My So-Called Restaurant Startup Life
As I publish this, I am heavily pregnant, physically and mentally exhausted, and deep in the trenches preparing for the official opening* of our new restaurant today. We call it ‘āina— a Modern Hawaiian concept located in Dogpatch in San Francisco. This opening today comes about 8 months after my two business partners (my husband Jordan and a good friend Jason) and I first signed the lease to the space, and also exactly one month before the due date of our second baby — we have a 2.5 year old toddler at home. This restaurant is my third baby.
The timing of all this still seems insane to us, especially as a year ago we never thought we would be opening up a full-service brick and mortar restaurant in what is arguably one of the most competitive restaurant markets in the USA.
On a personal level, I will admit that the last 8 months have been one of the most challenging times in my life, where I have felt myself on the verge of a nervous breakdown more than a few times. I’ve never shied away from new challenges, but this required digging deep to figure out how to juggle all the various aspects of getting a new business off the ground, along with my full-time day job (as a recruiter for senior technical hires for startups), finding time for my rambunctious toddler, being a supportive wife and business partner to my husband, maintaining some semblance of a healthy lifestyle, and oh yeah, dealing with all the usual pregnancy hormones, aches and sleep deprivation. I often had the urge to burst into tears on random occasions just walking down the street.
The last month was especially brutal, as it was tax season for our household and two new business entities. We were in the end zone trying to get our final health and fire permits signed off, and a bunch of flare-ups happened between us business partners (trust me, arguing with your spouse when he is also your business partner makes for particularly tense moments!). I also felt terribly homesick for my family in Singapore, after an all-too-short visit from my brother who happened to be in San Francisco on a book tour**. The end result? An emotional breakdown on my part and an uncontrollable two-hour crying spree on a Friday night, about a week before our soft opening.
Each of us have have felt utterly burnt out and physically nauseous leading up to our opening. Jordan probably lost 15 pounds, Jason was running on empty, and I barely gained any weight in my third trimester from the stress and being on my feet so much.
And yet, crazy as it sounds, I remain grateful for this whole experience.
How We Got Here
‘āina started as a pop-up, a labour of love and a fun experiment for us to offer something unique and different for brunch and for Jordan to cook what we called Modern Hawaiian food, inspired by what he grew up eating on the Big Island of Hawaii. The word “aina” itself has a deep meaning: the land, or that which feeds us and the food is a direct product of Jordan’s culinary and personal experiences.
We stumbled upon a small and affordable space in the adorable Bernal Heights neighborhood in late 2014 and thought: why not? We had no idea who would show up, but were floored by the positive response to our baby pop-up which ran twice a month on weekends. We were fortunate to have lots of repeat customers, positive word-of-mouth and features in various food sites. Folks drove up from San Jose to try our food, out-of-town visitors from New York and Seattle stopped by and we frequently sold out of food each service.
Here’s the thing about pop-ups: until I myself worked at one, I had NO idea how much work goes into these things. Pop-ups are a great and low-cost (and sometimes only) way to test out a product and so have become de riguer in the Bay Area for many chefs. But, they are logistically extremely challenging — running out of someone else’s space means having to set up all our food and equipment from scratch every Friday night and then clean up and break everything down on Sunday afternoon. You are working in a space that isn’t set up efficiently for your needs and there will be multiple issues to deal with: electricity tripping mid-service, lack of storage, sinks getting clogged and so on.
Plus, we were all holding down full-time day jobs during the week — Jordan managing the kitchen program at AirBnB and Jason as a bar manager at La Folie. This left very little down time before having to go back to our day jobs on Monday.
