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Christy Vega On Transforming Casa Vega Into An Outdoor Restaurant

Christy Vega is the owner-operator of Casa Vega restaurant, a family-run Los Angeles institution for more than six decades.

When the lockdown came, it was a Sunday evening when they told us we weren’t going be able to open the next day for dine-in. I didn’t really know what was happening. I thought we could do this for a couple weeks and just go straight to-go.

Casa Vega is a really old restaurant—really, really old school. Food to-go was something we didn’t really do. We did it for our loyal regulars, but we weren’t set up for it in any regard because our tables are so busy. We just never could do it well. But I thought we could get by for two weeks and run a skeleton crew and see what was happening.

During that time, obviously, things changed and worsened. I decided to shut the restaurant down three days in. Our sales dropped 90 percent. It’s an expensive restaurant. All restaurants are, but we have a lot of employees, a lot of long-term employees, a lot of hefty payroll, a lot of expenses. I’m 42, and a lot of people have been with us since before I was born. That really weighed on me when I decided to shut it down, because we’ve never really shut down before. That was a hard decision to make.

It was devastating to tell them that we weren’t going to weather the storm. I chose that because three days in and making 10 percent of sales wasn’t a lot of money. A lot of my staff were over 65. I’m a mother of four. My father’s 86. I didn’t know what the virus was. I didn’t know what was happening. I just didn’t know if we were being responsible by staying open without really understanding what we were dealing with.

During this whole process, something really amazing happened. Mister Cartoon showed up—he’s a really famous tattoo and street mural artist. He was supposed to be at South by Southwest, and that got canceled. He came by to do this Chicano Pride, Mexican-American Pride mural on the restaurant we’d been talking about. It was supposed to be months later, but he’s like, “I’m in town, everything’s canceled.”

He and his guys showed up with a bunch of spray paint, and they started doing the mural literally while we were shutting down. So on our final day when I locked the kitchen and restaurant and just kind of cried as I walked out the door, he was there. For the next six days, he painted. It was like a sign. There’s still a light in this storm, and we’re going to be okay. It was a really weird time. We were just sitting there watching the apocalypse happening around us.

I was also following Tom Douglas out of Seattle at the time. I’m a huge fan of his. He shut down 13 restaurants, so I knew this was a bigger thing than a little two-week blip.

We took a break, and a month went by. Everyone was scrambling for PPP loans and trying to figure out what to do next. I knew if I could get PPP funding and I could get my guys back to work, then that was the first win I wanted to accomplish. Then it was to see how we could make it somewhat profitable.

I took a few weeks while applying for all the loans. It gave me time to mourn and to be sad about what happened to Casa Vega. That old-school style of restaurant was gone, and it wasn’t going to come back until we could open our bar and our tables. So what was I going to do next? Before the pandemic, I’d been trying to think of ways to pivot Casa Vega—to go into stadiums or other venues where it could be more of a fast-casual restaurant. So I pulled out some of those old menus and really started thinking about how I could do this.

My dad was very smart over the years when he bought a lot of property around Casa Vega. We have some big parking lots adjacent to the property, so I was able to develop more than just curbside to-go service. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something better. I wanted to do something more clever. And I also needed to use more staff to cover the PPP loan.

I set up this drive-through where we had four different stalls for cars to pull up to. They all had waiters. People could place their order before they came in. Four days after I got funded with PPP—I had everything scribbled down and worked out in my mind—I just hit “go” and called every employee I had. I said, “Let’s get back to work.” I offered jobs to every single employee.

I begged the printers to make banners super quick. Everything happened in four days, and we got up and running. And our first day up, May 2nd, we were slammed. We couldn’t keep up with the demand. It took us a few weeks to get the kinks worked out.

Cinco de Mayo was the 5th, so we had a couple days under our belts to figure out what worked, what didn’t work. We thought we had a plan. We thought we got some things worked out. And it was a good and bad story at the same time. We had more demand than we could possibly keep up with. I couldn’t get all our systems upgraded. Every time I kept calling the POS company, different hosts, ChowNow, whoever it was to help us get contactless payments, to upgrade our online to-go service. Nobody was working. Everybody was furloughed. We were up and running, but with this antiquated POS system.

