With COVID-19 cases on the rise, businesses across the country – especially local restaurants – have once again been forced to close their doors. Many shuttering for good. According to a September 2020 analysis by Yelp, Hawaii, California, and Nevada have the highest rate of permanent restaurant closures, with Los Angeles having the record number of temporary and permanent closures across the country. The National Restaurant Association predicts 43% of California restaurants will not survive the pandemic.
Even if a restaurant doesn’t face permanent closure, the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry, in general, and independent restaurants, in specific, is immense. And it’s going to reverberate for years to come.
Faced with bleak odds, hard costs, and the need for income, many chefs and restaurateurs have taken innovative approaches to their own survival. We’ve seen lauded restaurants turn into high-end commissaries, to-go joints, and meal-kit creators. The general mantra for chefs (already experimental types) has been “try stuff” — and try they have, to varying degrees of success.
Among these forward-thinkers is Executive Chef Phillip Frankland Lee, founder of Scratch Restaurants Group — the team behind Sushi|Bar and Scratch|Bar & Kitchen. Lee’s many accolades include being a San Pellegrino “Young Chef 2015” finalist and getting named in Zagat’s “30 under 30,” along with being mentioned in the Michelin Guide. He’s also a favorite of our resident Top Chef recapper, Vince Mancini, appearing on the show in 2016.
Lee’s appreciation for sushi began at the age of 13, when he began buying sushi books and learning how to prepare rolls and sashimi at home. Together with his wife, Margarita Kallas-Lee, co-owner and a pastry chef for Scratch’s various projects, the chef opened the first Sushi|Bar three years ago in Los Angeles, before expanding to Santa Barbara.
“That’s been a passion of mine… pretty much my whole life at this point,” Lee says.
On the heels of Top Chef and heaps of media praise, the company boomed. But when the pandemic hit, all six of Lee’s restaurants had to quickly transition to takeout — which presented a major challenge when dealing with a business model based on tasting menus and serving raw fish. At the time of the lockdowns, Scratch|Bar & Kitchen consisted of a 25-course tasting menu and Sushi|Bar offered a 17-course omakase service, neither of which proved particularly to-go friendly.
There was a sliver of hope for the Scratch team when California restaurants were permitted to reopen over the summer — operating with patio service only — but that was dashed in late November, as California became the poster child of failed pandemic response and a new round of full lockdowns was initiated in LA county.
“It broke our hearts to have to go to our staff a couple of weeks before Christmas and tell them they don’t have jobs anymore,” Lee says. “I immediately thought to myself, ‘I’m not okay with this. I’m going to go out and find a place that will let us operate.’”
Compelled by his love for the Sushi|Bar family, Lee began reaching out to friends across the country, on the hunt for the right place to operate a pop-up.
“The biggest motivation for me is my team,” he says. “My little brother runs one of the restaurants. My sister is our bookkeeper. My wife’s father builds all our restaurants. It really is a family business. We don’t look at our team as staff or employees. We look at them as family members.”
The search for a temporary home ended in Austin, Texas, where Lee found a situation that offered favorable business conditions, friendly chefs, and a dining public eager to try new things. After running a three-week pop-up during SXSW in 2013, he felt comfortable that the local food scene would connect with his inventive style.
“I told myself, ‘You’re going to go out there and sign a deal,’” Lee says. “‘I don’t know how, but I’m going to do it.’’”
In Austin. the chef was introduced to Bento Picnic’s chef-owner, Leanne Valenti, and the two immediately hit it off. Less than two weeks later, the Scratch pop-up was opened to the public.
“The impetus for this was I really wasn’t okay with my staff not being paid over the holidays,” Lee says. “So, I said, ‘How many of you want to relocate and go work?’”
Lee bought eager team members their plane tickets and rented a house — the Texas-iteration of the Sushi|Bar concept has been running since December 29th. The pop-up, which is located within a private dining room of Bento Picnic, features a 17-course omakase menu. It’s Lee’s boldly creative, Instagram-friendly cooking in a new setting — a true culinary experience.
Upon arrival at the Sushi|Bar pop-up, you’re greeted with a sake-based welcome cocktail before entering the dimly lit dining room for the full omakase sushi experience. To keep diners safe, the room seats only six people and there are large plexiglass barriers between each pair of guests. As in a traditional omakase experience, dinners face the cutting boards, watching the chefs work.
From yellowtail to a toro and caviar combo exclusive to Sushi|Bar, each bite matches flavor with innovation (including a tasty dessert crafted by Kallas-Lee). With all the excuses in the world to cut corners, Lee and company cut none — making all their own soy sauce and using fresh wasabi imported from Japan. Drink pairings consist of sake, wine, and beer.
Upon completion of the 17 courses, guests have the chance to wind down their evening with Kyoto, Japan’s acclaimed pale ale, Lucky Dog, from a cedarwood masu box – adding a divine exclamation point to the experience.
Lee’s mission while California remains in lockdown is to continue to host pop-ups in Austin and beyond – and maybe even find something permanent. Though the current run is scheduled to last through the end of January, the goal is to operate for an additional 60 to 90 days before evaluating if Sushi|Bar will remain a long-term fixture in Austin. Meanwhile, the Scratch team is considering more pop-ups in Hawaii, North Carolina, and Florida (specifically Miami) for 2021.
“If 2020 taught us one thing it’s to turn on a dime,” Lee says. “My team has gotten good at it. We’ve had days where we’re indoors and at three o’clock in the afternoon, the California government says, ‘You can’t open tonight. You have to go to the patio.’ For me, it’s very important to just assess the situation and move forward.”
Though the need to support local and independent restaurants can’t be overstated, the situation is certainly serious, and chefs like Lee (who have been successful on TV and on the award circuit) have a leg up, his positive outlook remains admirable.
“Don’t give up and don’t take no for an answer,” he says. “You can always figure it out. All that energy you have crying and saying, ‘Poor me’ or ‘Why is this happening to me?’ – figure it out, especially in Austin. I believe that when there’s a will there’s a way — just go and do it.”