By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Lien Ta is managing partner at All Day Baby in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Previously she cofounded Here’s Looking at You restaurant, which closed in 2020. She is also cofounder of RE: Her, a nonprofit which supports women restaurateurs.
We opened All Day Baby on Thanksgiving weekend of 2019. It was a pretty big undertaking to start, because it was seven days a week, breakfast and lunch. I think it was 8am to 3pm. The whole goal was to get open, get through the holidays, continue on our hiring spree, and ramp ourselves up for night service as well.
By the end of February, we got ourselves to that place where we could be open all day. We only did it 10 times, and then on March 15th, we shut the whole situation down.
Our bank account was in the red because we were overspending to try and train everyone. At that point, we had about 65 employees. The first thing that goes through your mind is, “Oh my God, these people. Who cares about me at this point?” Chef Jonathan Whitener and I were also laid off, of course.
I remember the biggest thing weighing on me was how to process payroll. At that point, just the way our payroll runs, there was a week’s worth that I would owe staff. But you’ve got to be open to make money. It’s a constant cash flow of business. It was horrifying. I remember that night when I had to write these horrible emails. I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on. What I’m doing right now is apparently called a furlough. Please apply for unemployment. These are the links.” It’s 18 months later, and I still have to continue to tell myself that COVID was not my fault. I really took on this anguish.
The review of our restaurant in the Los Angeles Times had come out in the paper on Sunday, March 15th. We certainly didn’t take it for granted. It’s such an honor to be one of 52 restaurants that get reviewed in a year. You really lean on that kind of thing to drive business. And we needed it. We really needed it. But because of the timing of the pandemic, all that went to waste.
Still, there was this really lovely picture of our biscuit sandwich in the paper. And I was like, “We still have a little bit of food. What can we make? What can we figure out that our community might possibly need at this time? What couldn’t they live without? I know it sounds crazy, but I think it’s the biscuit sandwich.”
So I thought maybe there was a way I could build something into our website where people could pre-purchase their biscuit sandwiches and choose a pickup time. I’m not that amazing at websites or technology, but I whipped all of this together on a Friday. Later that night, the state, which governs our liquor licenses, ended up allowing us to sell to-go cocktails. I added cocktails to the website, and I named it the Biscuit Window.
Over the next two days, I had a couple of employees that volunteered to come and help. A couple of us would volunteer every weekend, and sometimes on a weekday. Eventually all of these people were paid back for their time when we got our PPP money in May. But it was pretty extraordinary to keep it going in that way.
After reopening May 28th with about 27 employees, it was really hard. At the time it was takeout. On that day alfresco became available, so we set up a few tables outside. I was gauging the comfort level of my staff. I remember them feeling extremely anxious over serving people tableside. I was like, okay, can we keep it takeout only—guests can use the tables if they want to.
Lots of things happened to really change our thinking about what was important. The murder of George Floyd happened. A sense of despair was very prevalent in my own staff, and we were like, what can we do as a restaurant? That same weekend, we had an abundance of staff, so we got all the pastry cooks and chefs together, and we created a bake sale in which all the profits went towards Black Lives Matter LA.
And it was amazing. I just set it up like I used to do the Biscuit Window. People would buy so many pastries. It was a lot to organize. There were pastries everywhere in the dining room, since nobody was in it. Everybody was outside, and we sold cocktails out there too.
All that was great, but the rest of June was still just so slow. I was running these two restaurants, and none of us were mentally well. It was hard to be the leader. I was pretty sure that we would have to close forever. I actually wrote an email to my staff that said as much—that if nothing happened with our landlord by the first week of July, we were going to get kicked out.
But at the 11th hour, I ended up writing my staff again. I had talked to a couple of advisors. I was like, you know what? I’m going to close one of our restaurants—Here’s Looking at You—on July 12, which was the deadline for PPP. I’m just going to squat here in the Silver Lake space until we get kicked out.
I’m still managing the grief about how things played out with Here’s Looking at You. It felt unfair. I have regrets. I owned a restaurant that was so special to me for four years, but it turns out that it was also so special to so many other people, because every day someone tells me about it. I can’t get over my own grief or my own pain because it’s just constantly around me.
I let everybody go again, with the exception of six people. I needed at least one cook, one bartender, my pastry chef, my dishwasher, my barista, and someone to help me in the front. That was our barebones staff. We all worked five days a week, then until now.
Then on August 19th, I appeared in a video at the Democratic National Convention. The mayor had asked me to participate. I remember thinking, “Sure, I’ll spend my day off filming with you. I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I will do it because you asked me.” I didn’t know that it would have an effect on anything. But after that, our landlord called and was willing to talk. He was like, “You’re friends with the mayor?” Since then we’ve been paying a reduced rent, and that’s one reason why we’re still okay.
But the biggest, most relevant reason is that the community has really shown up for us. Most every day gets a little bit better. Some days we slip back, but that’s just life.
My motivation is other people. It’s my staff and my investors. Nobody deserves having their job taken away in this way, or their investment taken away in this way. I had to find ways to make power out of feeling completely powerless. It was just constantly rethinking and reimagining. I work with wildly creative people, and I’m very lucky that I can just say, “We’re going to have a taco stand party today, and so we’re going to need cocktails and churros and whatever to match that vibe.” And they’re like, “Yeah! Let’s do it, Lien!” And for better or for worse, I’ve inspired them to be these individuals that just regenerate constantly.
When you can’t allow yourself to be attached to your future, it forces you to really be a part of your present. I remember having funny conversations with guests—I mean, they’re funny to me now—where they’d be like, “I can’t wait to come visit you.” And I’d be like, “Come soon. Come this week, because who knows what next week will bring!”
This is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my whole life. There’ve been no breaks. When people talk about their pandemic vacation, and all those workouts that they did, and the sourdough that they made … I did not do any of that. I make minimum wage. I live in a basement apartment where you can’t fit a couch. My point is that as optimistic and as leaderly as my day-to-day has forced me to be, there are days where I just don’t really have much patience. You can get a disgruntled guest, and they can really be such a day-buster. That can make me lose patience, and I’m frustrated. I then become disappointed in myself. But I’ve just learned I’m human, and I’m not perfect.
On the other hand, there are countless stories I could share of the generosity and the expansiveness of people’s hearts. There’s this new awareness of how difficult restaurants are. For my part, I worked with this really amazing organization called El Nido Family Centers—el nido means “the nest.” They have this long history of helping low-income families, mainly of Hispanic or Black descent.
I created a little page and said a $10 donation would buy an adult dinner from All Day Baby. We had the time to make food, so we ended up cooking an average of 120 meals every Thursday, and I would drive them to Watts after work. Me and my barista, who was 20 at the time—he’s 21 now—he lives in Watts with his dad. He and I would caravan together. We had the two smallest cars on the team, and we stuffed all of these meals into our cars and delivered them door to door to this housing community called Jordan Downs. We did that for eight weeks, and it was all because we got enough donations to do so from our guests.
What I’ve learned through all of these experiences is that if I say something—if I speak up—chances are that someone is listening. I have to have a voice in this community because I work in a place of leadership. I’m someone’s boss, I’m someone’s employer, and I guess I’m someone’s community leader, too. It’s not really what I’m most comfortable doing, but I’m happy that I’ve overcome a little bit of this fear. I wouldn’t even have known what a community is, or what it means to me, if this hadn’t happened. I’m very lucky and acknowledge my privilege to be a leader in this community. I want to do my best to continue to serve—even if I don’t know yet what that means. I’m going to continue figuring it out.