Lunch was fine. We were super busy, we had a plan. And then all of sudden at dinner, at about 5:30 pm, the wheels just came off the bus. All these orders popped up in the system. I was saying, “I thought we shut it off.” And my staff was saying, “We did, but it just keeps coming.” We had 400 orders pop up for dinner. I’m sitting there with a line of tickets, half wanting to jump up and down with joy, and half wanting to cry, because there’s no possible way we could get all these out in one hour.

Photo: Dave Schwep.

In the end, it was fabulous because we had all this support from the community. Everyone was so happy that we were back open. Casa Vega has been in LA for 64 years, and there’s something heartwarming about it for everybody. When Casa Vega is closed, it just doesn’t feel right for the neighborhood. If Casa Vega is still around, everything’s going to be okay.

We did that all of May and into June, and it was profitable. We actually made more money than we anticipated. The alcohol to-go was a definite game changer. If we hadn’t had that, I’m not so sure we would have been as profitable.

I kept thinking I should siphon some of this money and reserve it for the next pivot. The chatter about outdoor dining was starting to happen, and how people were just feeling much better eating outside. That was kind of the newest trend. But at Casa Vega, we don’t even have a window. Our whole vibe is the opposite—dark red leather booths, everybody’s rubbing shoulders, the bar is three deep. I thought, “This is not going to be good.”

But again, we had all this space. Even though Casa Vega may not be built for it. I have two massive parking lots I can turn into outdoor dining. So again, I got my little sketchbook out, thinking I can basically rebuild the restaurant outside. I can get 30-plus tables out there. It’ll be an investment, but I think it’ll be worth it—investing $30,000 to try and protect a million and a half dollars in sales in three months.

We took a few weeks and shut down the drive-through because we had to do some renovations. I tented both parking lots. It was a full girls-run-the-world operation. I had my cousin Kathy and my assistants, we were all out there. We were all females, renting vans, going to World Markets, going to IKEAs, going everywhere we could to pick up tables because nothing can ship in time with COVID. I thought about turfing the ground, but we’re Mexican, so I didn’t want debris from the chips to get stuck in the turf and attract bugs.

I decided to put some of the money—this may be a little more female—into the ambience. I brought in olive trees and hanging plants and ficus, because I wanted it to be pretty. I felt that all of us had been trapped in our homes for so long. Everybody’s lost so much. There’s not one person in this world that hasn’t been touched by what has happened.

I wanted to do something nice for our community. I wanted it to be a place where they could feel safe, where they could relax a little bit. Maybe they could sip a margarita, have a little bit of comfort food like they were used to, and take a little bit of time away from the stresses of everyday life.

When we opened, we were actually able to open 60 percent capacity inside. I still had some tables inside, which was nice. And shockingly, we had a big demand. People would wait to sit inside. When they shut down all indoor dining, I was like, “Whew! That worked out really well.” I picked up 11 more tables and we put them outside.

Because each parking lot is over 5,500 square feet, I have so much space. The restaurant’s only 3,000 square feet. I have over 30 tables, and they’re well beyond six feet social distance. They’re so roomy. Obviously we’re missing our bar. And we used to run from 11:30 am until 2 am every day. We can’t generate those type of sales now that we run 11:30 am to midnight. But I’m at about 85 percent, and that will get us through to January.

I don’t know what the weather will hold for us in the later months. I hope the city lets us stay open outdoors if they’re going to keep us closed inside. The permits last until September 1st. But I’m already thinking about Christmas outside.

In addition to having an older staff, because we’ve been around so long, we also have an older clientele. A lot of our customers are in their 80s. And the best thing is when an older couple comes up to me and says, “I just want to say thank you. We feel so safe. This is the only place we feel safe. And you’ve done such a remarkable job. You’ve made it pretty. You’ve made it lovely. The food is good, and you guys are just doing it right.” That makes all the hard work worth it.