Chef Larry Bressler’s recipe for success at Mama’s Small Business Kitchen Incubator includes dashes of funny stories and witty retorts, combined with heaping helpings of encouragement and advice on what it takes to open and run a restaurant and catering business.
So, a reporter asks the 46-year-old general manager and Le Cordon Bleu instructor, do you have kids?
“Yup,” said Bressler, who’s better known around the kitchen as Chef Larry and listened to Grateful Dead songs during a recent interview. “Deep-fried ’em, a little tartar sauce, a little lemon … they were delicious.”
All kidding aside, the veteran chef knows that being personable and passionate about cooking are not the only ingredients needed to succeed.
“Ninety-five percent of all restaurants fail in the first year because of inexperienced operators, lack of capital and bad location,” said Bressler, turning serous for a moment, and adding that along with good business practices “at the end of the day, the food has to be good.”
In May, the Incubator, an economic development program of the nonprofit Episcopal Housing Alliance, took over a 6,000 square-foot green barn-home style building on San Gabriel Boulevard in east Pasadena. This is the Alliance’s second such “Mama’s Kitchen,” a concept that started a few years ago in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles with Mama’s Hot Tamale Kitchen, a job-training facility that helps street vendors make food in a licensed location. It’s since become a place of instruction for low-income wage earners to train as cooks or baristas.
In much the same way, the local Incubator — funded through grants and donations — is reaching out to very low- to moderate-income wage earners. Only here, instructors encourage potential entrepreneurs to start their own establishments under the auspices of Le Cordon Bleu instructors and business people.
Former market researcher and New Jersey native Safoa Abboa-Offei always loved cooking, earning a cooking degree in her mid 20s. In her early 40s and laid off from her job two years ago, Abboa-Offei decided that it was time for her “to strike out on my own and try out my own thing in an industry I really enjoy. I thought: Where is my experience, where is my passion? And, what do I like to do? Through becoming a personal chef,
I would have a lot of control over my day. Each day brings something different, something wonderful — and a new experience,” she said.
Abboa-Offei, one of the first people to visit the Incubator before it opened last year, got her first big job doing the catering for Taste of Glendale and was excited to find a kitchen close to her event. “It had everything that a person starting out wouldn’t have,” she remembered. “It was so beautiful; everything was new, big, clean. Some of the other kitchens weren’t as large — it had stoves, refrigerators, special mixers.”
But not only is the Incubator a wonderful avenue for business start-ups, it is also one of the few commercial kitchens available for rent in the San Gabriel Valley.
“The Incubator is a springboard into entrepreneurial success,” said Bressler, pointing out that organizations like the Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment and the Latino American Economic Development Institute offer business classes to budding chefs, giving them the rundown on how to operate a business. “The people who come here are extremely passionate about what they’re trying to create. Most of these people are new at what they’re doing, so they’re putting that much more time and energy into it and really striving for excellence in every small detail.”
It’s not all that expensive or difficult to get started. All one needs is liability insurance, a food-handling certificate, a $250 deposit and a business license. It costs $25 per hour, per table, but that includes all the accommodations and amenities.
The Incubator has had its share of success stories. Among them is the gourmet fast-food truck Flying Pig, serving Asian and Pacific tapas made with French technique. Although founder Joe Kim is a former Le Cordon Bleu student, he comes from a construction background. But, he said, “I always had a passion for opening a restaurant that sells quality food. … I didn’t have the passion for creating a new menu as a professional chef, but I had a passion for good quality food.”
Having a place like the Incubator to help him get it off the ground “made it less risky, in a way. If I wanted to buy and get the space, it would be a lot of work. So I just decided to go to the Incubator.”
Kim’s been in business for eight months and is presently so busy that he is ordering another truck. His selections are already upscale at low prices, but yet to come are “lobster, beef and French onion soup on the menu so people on the street can have luxury food at a reasonable price,” he said.
Bonnie Henderson and Betty Miller, the first tenants of the Incubator, recently opened Bonnie B’s Smokin’ Barbeque Heaven on North Lake Avenue in Pasadena. In the three months since opening, they have had unprecedented success — even a Zagat review.
The 52-year-old Henderson, formerly an executive assistant and a secretary, was laid off in August 2008 and forced to decide what to do with her life.
“There was, of course, fear of what am I going to do now? I have a mortgage to pay. But then I started thinking; I want to do something I love. I really want to be happy going to work … I want to go back to doing something I enjoy,” she said.
“It’s not inexpensive. It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk,” Henderson said.
Unlike in cooking, Bressler added, there is no such thing as a “just add water” formula for success in the restaurant business. “There’s no great secret here. The secret is passion, talent, research, people who come in and put in the sweat of their brow and combine that with their passion,” he said.