The last year has offered a lot of teaching moments and introspection for restaurateurs. Umbrellas like Daniel Patterson’s Alta Group are tackling big issues like closing the pay gap and supporting racial and gender equity, one restaurant at a time.
— Lesley Balla
The paradigm shifted considerably this year, with chefs and brands taking a much closer look at how they run both individual, independent units, and entire restaurant groups.
For Daniel Patterson, whose original restaurant Coi has won numerous awards and accolades for more than a decade, is bringing racial and gender equity, leveling out the pay gap, and building community to the forefront of his newly formed Alta Group. Not only are they talking about the issues, but they’ve been implementing systems and strategies to bring new voices and solutions to the table.
“We’re in the very nascent stages,” Patterson said. “What we’re trying to do isn’t revolutionary, but we want to center the humanness of what it means to feed someone, to take care of someone and to connect in the context in this modern business.”
Changing Gears But Staying On Track
Originally, Patterson’s burgeoning group opened a few Alta locations around Northern California, but the chef says he never intended to open a “chain” of restaurants. He was already thinking about how to build a new kind of restaurant group, one with a model that could make a social impact as well as support growing businesses. By 2016, they were working with Restaurants Opportunities Center (ROC) United on racial equity, something Patterson sees as a fundamental principle for all of his restaurants.
But in early 2018, those Alta locations were flipping into different concepts, which ushered in a new direction for the group. The original Alta became Kaya, a modern Jamaican restaurant in partnership with chef Nigel Jones. Dyafa opened with chef Reem Assil, who garnered serious accolades for her modern take on Arabic cuisine, from a Food & Wine Best Restaurant nod to James Beard Best Chef and Thrillist’s Chef of the Year. Another Alta was transformed into Besharam, in partnership with Heena Patel who serves California-Gujarati cuisine inspired by her native India. In October, the group debuted Alta Adams in Los Angeles. Overseen by chef Keith Corbin, who began working with Patterson at the original LocoL in nearby Watts, the restaurant celebrates soul food with seasonal Southern California sensibilities.
Although Patterson is involved with each restaurant at the highest level, they’re all completely different, operating as independent concepts fully envisioned by the chef-partners who have their own unique perspectives on California cuisine. But the group as a whole has developed and implemented standards and strategies across the board to help the chefs and their staff achieve success, from hiring, training and human resources to how to set up a walk-in, cooking stations, mise en place and cleaning schedules.
“It’s down to good habits,” he added. “I’ll sit down with the chef, listen to all of their ideas. What I’m really trying to do is understand how to translate those into a busy, high-volume restaurant. How to take that vision into the kitchen and make it happen so they’re proud of it. I see my role is as an editor. I work intensely with them in the beginning, but I don’t want to change someone’s voice. Just help make it better.”
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Having a strong corporate team to streamline training materials and processes for the group was integral for growth. The Alta Group now consists of Patterson; director of learning and development, Gabriel Barba; beverage director Aaron Paul; culinary director Andrew Miller; and administrative manager Saman Saleem.
Barba applied experiences he learned at corporate chains like The Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s to develop strategies for the Alta Group as it morphed into what it is today. Things like building systems around organizational behavior, how to talk to employees as adults (as opposed to children) and remind them of the value in their roles, and how the work they do reflects on not only the individual but the restaurant as a whole.
“From flipping the first Alta to opening Alta Adams, we had a bare bones structure that we could build the restaurants around. And everytime we grow, we solidify our core values of equity, community and fairness,” Barba said. “We’re not done by a long shot, but it’s so much more concrete now than two or three restaurants ago. Whether we’re opening a neighborhood bar or a Michelin-star restaurant, the approach and training are the same, but it’s all transferable.”
Moving into 2019, the group will continue to work to address inequities in restaurants and the world around them, ensuring that every employee has the tools to be successful, whether it’s in the kitchen, serving a customer a table or walking their own path in life. They’re working on plans to address mental health issues in the workplace, especially when they lead to self-destructive tendencies. Implementing tip pools, which reinforces the group’s values of community and equity, and finding seasoned talent to buy into them is another focus for the new year.
Keeping checks on the quality of the experience that’s in line with the Alta Group’s reputation, plus forging new roads for equity and building community, isn’t easy. But Patterson says the challenge has been worth it.
“It’s been something to see how this approach really plays out, and we’re delighted because it’s actually working,” he adds. “Accountability and kindness are really important, but at the end of the day, guests walk in the door, and they want good food and service. Maybe we’ve been talking so much about compassion that we didn’t vocalize the excellence component as much as we should have. But striving for excellence is still really important as a whole.”
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.