neighborhood of Culver City, walking distance from a new Metro line stop. Open and airy, the space blends both industrial and modernist decor elements. Kolender — who previously worked at venerable L.A. spots like Red Medicine and Providence, and was pegged for a James Beard Rising Star Award while at Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina — has a good story and a quick following. Design and architecture firms proliferate the area, and a young, upwardly-mobile crowd continues moving into loft apartments and newly flipped houses nearby. There’s even free parking.
But within a few months, something was off. While business was brisk and customer feedback mostly positive — nobody was complaining about the buckwheat waffles with sweet or savory toppings, daily oysters, or avocado toast — Hayden wasn’t performing as well as expected. Kolender and business partners David Fishbein and Joseph Miller, who also own Platform, didn’t waste any time getting help, and they hired L.A.-based Last Word Hospitality for guidance.
No Shame in Asking for Help
No matter how good business is out of the gate, many restaurants have to rejigger something after its initial debut. Maybe it’s revamping a menu, nixing dishes, or overhauling an entire kitchen staff. Sometimes it’s altering hours of business, or redesigning the dining room for flow. Working with an outside group can help determine those changes, but the question for many is when to bring them in. For some, it’s before a restaurant opens; for others it’s when sales start to falter. Sometimes they can help after a few short months.
Holly Fox, partner and CFO of Last Word Hospitality, says the first step is having the right conversation. Her firm looked at everything from financials to staffing to light fixtures at Hayden, and saw some issues right away. “As we got deeper into it, the owners all realized they had the right pieces, but things weren’t in the right order,” she said.
The easiest change was adding a host stand, and switching from counter service to a full-service model. Because the space is so large, and connected to the Tom Dixon design showroom and Reservation LA store, customers didn’t really know where to go when they walked in the front door. “We thought we could do this hybrid model that would attract workers,” Kolender said. “Looking back, it was a little insane. That works for smaller places, but we have 2,500 square feet. Customers got lost. Now you’re greeted when you walk in, and we have table service.”
Fox, who oversees financial “forensic analysis” for restaurants, said it was the most cost-effective change. Moving front-of-house staff from behind the counter, basically turning food runners into servers, they didn’t to hire new employees. And having a host somehow made guests more comfortable with the amount of money they were spending. “By using a quick-serve model with really fancy wine and high-end food, the value didn’t meet expectations for customers,” Fox added. “Now if they get a $40 bill at lunch, they don’t feel like they got robbed.”
Other changes included adding new drop lighting and artwork to the the room; reconfiguring the dining room with high-top tables, counter seating and a banquette along a newly installed wall; and beefing up a wine and gift shop. The patio is still intact and super inviting for the popular Golden Hour specials like $1.50 oysters and $8 glasses of wine. And the instead of serving two different menus, Hayden offers only one throughout the day.
Fox said that while the larger issues have been addressed, just like at any restaurant or bar, there’s always something to adjust. Maybe it’s small, like new wine glasses or plateware; sometimes it’s big, like management training. But removing any possible connotations with working with a consultant, and keeping an open mind to change, is key. “In order to keep up, you have to be willing to adapt,” she added.
The investment required to hire a consultant can be sizable. “Services range from a one-time consulting fee for an independent restaurant, which could be as low as a few thousand dollars, to a long-term monthly retainer or a project with a luxury hotel which could run tens of thousands of dollars,” said Fox. “For an ongoing contract in an operating venue, we can charge flat retainers or percentage management fees.”
It’s all paying off for Hayden. The restaurant implemented some changes in February, with the larger design overhaul debut in March. Revenue has already exceeded projections, with a 30 percent increase in sales since May. And more than 80 percent of guests are repeat local customers, something Kolender and his partners strived for.
Fox admits that Hayden is a great case study, but says it had everything going for it in the beginning — a great space in a great neighborhood, a strong vision and menu from the chef, and a willingness to make changes from all the players. With many clients, it can take up to a year to see any financial reward.
“We try not to make promises, especially with an increased revenue,” Fox adds. “It takes money to make money, and a lot of time new restaurateurs don’t realize where they have to put their resources.”
For Kolender and his partners, the collaboration process with Last Word was pretty painless as well. “You’re sitting in the same building with your head down all day long, so it helps to have someone come in and look at everything,” said the chef. “A fresh set of eyes is a helpful, wonderful thing.”
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.