Chef Betty Fraser and business partner Chef Denise DeCarlo have co-owned the award-winning Hollywood, CA restaurant, Grub, for 14 years. The “Grub Gals,” who also co-own As You Like It catering, have established a reputation for promoting “California Comfort Food.” Fraser, a Top Chef season two competitor, talks with MRM Magazine about restaurant naming, COGS and the lure of “crack” bacon.
Why did you want to pursue a career in the restaurant business?
I’ve always been in creative fields. I was an actress and did a lot of musicals in my hometown of San Francisco. But after getting hit with the reality of acting in Los Angeles I started feeding my creativity through cooking. I started working in the front of the house because of the flexibility and honed my cooking skills by throwing dinner parties for friends. It provided the same type of rush that I got when I was on stage so the transition to owning a restaurant, which is like putting on a show every day, was relatively easy.
How did you select California Comfort Food as your brand?
My partner and I had been catering for a while before we launched the restaurant so we had a good idea about which of our dishes were the big hits. But deciding on items for a catered event is a bit different than determining what goes on a restaurant menu. We were a bit more diverse initially in terms of cuisine, but when we saw what was being ordered the most we began to work in that direction. It’s not like we were trained in a specific style of cuisine so we had the leeway to really experiment and let our guests lead the way.
What are your favorite menu items and why?
The big ones that have yet to go out of style are our take on a classic tuna melt (called “The Hooked”), our “After School Special” which is a crazy good grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup combination and one whose name came from the customers themselves, our “crack” bacon. It must have started organically from a customer but people started ordering sides of “crack” bacon. One bite and you’re hooked. One really fun thing about our menu is that our focus is on taking the classic dishes we all grew up with and adding our own flair. For a lot of us, grilled cheese and tomato soup means our childhood. Our restaurant is in an old house so we’re striving to make that connection with our guests.
Why choose “Grub” as the name for your restaurant?
Anyone starting a business knows that coming up with a name is hard. You want something that speaks to the core of what you’re doing but is also memorable. Our catering company is called “As You Like It,” which is part Shakespearean and part literal, and we wanted something in the same vein.
The margins in the restaurant business are just too small to not analyze everything you’re spending money on.
We played around for quite a while with different names and kept envisioning a large group of people having fun around the table. The common man wasn’t eating what the royalty ate which led us down the path. As soon as it was mentioned out loud my partner and I both said, “Yes!” It fit like a glove.
Why did you expand into serving supper?
It’s sort of like paying for dental insurance but never going to the dentist. The space was sitting there at night so we might as well take advantage of it. Given our location it was a bit of a risk because we knew the neighborhood gets quiet at night. But it’s been great to see how many of our daytime clientele also drops by for supper. There’s no doubt that some of the new restaurant delivery services out there have mitigated the risk. We’re busy, but sometimes it’s being eaten in a different location.
Was it customer request driven? Does the tone change for dinner service?
We always had customers wanting us to open for dinner but we needed to make a strong business decision on our own with that one. Customer loyalty only goes so far. We’d need to rebrand and attract a new audience if we wanted to be successful. When we first launched for supper Denise and I got very excited because we felt it was a way to expand our menu with some styles that were much different than what we offered during the day. We decided to keep some of our more popular items on the evening menu and saw our guests keep gravitating towards them. So we began looking at our supper menu through the same eyes we do at lunch and brunch. Classic dishes pumped up with contemporary touches. That’s what we’re about and it’s serving us well.
What was the thought process behind pursuing television opportunities?
I had pretty much given up the idea being in front of the camera or an audience so when I was approached by the show Top Chef I saw it as a fun opportunity to do something different. This was in the second season right when the show really started taking off. While I’m not sure I’d say the experience was “fun,” because it was hard as hell, it opened so many doors for me. I started to see the value in media and live event exposure and it’s become a great part of my career. I always find it interesting how life can give you what you need if you let it. I gave up acting to pursue a career in the culinary field and the culinary field put me on TV and doing cooking shows at events. I clearly need to stop paying to play the lottery so I can find a winning ticket on the ground.
What are the main challenges you see facing the restaurant industry today?
I would say that staying ahead of the curve to remain relevant and handling costs are the main challenges most restaurateurs face. Chefs have become so amazingly creative, and startup restaurants are really pushing the envelope, so you have to stay on top of your game. That doesn’t mean being something you’re not in order to compete. I’m a big believer in doing what you know and bringing yourself to your work. Thinking creatively and taking calculated risks is just as much a part of the game. It’s not easy putting yourself out there for public scrutiny. The problem comes when ego gets in the way. If you haven’t succeeded, then you can either blame the guests for their lousy taste or you can listen to them and adjust what you’re doing. Believing in yourself is essential. Believing you have all the answers is a mistake.
When it comes to costs, this is an area that is impacting most every restaurant owner. Minimum wage increases are taking place throughout the country and this impacts everything from your in-house labor, COGS and linen rentals to trash collection and electricity. Some restaurants are just jacking up prices and letting the consumer make up the difference. With that there’s a risk of pricing yourself out of the market. What we’re trying to do is adjust our vendor relationships. Can we renegotiate our insurance, change our paper goods supplier, use different cuts of meat without sacrificing the dining experience? Last week we talked about the ply of our to-go napkins! The margins in the restaurant business are just too small to not analyze everything you’re spending money on.
What is a normal (if that’s possible) work day like for you?
Early rise, get the dogs taken care of, hit the computer and launch in to the day. From there it’s either off to the restaurant, the catering kitchen or meetings. I’ve got a few TV projects in the works as well so I can go from pitch meetings in the morning, to diving in behind the line or the front of the house at Grub during the day and then off to a catering event for a few hundred people at night. Every day is different, demanding and I wouldn’t have it any other way.