April 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

L.A. restaurant pivots to outlast COVID-19 restrictions

Remember those days when you would walk into the restaurant and every seat up front at the bar would be taken and there’d be just a narrow aisle between the crowd at the bar and the one at the long communal table, and the wait staff carrying hot broth would have to shimmy through it, trying not to spill as they served?

So reminisced the employees now working shortened hours at Bone Kettle in Pasadena about the time before COVID-19.

Before the little family-owned restaurant on Raymond Avenue had to shut its doors in the spring.

Before it reopened for takeout and a brief stint of plexiglass-partitioned, reduced-capacity indoor dining.

Before indoor dining was banned and the restaurant pushed for weeks to win permission to barricade off-street parking spaces for outdoor dining and then invested in outdoor gazebos. Before serving food to outdoor diners subsequently was disallowed too.

Before the now-empty bar and communal table were repurposed to sell baked goods to go and face masks, candles, lotions and teas, selected to soothe coronavirus anxieties, support other hard-hit local small businesses and bring in badly needed extra revenue.

Before debts deepened and a business model that was always high risk found itself flipped upside down and in need of government life support and staring at the prospect of collapse.

Chef Eric Tjahyadi, whose family owns Bone Kettle, looks out at an empty dining area on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Takeout at Bone Kettle used to be 5% of its business. Now the restaurant has to rely on it for just about all of its revenue. Some days are decent, some dreadful.

I spent time at Bone Kettle this week to look closely at how one determined restaurant is fighting to get through this dark time and to get a better sense of how much is on the line for so many of them.

Restaurants need our support. They also need the far more substantial aid our federal government could and should be offering.

Bone Kettle serves creative Southeast Asian fare. The restaurant’s name refers to its fragrantly spiced bone broth, simmered for 36 hours. Its loyal fans would mourn its disappearance.

But there’s a lot more at stake in keeping our restaurants alive than safeguarding the tastes we love.

Eric Tjahyadi, whose family owns Bone Kettle, patiently schooled me in how the closure of a restaurant can ripple outward and hurt a whole ecosystem, not just its owners who might lose their life savings, and its staff, who’d lose their livelihoods, but also its chain of suppliers and their suppliers — the farmers, the butchers, the fishmongers, the vintners, the linen company delivering the fresh tablecloths and napkins.

He also helped me understand how much extra ingenuity is required now, with so much of the usual business structure imploded.

He explained how restaurants buy many supplies on 15- or 30-day credit, and how tricky it is to buy enough but not more than you can sell, especially now without having any bookings to go by.

So many small restaurants are labors of love. Bone Kettle certainly is one of them. The Tjahyadi family has poured everything it has into its little jewel box, which opened in 2017, steadily built a following and had two of its best months to date just before the pandemic hit.

They are willing to try anything to stay open. And as Eric puts it, they have a secret weapon: They know how to pivot.

Bone Kettle chef Erwin Tjahyadi hands an order to his father, Tjhing Sen, who also goes by Simon.

Bone Kettle chef Erwin Tjahyadi hands an order to his father, Tjhing Sen, who also goes by Simon.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It comes from ample experience with adversity.

Erwin Tjahyadi is Bone Kettle’s chef. Eric, two years older, runs the business. Their father, Tjhing Sen, who also goes by Simon, is a jack-of-all-trades at the restaurant.

Their immediate family — father, mother, the two young boys (Erwin, 10, and Eric, 12) and their baby sister — came to America in 1995 from the city of Surabaya in East Java, an early part of a wave of ethnically Chinese Indonesians seeking asylum in the United States.

They arrived in a group of 20 relatives who at first lived in motels and then all jammed together in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. In the beginning, as they tried to make a life here, before they had enough money for the various family units to separate and make their own way, even the kids labored hard to keep the group afloat.

The boys joined their parents cleaning motel rooms, working at warehouses, recycling cans and tidying up loose threads in a sweatshop before they got signed up for school.

Tables are sanitized at Bone Kettle in Pasadena.

