The latest installment in our sporadic series about life behind the kitchen door features Jason Michaud, the 39-year-old owner of Local. At his two-and-a-half-year-old Silver Lake cafe, he is committed not just to local produce and sustainable environmental practices but to paying employees a living wage and using fair labor practices. And he thinks his business is stronger because of it.
Jason Michaud is a juggernaut of energy. The 39-year-old math metal enthusiast, stamp nerd and antique collector is arguing with the city about renovations for his groovy two-and-a-half year-old Silver Lake restaurant, Local. He's also in the midst of whirlwind preparations for Chimú, a Peruvian soul food counter slated to soft-open on Monday in downtown. Plus, he's deep into the renovations for his third restaurant, Red Hill, a New American concept he hopes to open in Echo Park within the next few months. (Mario Alberto Orellana, a former sous chef at Lazy Ox Canteen, will set the menu for both.)
Growing up in Coronado near San Diego, Michaud started his first restaurant job at age 12. At 16, he moved to San Francisco where he worked at Bagdad Café and later at Vivande Porta Via. He spent several years bouncing around San Francisco, cooking and playing music before moving to Los Angeles, where he cooked at Vida, Traxx and Cobras & Matadors. Somewhere in there, he owned antique shop Eastside Mercantile for seven years. (If you're looking for a Chinese opium/wedding bed from the 1860s or a turn-of-the-century jewelers bench, Michaud is currently auctioning off a massive chunk of his collection, including 18,000 pieces of vinyl on R.L. Spear.)
What made you decide to go from owning an antique store to owning a restaurant?
I finally got the guts to open a restaurant. It's such a nerve-wracking thing, and so many of them fail. I knew I didn't want to have an antique store for the rest of my life. There's no money in it. I think I made probably $5000 for myself the whole time it was open. On this side of town I would have trouble selling things for $300 that my friend bought from me and sold at his store in Venice for $3000.
Why did you choose the location next to Grand Central Market for Chimú?
It's a great bustling place and I'm blown away by how many people are going to eat here. There are some people who have been there 60 years. It's really cool, and I'm so happy to be a part of it. Hopefully, [Chimú] is going to add another dimension to the market.
What about the food at Chimú?
I think we're going to try to do Peruvian soul food and New American, stuff you recognize but messed up. I want to keep the price point as low as possible. I'm hoping we can use the buying power of all three restaurants to keep the prices low and maybe even lower the prices at Local.
And how's it going with Red Hill?
It took me three years after seeing the space to get it, and once they finally decided to let me have it, I had no idea how run-down the interior was. It looked like it was going to be a quick rebuild. It was anything but quick.
Everything down to the last pipe and wall had to be replaced. There was equipment in there that was soldered together. The [previous tenants] had welded it all together so no food could get into it, but that meant it couldn't be cleaned either. You could barely put a finger in the opening of the pipes, that's how old the building was. We put in heavy duty filters, so the tap water is good at every access point.
And the engineering on the roof was no good, so we're building a shelf all the way around it. It will have little bags so we can plant 200-300 plants up there. It's going to be lightweight materials up there. We're hoping we can grow all our own bell peppers and jalapenos up there. I have always wanted to get a nice garden up there. We're trying to get one here at the market too. We're also trying to see if we can convert all the packaging here [at Grand Central Market] into biodegradable stuff. There's a lot of Styrofoam used here, and it's really over the top.
What kind of vibe are you going for with Red Hill?
Everything in there is going to be customized. We're kind of trying to give it a feel of old Echo Park. We'll have imagery of the trolley in the background. It will be good and comfortable. People can get a beer and hang out at the communal tables outside. I want to put a steel four-top [table] at the end of the cooking line as kind of a chef's table.
It can seat maybe 45 people inside. There's a little patio with some bench seating and some long communal tables, so we can get maybe 20 more people outside. The layout is really weird. You're basically looking at Little Caesar's when you're inside.
