With International Women’s Day celebrated annually in March, we wanted to take a minute and recognize some of the strong, dedicated women who make today’s restaurant industry go ‘round. Another Round Another Rally Advisory Council Member Casey Felton is among the many hardworking women who had to roll with the punches in recent months, and she’s sharing the story of how she learned to adapt, adjust and overcome in the wake of arguably the biggest blow the restaurant industry ever suffered.
First and foremost, I hope you, your family and your inner circle are all staying healthy and safe. It’s been a pretty wild ride this past year with several pertinent issues deserving spotlight and thought.
I am the owner of the small neighborhood grab-and-go restaurant, banh oui. It is located in the heart of Hollywood, where business relies heavily on the inhabited offices of the many companies in the area. My business immediately felt a decline of 75% in revenue when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last March. For a year now, we’ve been working hard at banh oui., repositioning ourselves for survival. Our neighborhood here in Hollywood gave us a loyal lunch crowd, but since COVID hit, the workforce moved home, and it became a ghost town. Online orders have been helpful, but the 25-30%-cut that third-party order-delivery systems take has been highway robbery. (If you can, please order directly from our small businesses.)
On top of COVID, my former co-owner and I split our business partnership to move on as independent restaurant owners. Negotiations were not easy, but banh oui. is now 100% mine. The disintegration of the partnership, especially one that was heavily founded on friendship and less so on legal contracts, was a hard lesson to learn. But it proved a good lesson, nonetheless.
What has changed about banh oui.? Well, we integrated the Hollywood Farmers Market into our business and have started a community support system. In working more closely with the market vendors, banh oui. has expanded its menu to better reflect the seasonal produce for which SoCal is admired.It also allowed me to flex some of my creative strengths. Similarly, supporting local and other small businesses allowed me to hope for a future not inundated with corporate food chains. Supporting local takes effort, can be expensive and forces us out of routine, but during a year when nothing was easy, it was worth getting to know the farmers who work the land and the vendors willing to show up on a slow market day. Incidentally, these relationships inspired a docu-series that I am now producing called Bet the Farm. We hope to stream it soon.
The idea behind banh oui’s pivot started with a casual conversation with Hollywood Farmers market Manager Maegen Rzasa. The HFM takes place every Sunday just out front of banh oui’s doors. In speaking with Maegen, I learned that prepared hot food vendors would not be able to sell during the shutdown, leaving most of the farmers and vendors without lunch. Initially, I offered to cook 100 vendor lunches for free every Sunday, hoping to create something positive.
It happened. I received bulk donations from different farmers and used their product to cook new and different meals each week. banh oui. cooked 165 vendor meals each Sunday for six months and would have a line around the corner at our 10 a.m. opening. Admittedly, it felt good for us to have a sense of purpose, but as the pandemic lingered and social awareness for injustices came to the surface, our efforts became more about making a difference for those who are overlooked.
Our weekly meals only ended when I carelessly sliced off the tip of my index finger while cutting a cucumber with a mandolin. It was a Monday, 98 degrees outside and unexpectedly busy. I was working with one of my main cooks, Angel, when our air conditioner called it quits and started leaking water from the ceiling. Normally, I can handle situations like this, but the universe was not on my side that day. Angel was a warrior and pushed through service, handling tablet, in-person and phone orders while I tried to stop the bleeding. Instead, I fainted in my office chair! Looking back on it now, I can shake my head in disbelief. WHAT A DAY; WHAT A YEAR! I had to close the shop early that day, and Angel drove me to a nearby hospital emergency room. The entire car ride over, I kept beating myself up over the loss of prospective revenue ALL because I made such a stupid kitchen mistake. Angel returned to the kitchen, cleaned up service and returned to the hospital to collect his humbled boss who was able to recover her finger tip with several stitches. I still don’t have complete feeling back in my right index finger. Without the use of that finger, my effectiveness in the kitchen dropped, and my small crew had to pick up the slack. They did so with the same generosity I experienced from the vendors in the Farmers Market. What goes around comes around.
So, what was 2020? For me, it was a wake-up call. Pandemic or not, it was a lesson in business relationships, personal survival, mentorship and community. It was a year of cultural reckoning, not only for the hospitality industry, but for overall American culture. Many of our personal experiences mirrored what was happening to us globally, nationally and as humans. Perspective provided a hell of a view, and we all got a front-row seat this past year.