Our pop-up was a particular time-suck as Jordan is a perfectionist, and brunch included many menu items that were extremely time and labour intensive, involving lots of components. One of our most popular dishes for example was the Kalbi Loco Moco, our spin on the Loco Moco, which traditionally in Hawaii is just a simple hamburger patty served with rice and lots of gravy. Our version involved marinating high-quality beef for a few days in a Korean-influenced marinade, smoking it lovingly, braising it for hours, then using sous-vide technique to cook it just right. Added to that would be a hearts of palm salsa verde made using fresh hearts of palm flown in overnight from Hawaii, carefully poached eggs, seasonal garnishes and sticky white rice, all carefully plated.
As for front-of-house — without any regular staff, we relied on the good graces of friends to help out on an ad-hoc basis. I would often be carrying my then-one-year-old son on my back, attempting to multi-task as a hostess and server.
We had our two busiest weekends right before our last service. The SF Chronicle ran a full-page story and a blurb on their front page featuring us. It was also Mother’s Day weekend and it really sucked turning away folks who brought their families for a special brunch as we were at capacity by mid-morning.
After six months juggling the pop-up on top of our regular jobs, working seven days a week, we reluctantly had to admit that we were utterly burnt out and our pop-up was not sustainable — it was taking too much of a toll on our lives. So by May 2015, we decided to shut it down.
We put everything on hold, telling ourselves that if it was meant to be, and if the right opportunity presented itself, we would revisit our concept.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
We looked casually at some available restaurant spaces in the city over the next few months, but nothing felt quite right and/or was just horrendously expensive. And yet — serendipitously, a lease for our dream location opened up in Dogpatch via a personal connection. At that point, none of us were quite ready to jump into what we knew would be an extremely challenging business — but we also recognized a rare opportunity and knew that we would be kicking ourselves a year down the road if we didn’t grab it and go for it.
I have always been the most conservative and risk-averse of the bunch, (growing up in Singapore doesn’t exactly encourage entrepreneurship!) but even I felt that we had a concept and a following that might just work, and I was inspired by all the brave entrepreneurs I got to work with at startups in my day job.
So Jordan and Jason resigned from their day jobs, we dived in, rolled up our sleeves and figured out as first-time restaurant owners how to get things done. As a small business with limited resources, we had to be very hands on, but were fortunate to work with some great professionals and friends in our network who helped us tremendously with design, marketing, and construction. We were in a neighborhood where the community was incredibly supportive and welcoming. I was also blessed to have an amazing nanny and understanding bosses at my day job.
What followed was months of sweat and tears, involving (just to name a few): navigating the city and its various permits and license requirements; calling a public preservation committee hearing to get exterior building renovations approved as we were in a designated historic neighborhood; coming up with a detailed business plan and financial projections to secure investors; falling off ladders as Jason and Jordan did all their own painting and even some demolition; spending hours agonizing over which fixtures to install; hiring and training (and firing!) staff; figuring out taxes and payroll; hosting pop-ups to keep our brand fresh, honing our knowledge of social media and the power of hashtags, and so on.
And so here we are today, marking the beginning of the next chapter of my life in more ways than one – I am so excited to meet our second child and see what unfolds with my third “baby” ‘āina. Each time I walk into the restaurant, I find myself feeling incredibly emotional and tearing up. Yes, pregnancy hormones do play into it, but much of it stems from having seen the transformation happen steadily over the last year, and knowing how much hard work and sheer love has gone into it from us. I will say this: there is nothing quite like the exhaustion and exhilaration that comes from owning your own business, and seeing your own vision come to life.
No matter what happens with ‘āina, we have built something we are incredibly proud of, allowing us to serve up food made with love and the aloha spirit. There have been many dark days, but this has been an amazing journey and learning experience. The restaurant business is brutal, and it’s a long and rocky road ahead still but I am grateful that we felt the fear — and went ahead to do it anyway.
- *April 27 marks the official opening of ‘āina, and also happens to be one month prior to our baby’s due date, and our third year wedding anniversary!
- ** My brother by the way is Sonny Liew, the author of the celebrated graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (publisher: Pantheon) and was in town as part of his USA multi-city book tour. Available on Amazon and all good book stores.