Tables are sanitized Dec. 1 at Bone Kettle in Pasadena, which bucked an L.A. County health order temporarily suspending outdoor dining at restaurants. The city has since complied with the order.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Eric went on to UC San Diego, where he worked multiple jobs while going to classes. Erwin lived with him there and watched the Food Network and cooked their meals. In high school, he began working in his first kitchen as a dishwasher. Eventually he made his way to Le Cordon Bleu.

After Erwin was laid off from the kitchen of the Hotel Bel-Air during the Great Recession, the two brothers with other partners started a catering business in a garage that led to the popular Komodo food truck and then two Komodo restaurants — famous for Erwin’s Phorrito, the tastes of Vietnamese pho wrapped into a tortilla.

Eric is still digging himself out of a mess from when the brothers left Komodo to start Bone Kettle and the partners pulled out and closed the restaurants, leaving the Tjahyadis with the accumulated debt.
He kept going. He has boundless energy.

On top of his more than full-time hours at the restaurant, he also has a high-powered corporate job, starting his day on East Coast hours as a vice president and head of national ad sales at Sony Music Entertainment. And he’s part-owner of a small hip-hop coffee shop called Supa Coffee on Robertson Boulevard, where he’s used the same kind of creative hustle as he has at Bone Kettle to keep money coming in this year.

Eric Tjahyadi sanitizes menus at Bone Kettle restaurant in Pasadena.

Eric Tjahyadi sanitizes menus at Bone Kettle restaurant in compliance with coronavirus precautions.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A lot of customers have dogs so he’s now selling dog toys. Many are front-line workers at nearby hospitals. They like the pandemic-themed greeting cards; one pairs a smiley face mask with the words, “Thanks for covering for me.”

Unlike most restaurants, except when Bone Kettle had to shut early on, he and Erwin have managed to keep their whole staff of about 20 people working, though they don’t get the hours they once did. Some workers voluntarily have given up hours to others in greater need.

The brothers received a $123,000 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program and used about 70% of it to pay staff. The rest went to other operating expenses and to rent, though most months they’ve only paid part of it.

Their landlord is not charging late fees but has yet to reduce that $12,000 monthly cost. So far, the Tjahyadis owe about $60,000 in back rent. And they still are not sure how much of the PPP loan will be forgiven.

Meanwhile, they continue to hustle.

They’re signed on to various city-run and nonprofit programs to prepare meals for convalescent homes and front-line workers, for which they get paid per plate. They just repaired their old food truck.

 A takeout order is prepared at Bone Kettle restaurant in Pasadena.

Bone Kettle employee, Alejandro Claudio, prepares a takeout order at Bone Kettle restaurant in Pasadena.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Eric offered DoorDash an exclusive right to do deliveries in exchange for decreasing the cut of the check that the delivery app takes for the service.

He and Erwin have put packaged meals on the menu: a lobster feast, a beef ribs feast, a feast for vegetarians. They’ve offered special set meals for events such as graduation and Mother’s Day. At the front of the restaurant, they are trying to sell off their wine stock, any four bottles for $100.

The family is grateful for its steadfast regulars. They are grateful to be part of a restaurant community whose owners pass on news and share survival tips and try to cross-promote one another. They are grateful too for community members who have worked hard to generate support.

One night when I was at Bone Kettle, I met Megan Lam, who along with two fellow food enthusiasts started a Facebook group early on in the pandemic to identify which San Gabriel Valley restaurants remained open.

This week, the group, now called SGV Eats, promoted Eat SGV Week, in which people could pre-order special menus or discounted meals from local restaurants.

Lam was one of several who came in that night for Bone Kettle’s discounted deep-fried whole bass.

In my time at Bone Kettle, I went with Eric on walks around the neighborhood, where he stopped to commiserate with other restaurant owners.

Along the way, we passed some restaurants that already had closed for good and many grimly empty, still open ones, chairs upside down on tables, no evidence of energy or cheer.

“You can see the sadness. You can see the defeat,” Eric said. You can probably even taste it in the food, I suggested.

Eric told me he refused to give in that way.

“As long as we keep fighting, we have a chance,” he said.

But how many out there holding on by a thread have his fortitude?