You said it took you three years to get the space. How did you know this was the right location?
It was the same feeling I had about my antique store. I live in Echo Park. When I see something that I think can be done better, I am going to try to do it. It's where I live. It's that simple.
There's no other spot around here that was seemingly ready to go. It seems magical too. There are so many great things we can do with it. We're going to have a buggy race with 12-inch mini-cars racing around the top to show you where to park. It's what the Pioneer that was on that corner used to have.
I am hoping we can get a contest together to change the mural that's on the side of the building. I'll donate paint and supplies, and the kids can do the drawing. Its time for it to be redone. It's peeling back really badly.
It was a really ugly space from the outside, and it's already a completely different entity. It's not really to gentrify it, but to make it look a little better on the outside, so people feel a little better about it when they drive by.
What was the story behind that piece of land and why did it take three years?
It's right next to a Pioneer Chicken that closed a few years ago. They immediately went and tried to get a Little Caesar's in there. I came in. Me and the broker hit it off, and he realized Echo Park might need something besides another chain restaurant. He made it his mission to help me.
I don't know why they didn't want to give it to me. It was rumored they had planned on giving it to the city for a police substation. Then I heard they wanted to make it a drive-through pharmacy, but I can't be sure about any of it. I guess all of the other plans fell through.
Is opening Red Hill harder or easier than it was to open Local?
Local was worse. It took me 18 months to open Local, and I spent $400,000 opening it. It just kept blossoming. I had to go back to Plan Check, and they didn't have [an easy system for re-checking your plans.] So if you made changes to them, it would take six months. And there are still problems.
I am still getting into it with the city because the hillside behind me isn't graded properly. They're telling me I have to remove my patio cover. Then they want me to rip out one wall and put in another bathroom. There's a second bathroom inside, but you have to walk through a tiny part of the kitchen, so they want me to build another bathroom.
When I was trying to get my liquor license, my expediter, Patrick Panzarello, disappeared months before the hearing. I paid him $15,000 in December of 2008, a lot of which goes to the city. He paid the city their part of it. His cut, which I lost immediately, was $6000. He disappeared in August of 2009. I hired the next expediter as soon as I figured out that he was never coming back, and we got blown out of the water [at the hearing] for not being prepared. I was about $80,000 into the alcohol license, when [the city] told me I need a $100,000 remodel [for the bathroom and the hillside].
All the money I have made at Local has gone back into these issues. My father has been a big help. He's my financier, basically. It's not like I'm in the middle of nowhere. It also allows me to fund people like Mario, who is super talented. I have such great staff and such a great customer base. If it weren't for them, I would have been out of business long ago. I am still blown away by the response to [Local]. It's fabulous.
How will having more restaurants increase your efficiency?
I was the chef at Cobras & Matadors for several years. Once they combined up, I was able to negotiate down on everything. Let's say chicken is $2.69 per pound. I can call up and say, “I'm buying more. Can you give me a break and drop it to $2.49 per pound?” It's a matter of asking.
Unlike most restaurants, you're committed to paying your employees a living wage.
I try. There are a few people who work for me part-time at minimum wage. Most of the people who work for me have been there since we opened, and they start at $10 an hour. I don't think that's a living wage in itself, but it's the best I can afford to do. And I think people, when they're offered $10 an hour to start, they realize something good is going on.
You also give your employees paid vacation time and sick days. How does that work?
Everybody gets a week of paid vacation, and they can use it however they want. If they don't use it, they can get it paid out at the end of the year. Some people just want it paid out at the end of the year. I used to be like that. I went 5 or 6 years without a day off. Not anymore.
You also have an interesting policy about paying employees for sick days.
If there are two waiters on shift and one calls in sick, we call in someone else but we split the tips three ways and give on portion to the person who's sick.
