Lien Ta, Co-Founder of All Day Baby
Before I opened a restaurant, I was a writer and entertainment reporter. I went to college for a writing and publishing degree because I wanted to have a career in magazines, but I just didn´t want to move to New York to endure further brutal winters, which is where all the magazines are typically based. So, I moved to Los Angeles and landed my first job at E! Online where I did a lot of celebrity reporting. Unfortunately, as it turned out, it was just not work that I was overly passionate about. It was more interesting to me to write about movies than, for example, the actors and their lives themselves. Eventually I grew into becoming an editor and working in a cubicle, which was a little bit more exciting to me, since I got to work with a lot of freelance writers, but… it was still not really fulfilling. I love people and I love taking care of people, but working in that job gave me the feeling I was really going against my destiny and my path. And one day, as a lot of people do when they feel like they need to make a change in their lives, I asked myself what is it that I’m even interested in? What else could I possibly see myself doing?
I dreamt of how great it would be to open, own, and operate a restaurant. I decided to quit my career and begin learning everything about the restaurant industry. I didn’t know anything about it at the time so I took jobs at restaurants that I felt could teach me something. I tried to be thoughtful about places that I was targeting to try to get them to hire me, but I also couldn’t be overly picky, since I didn’t have a ton of experience. At a small French café & wine bar, I worked as a hostess all the way to being a cashier and to running food. I also wanted to learn about wine so I took classes.
Fast forward to 2013, I was a manager at ´animal´ and ´son of a gun´, which were sister restaurants. After about two years of working there, I realized that my colleague, Jonathan Whitener, who was the Chef de Cuisine at ´animal´ at the time, could potentially become my business partner. I had almost given up on the idea of ever opening a restaurant, simply because I wasn’t a chef myself. It just seemed so difficult to find someone that I felt was really talented and would be a great business partner. It’s like a relationship and you have to align in that manner. One day, it just hit me: I’ve been working with him forever! He could possibly be someone that I could forge a partnership with. We did, and I left that job right away.
It took me some time to really put this idea into motion. There was no handbook about figuring out how to open up a restaurant. Eventually we found the space in Koreatown which gave us our source of motivation. From there the story just sort of unfolded.
We wanted to showcase Jonathan´s talent and his unique cooking. The meshing of cultures and what we call Southern California´s diversity and internationalism. He just has a great way of putting unusual flavors and ingredients together and making a dish really shine. It was weird to envision and plan a restaurant that was not real yet, but amazingly, things just sort of fell into place. For example: Now we have a really thriving cocktail bar; we didn´t even think that we would have full cocktails at our restaurant! It’s expensive to get a liquor license.
To look back or even to witness other up-and-coming restaurants that are currently going through this process: You realize it´s hard. And you are just doing things that are so strange and unknown; raising unimaginable amounts of money and asking people to invest in you. Is this crazy? Yes, definitely.
In the beginning, I wasn´t entirely certain what it would mean to run a business, but I had to figure it out pretty quickly. Once we knew we could get the space, we needed to lock it down and get the money. I had to learn how to write a business plan and how to make financial projections of our first year. We just imagined, based on our restaurant size, how much money we would need to make per day, and based on that, how long it would take to pay your investors back. There’s not a lot of help, you just have to find people that want to help you.
Convincing investors to invest in our restaurant without any experience as a restaurateur, took a lot of preparing and knowing the details. I put a big effort into being prepared and created a business plan that was very compelling. Also, Jonathan and I came from a great restaurant pedigree. So even though it was challenging getting people behind us nobodies, at the end of the day it all came down to salesmanship and doing our best to describe and justify why the world needs this project. I had to believe in myself, no doubt. If I was crazy enough to take other people’s money and build this, then I better do it well. It was a choice I made. I could surely have chosen an easier path and just taken another job, but I really wanted this and I was very passionate about it.
During the process of finding investors, I don’t honestly remember how many No’s I got, but I got many Yes´s in the beginning. It’s usually more difficult in the end to close the deal. We raised 750,000 $ for ´Here’s Looking At You´ and 1.25 million for ´All Day Baby´. The beginning is easier, because you’re asking the people that are the easiest and the most enthusiastic to join. Maybe you know some people that believed in you from the beginning or who want to invest their money in cool projects. And then comes this middle period where you think about who might know someone else that might be just even remotely interested. It’s a lot of networking and word of mouth. With both of our restaurants, it was the end of the investor seeking process, that was always the hardest because we got so close. It´s like you’re on a timeline that’s ticking, rent is due and you just have to keep going.
When Jonathan and I decided to open up our second restaurant, ´All Day Baby´, it literally came down to a feeling that the timing was right. We felt ambitious, and we wanted to open up something totally different. We came across this location through a friend of a friend, knowing that it was available. When I first moved to LA, I knew about this location as being this brunch restaurant. It wasn’t particularly remarkable, but I remember going there, even though I lived in a totally different neighborhood. At that point, this area was not that developed. Most of Silver Lake generally centers around Sunset Junction, which is north of this stretch and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. We just felt it would be awesome to revive this corner and cater to this neighborhood. We love this community, we love brunch, and we wanted to open an all-day place with food that was inspired by diners.
credit: Joyce Kim
Jonathan and I both grew up individually loving diners. Every culture has their own diner; there’s Greek diners, Japanese diners, and, of course, All American diners. I grew up in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia, so this restaurant has a lot of southern influence as well. Jonathan used to spend his summers in the south as well, but he grew up in Huntington Beach. We wanted to open a West Coast restaurant that’s specifically like Los Angeles.
