How Being Named the 'Best New Restaurant in America' Hurt My Business
After the press, people wouldn’t come in with the same open-minded attitude, or just to enjoy a meal out with their friends. It seemed like they came in just to write a shitty review about us on Yelp.
Photos courtesy of Nastassia Clucks
Closing down your restaurant is like going through the stages of grieving one's death. Frustration, anger, bargaining—we went through it all.
The whole experience of running Alma was a little bit frustrating. Despite the critical acclaim that we received for being named the "Best New Restaurant in America" by Bon Appétit and many other accolades, those things didn't translate to anything really in the end since the restaurant was never, ever full.
Because of this, Alma never felt like a success, and this was very frustrating to me as a young chef who just loves to cook and feed people. Yes, we are from LA and we are proud to represent this city, but we couldn't find a regular clientele to support what we were doing.
The ironic thing, however, was that all of the positive media attention that we received ended up having very negative consequences in the long run. The acclaim changed the conversation around the restaurant. We were still the same people, and Alma was still the same mom-and=pop restaurant that we opened up in downtown Los Angeles for less than $50,000. But as soon as the press hit, people started to hate us for these same factors; it created a double-standard of sorts with the other contenders in the nation.
After the press, people wouldn't come in with the same open-minded attitude, or just to enjoy a meal out with their friends.
I remember this national food blogger once came to eat and then compared us to other restaurants that had $2 million buildouts and $10,000 PR budgets. How are you going to compare us to that? We started to receive extremely negative comments and reviews: "This place is overrated! How can this place possibly be on this list? This place has holes in the wall!" People started to really turn on us, and the restaurant became an extremely negative place for a while.
After the press, people wouldn't come in with the same open-minded attitude, or just to enjoy a meal out with their friends. It seemed like they came in just to write a shitty review about us on Yelp, or just to tell their friends how we didn't deserve the award. It became really frustrating to cook in this environment and made me really depressed for a while. I never cooked to be better than anyone else or to change gastronomy forever; I cooked to share food with people.
It became a very hopeless situation and I felt like I couldn't win, no matter how hard I tried. It made me very jaded and it became almost impossible to cook for other people. I couldn't figure out what to do differently in order to win people over. We tried everything, from introducing more à la carte items to just trying to find a middle ground between customers' demands and us. But no matter what we tried, nothing worked. It never made me want to quit cooking, but it did make me realize how the act of cooking can be such a negative experience sometimes.
There are all these fucking terms like "overrated" and "underrated" that are used to describe restaurants because they are great internet buzzwords, but these words really have a legitimate impact on people's lives sometimes. I think we can get really cavalier when it comes to shitting on somebody because it is too easy to do so nowadays. I understand if somebody like Jonathan Gold wants to come in and shit on us because he has spent the last 30 years or so earning the right to do so, but if some kid fresh out of college on some sort of editorial internship wants to do the same, it doesn't feel right anymore.
What a lot of people don't realize is that along with this sudden "all hail the chef" trend in American food culture, shit-talking about restaurants is also at an all-time high. And for young chefs who own restaurants like us, the power of shit-talking can ultimately shut down your business.
Fortunately for us, we've had everyone say everything that you can possibly think of about our food, so we are past the point where we need the validation from anybody. I could give a fuck at this point, and we are just happy to try Alma again in the form of a three-month-residency at The Standard hotel in West Hollywood, whether it is critically acclaimed or not.
As told to Javier Cabral Editor's note: Ashleigh Parsons contributed to this story.