If you get paid for a sick day as a waiter, it's not much money so I know they'd be tempted to come into work, and I don't want that. I don't want everybody sick at the restaurant. But if you can get a third of your tips and a day off, you might actually stay home. The main bottom line is I want people know they're part of something. There's no real boss at Local because they all kind of boss each other. That could be a real disaster, but it isn't because they're all great people.
You've said that part of the reason you can have this kind of flex-time policy is because you can work every job on the line. Is this scalable to other restaurants where the owner may not be able to do that?
Yes, absolutely. I think that it has to become an understanding between the owner and the employees. I think in most restaurants, people will step up and take more responsibility if they know they are being respected for it. It will cost owners more money because they will have to cover more overtime. Payroll will go up and so will your workman's comp. It's tough. Believe me. It's tough fro me. But the people who work for me, they continue to make sure my dream is realized. Who else will do that? So if I have to pay for workman's comp, that's just a part of life. But it's a tough business. I don't blame anybody for having a tough time with it.
What about health insurance?
I tried to see if everyone at the restaurant wanted heath insurance and most of them didn't. Not one out of the 13 people came to me and said, “Let's do it.” I can't understand why a benefit isn't that important to them or why they're not interested. I think the majority of them are on such a tight margin, I think they want to save that money because they all have their goals of when they can get their lives together and go back to Mexico. Or they're already paying for health insurance. Or I have to figure they must think they can get emergency care if they really need it. Nobody has every said that to me, but I have to think they must think that.
What's one thing you won't do?
Give employees a shift drink. I would rather give my employees money than alcohol. You have a beer at a restaurant and you have another beer and another beer, then all of the sudden, five years of your life is gone.
Is it common for restaurateurs to give their employees a shift drink?
Yes. I've seen it at every restaurant I've ever worked at. It's one thing I will never be a part of it. I have worked in 15 restaurants and have been doing this 27 years.
You have these very strong ideas about how to run a restaurant but it's not really any over-arching philosophy.
It was all based on being frustrated that I wasn't in charge completely. It's common for the owners to just come by and get the money. I want to do this with as many ideas as I have toward doing the right restaurant. I remember imagining what would it be like if it was 50 years in the future and all these things were mandated: You weren't allowed to use Styrofoam or to waste water. I just wanted to avoid everything hat made me unhappy.
Styrofoam is going to be around forever. It's never going to decay. Is it even worth having the food go out in that? Every time I'd ask a restaurant owner about other kinds of packaging, they'd tell me it's 3 times more expensive.
I'd ask if we could get produce from the farmers market, and they'd tell me, “But then we have to drive over, and I'd have to give you cash, and we have a different set of books for cash.”
We were going through 24 cases of Pellegrino a week and the restaurant was paying $18/case and charging $5/bottle, so it was a great revenue source. But it didn't make sense to be shipping all this water from such a distance, so we put in a system where we get amazing sparkling water from LA tap water. I don't make money on the water. That's how it was, dealing with the minutiae.
Tell me about turnover at Local. You say your policies have decreased it.
Yeah, I've never seen it like this. We have 13 employees, and we've had less than six people leave in terms of turnover. And they haven't been any of the big, important positions like the people who run the front and run the kitchen. Those numbers are unheard of for a normal restaurant. I was at Cobras & Matadors for five years and had maybe 30 turnovers.
Local is very special like that. It's been challenging in other ways with the city, but as far as the human aspect, it's been a beautiful thing. I could not be more proud.
What will your role be in Chimú and Red Hill? You sound like you want to do more baking than cooking these days.
I backed away a little bit from running Local to open the other two. I want to be the baker at Red Hill in the mornings and do a Danish bakery. I'll get to the restaurant by 4 or 5 a.m. and get all of the product out by 7 or 8 a.m. Then I want to try to bake bread for the other restaurants, deliver it and see how they're doing. I definitely want to take the first few months that Red Hill is open and be a baker. And I want to see what comes up. I have friends who are trying to start bars. I want to help with whatever I can.