We opened ´All Day Baby´ three months before the pandemic, which turned out to be unknowingly terrible timing. It has been very hard but we we’re able to keep things going. ´All Day Baby´ ended up being more conducive to at least attempting takeout. Unfortunately, when we tried to transform our flagship restaurant, ´Here´s Looking At You´, to takeout – the nice, casual, fine dining, celebratory restaurant, and the one that won the awards and was very beloved –, no one would come. So we made the hard decision to close it down, in our minds only temporarily though. Our landlord really wanted us to reopen though, but if we weren’t willing to reopen immediately, he wanted us to put it on the market and sell it. Eventually there was a buyer and it was basically for sale in escrow, but we weren’t going to profit by any means. We would be lucky to even just cover our debts, no one would get paid, and it would be bad. But somehow the sale just didn’t go through! It was stuck in escrow for a long time. Long enough, that eventually, I was encouraged enough to try to get out of the sale. I’m not used to selling businesses, let alone getting out of sales, but we were stuck in this whole battle with this buyer for almost all of 2021. Meanwhile, all debts would still be there. Every month of rent, every single bill that we paid on monthly basis.
By the time the fall came around, I decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign. ´Here’s Looking At You´ was a really beloved restaurant and every day, during what was a really painful time, I was trying to close something that I didn’t want to close to begin with. Every single day, someone would talk to me about that restaurant. No one would let me let this restaurant go, and neither could I let it go. It just made the most sense to take a huge risk and ask people for help. Hundreds of thousands of other restaurants had closed during this difficult time, and some will never reopen. It felt really crazy and even a little bit selfish to try to do this, but it’s a wonderful restaurant, it really is. We ended up raising 85.000$ on GoFundMe and some other channels and reopened five weeks later. In hindsight, sometimes it just feels like ´Here’s Looking At You´ went through this whole roller coaster for no reason.
Today we’re just very grateful to be open again. We meet a lot of new guests, but it’s been wonderful to welcome the returning ones. The restaurant might be important to me, or it might be important to Jonathan, but it’s pretty astonishing to see how much it touched other people. At times, I’ve lost even my hope and my inspiration, but it’s very inspiring to be able to be open night after night for the people that come to the restaurant.
During the time ´Here’s Looking At You´ was closed and I was going through this process of having to sell it, ´All Day Baby´ was only open for takeout and going through every single COVID regulation possible. One day we would be allowed to have outdoor dining, then we would not have outdoor dining. Every day was so precarious, and you didn’t know until in the morning, what was allowed and what not. And then we were literally just living check to check. We honestly didn’t know if there was a future.
Today, we´re definitely still recovering. I mean, we’re safer in the sense that it’s not as deeply uncertain, and scary as it was in the beginning. And we’re not literally worried anymore that someone you love and employ might get sick and die. Those extremities don’t exist right now, but now we have many other worries. Fact is, you cannot plan for the unpredictable and we’re not out of the clear, but you need to be resilient to making change and trying to do your best to survive. The whole world is experiencing inflation, supply chain issues and shortages. It’s confusing to people, when they don’t understand why their favorite salad is gone but we can´t even get those ingredients to prepare the food.
Never in the past would we have ever thought, that our restaurant has to close if three people are sick. The reason why businesses now have erratic hours is because there’s simply no staff, because they’re sick or there’s literally no one to hire. Besides that, many have left this industry completely.
credit: Jenn Emerling
A lot of people just assume we’re okay, like everybody’s okay. And that restaurants don’t need help anymore, which is just not true. Truthfully, I still don’t make a lot of money. I’m very overworked because I don’t have enough money to hire more people to help me. But I still go and support my friends’ restaurants. And they’re not doing great either. I wish the media would do a better job at really showcasing the true realities of small businesses and help dispense the support, which is why I wanted to start ´RE: Her´.
One day, I was on a call with other women in LA that also own restaurants. They were all talking about winter coming up and all the amazing ways they would redecorate their outdoor patios to make it work. I personally couldn’t afford to do all those things. It was too risky to me to invest 5.000$ in heat lamps and more tables if it would get shut down or I’m not going to make it anyways. And I certainly wasn’t alone with that thought. Most business owners probably needed money and easier access to free money. There were grants and incredible outlets, but they were really, really hard to apply for – and I still had to run a business. It felt like a full-time job just trying to find grants for our businesses. So in my mind, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to create a group where we would host some kind of a festival. We would call it a festival, but all we offered was literally take-out. Essentially, we would think of a name, we build a website and we would find a way for people to promote whatever it is that they want to do during these 10 days. Our goal was to generate exposure and get people to come and support our businesses. We would create basically a long list of restaurants and a map and show all of these amazing ways that e.g. a restaurant in Silver Lake was collaborating with another restaurant in Santa Monica.
I figured, we would do two things: we would launch this festival and we would also try to raise money. ´RE: Her´ is a nonprofit, but we wanted to give people options to help. During the pandemic, many people were trying to help businesses and they just didn’t know how. But I figured we could raise a lot of money and develop a grant program, which will help restaurants in return. The festival was an incredible success, and several months later, we were able to launch the grant program, distributing fifteen 10,000$ grants. All of that has been amazing because it really brought so many independent female-run businesses so much closer. It’s an amazing community and pretty astonishing. But there’s still so much more work to do.
If you’re running a business, you’re just incredibly busy. The last thing you’re necessarily thinking about is how to keep in touch with friends that are in the restaurant industry. ´RE: Her´ is about having a really strong network. We want to find ways to still be able to support the community, even if it’s difficult for anyone to know the full story of how hard it can be nowadays to run a restaurant. Besides having this in LA, we also launched it in Washington DC and eventually want to grow it in other cities too.
For me personally, it is so important to keep going and do the best I can and accepting that I’m not going to be perfect. I’ve learned to let that go. I’m very proud of myself. And thank God my employees are amazing. I think as long as you can do those things and still execute artistry, every day is going to be fine.
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