Chefs moving into hotel restaurants aren’t tying themselves to one huge company but instead wielding influence in a number of different places. Here’s how L.A.’s Casey Lane handles several projects simultaneously while keeping his own brand intact.
— Lesley Balla
When chef Casey Lane took on two hotel restaurant projects in Los Angeles, he didn’t know they’d open within a few months of each other. He first signed on to oversee the food and beverage program for La Peer, a new Kimpton property in West Hollywood, which was supposed to open in 2015. A second unrelated project, which included two restaurants at the historic Hotel Figueroa downtown, was tracking to debut in 2016. Both projects got hit with massive delays and ended up opening within a month of each other in 2018.
Lane’s From Scratch Hospitality group had to simultaneously conceptualize, plan, staff, train and oversee dining operations for three different restaurants, several bar menus, room service, catering and banquets at both properties. That’s on top of running two popular independent eateries on both coasts, The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, California, and Casa Apicii in New York. “Honestly, I would not want to do that again,” he now says with a chuckle.
Lane always saw hotel restaurants as a part of his professional journey, but instead of aligning with one single brand, he managed to get contracts with two different unrelated properties. Like José Andrés, whose ThinkFoodGroup bought back the rights to The Bazaar so it can now open in properties other than SLS Hotels, this allows him to keep his independence while reaping the benefits of working with well-funded groups.
“My next project is going to be a small bed and breakfast, and I want to orchestrate the whole experience from check-in to the whole property,” said Lane. “Before it was a lot of licensed deals between chefs and hotel operators. For me, it’s more about learning the business side because that’s the next step for me creatively and operationally.”
Separate and Equal
Developers looking to add value to hotel properties with strong food and beverage (F&B) programs is nothing new, but instead of just being a licensed marquee chef, Lane has taken a personalized approach to building his restaurants. But that meant that while working on these side-by-side, he had to keep the two projects from bleeding into each other, conceptually or otherwise.
Hotel Figueroa is a historical icon in a tourist-heavy part of L.A., right next to L.A. Live, the Staples Center, and the Convention Center. On the other hand, La Peer is in the heart of a robust residential area, with the Pacific Design Center nearby and lots of shopping, entertainment options and foot traffic. Locals are a key demographic. This helped shape each restaurant.
Viale dei Romani, the main dining room at La Peer, was more of a passion project for Lane. The Southern Italian concept, featuring a lot of wood-fired cooking and Riviera influences, is his wheelhouse. Breva at Hotel Figueroa was driven was more in line with the restoration of the property, where the Spanish and French motif help drive his Basque-inspired menu. There’s no overlap between the two in menu or design, but look closely, and you can still tell they’re Casey Lane restaurants.
“Downtown business is very much driven by what’s going on in those complexes and the convention center. There’s not a lot of foot traffic unless they’re going there. The local clientele is a small portion of our guest interactions,” Lane said. “But I live in West Hollywood, and it was a natural understanding of what and how to fit into the market. The goal was to make Viale a classic dining experience, not just a hotel restaurant. There’s an amazing local clientele that loves dining, and they love the craft of craft cooking.”
That’s not to say locals haven’t discovered Breva and it’s more casual daytime restaurant, Veranda, at Hotel Figueroa. The latter sits adjacent to the pool, which on a perfect sunny L.A. day is a draw for post-work cocktails and light bites like kale pops and crudo. The bars — Bar Figueroa, the lobby bar; Rick’s, like a pool house with DJs; and Bar Alta, cocktailer Dushan Zarich’s bespoke reservation-only spot — are also big draws on weekend nights.
“It’s all about creating a demand. Hotels are looking for bigger name chefs but also looking for local talent to give the properties some identity,” said Lane.
The Day-to-Day Struggles and Solutions
Trying to staff two full hotel food and beverage programs at the same time presented challenges. The most notable was labor. Sourcing quality employees during a huge building boom with top-notch restaurants opening all over town even in a large city like L.A. proved difficult. Lane says the staffing pool is is getting smaller, but the benefits of working with a hotel include larger budgets to rising higher labor costs especially for qualified cooks and servers.
“There’s some give and take with how much more lucrative it is from an operations perspective,” added Lane. “The availability to expand your creative reach is a little easier.”
Lane runs the restaurants, along with the other two independent concepts he has in L.A. and new York, under the From Scratch Hospitality umbrella. With eight principal employees, they manage more than 300 people across all concepts. That’s a far cry from his days as a young chef making a name for himself in the burgeoning dining scene — he can’t be everywhere at once.
For him, it’s best to work in blocks focusing on one area that needs his attention on any one day or week. That might mean training a new head chef at one property, or working alongside management to help smooth over any catering hiccups at another. He’s very hands on, from menu development and recipe testing to jumping on the line when needed. Ultimately his goal is to continue spearheading the creative process for From Scratch, working with and mentoring people in the company.
“The most important factor in all of this is to give the people who work for you a chance to grow,” said Lane. “You let people who are very good with accounting to deal with accounting, the banquet leads manage banquets. It frees me up focus on our people. Some have been with us for nine-plus years, and we’re all progressing together. Without them none of this would be possible.”
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. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LesleyLA.