How an Underground Supper Club Built a Growing Food Empire
Robert Kronfli with chef Lior Hillel (center) and his brother Danny.
What started during 26-year-old Robert Kronfli’s sophomore year at USC as a weekly dinner party for friends in an off-campus apartment has blossomed into a mini-hospitality empire: the small plates hotspot Bacaro L.A. near the USC campus, Nature’s Brew café and coffeehouse located two doors down, Kronfli Brothers line of sauces and now Bacari PDR, which opened last month on the hill overlooking the ocean in the Playa del Rey spot where the bright yellow Bistro Du Soleil once stood.
Kronfli, who was named in the Zagat “30 Under 30” list just last month, owns all of these ventures with his older brother Daniel, who’s also a USC alum. Entrepreneurship is in their blood. Growing up, their Lebanese father ran a business with his brother. In fact, everyone on their father’s side of the family — up to Kronfli's great, great, grandfather — owned their own business, and many of them worked closely with one or more of their brothers.
“The positives far outweigh the negatives,” Robert Kronfli, the youngest of three boys, says about working with family. “You don’t have to hold any emotion back, or worry about being polite, or overly thoughtful. You can just let your emotions fly.”
Born and raised in La Cañada Flintridge, Kronfli didn’t think he was destined to serve up small plates until he and his buddy Alex Chang invited friends over for dinner one Thursday night in 2009. It became a weekly to-do before going out. After a few months, word started to get around, and people began to show up at their place — people who weren't necessarily good friends — expecting a free dinner. The plan for Paladar Underground was hatched: They started to charge and people paid … for three straight years.
Robert Kronfli, peeking out of Bacari PDR's window
During graduation week 2011, which was the last week Paladar was open for business, they operated five nights, serving 64 people each evening. The story of this underground supper club is the subject of a documentary, Paladar, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival 2013 and Downtown Film Festival L.A. 2013 and, according to Kronfli, debuted at No. 4 on the most-downloaded documentary list on iTunes. ("Paladar" is a term used in Cuba to refer to low-key restaurants run by individuals or families, primarily for tourists looking for real, homemade Cuban food.)
In 2009, Robert and his brother Danny put an ad on Craigslist looking for a chef. Lior Hillel, born and raised outside of Tel Aviv, was one of their first interviews, and they liked him immediately. One of his major draws: Lebanese and Israeli food share many things in common. He’s also a Le Cordon Blue alum who previously worked at New York’s Jean-Georges Restaurant.
Bacari PDR is the trio’s fourth venture together. As Kronfli was looking for neighborhoods to open their next eatery, he noticed that many of his friends were moving to Playa del Rey. The area was teeming with youthful energy. “People are moving there because they can't afford Venice or Manhattan Beach. We want to be part of that upswing, just like we’ve been part of the upswing near USC. We want to stick to emerging markets in L.A. before we go after Abbot Kinney or Main Street in Santa Monica. I feel a big change happening to PDR in the next 10 years.”
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