It’s no secret that Covid-19 turned local businesses upside down, but Wolfgang Puck’s experience may be among the more surprising. What started out as a nightmare for the renowned chef somehow became a godsend during the pandemic. A stone’s throw from his Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles started work on an extension to its painfully limited subway line in 2019. The county shut down access from the major boulevard that fed the street running in front of Puck’s flagship restaurant, effectively turning the road into a cul-de-sac. Headaches ensued. “Guests were complaining because it was complicated to get to the restaurant,” Puck says. “I called city hall and said, ‘This is terrible.'”
Beverly Hills did what it could, putting up a mural to beautify the eyesore. However, once the pandemic hit in 2020, the street closure turned into an asset. With no thru traffic, outdoor seating for the restaurant could expand off the sidewalk and into the street. Now Puck is taking full advantage of the space by building Spago L’extérieur, a 6,500-square-foot transparent tent with semi-private dining and enough space to accommodate 109 people while still maintaining social distancing guidelines.
It’s yet another adaptation from a chef and restaurateur who has spent decades never sitting still. While he calls LA home, his dining empire encircles the globe, with restaurants in Bahrain, London, New York, Maui and beyond. Even at 71 years old, he keeps hustling: He arrived at our Zoom interview right after walking over from his test kitchen where he was teaching a live digital cooking class. And in the middle of our call he showed off a blueberry pie that was going to be shipped nationally through Goldbelly—another new project taken on during the pandemic—with the chef going into detail about the R&D to create a crispier crust for people when they bake it at home.
We sat down with Puck to discuss the past year, how he thought the government responded to the crisis, his feeling on takeout and delivery apps, and what changes made during the Covid-19 era will remain after the threat of the pandemic has passed.
How did this massive structure, Spago L’extériur, come about?
The city of Beverly Hills, actually, they are really, really helpful. They said, “If you want to push out in the street and have customers there, you can do it.” So, then we got the idea because the street is not straight—if you put a table they wobble. We decided to actually put a floor on it to even it out. And then we built a tent and separations. It’s very expensive—all in all, we spent over $350,000. Our manager Steve Springer managed that program, and he did an amazing job. The night we opened [last week], I was sitting there for an hour and a half, I said you know what, I feel like I’m in an outdoor garden, I don’t feel like I’m in a tent. If I add another $150,000 worth of plants and décor and maybe some art, I think it’s a beautiful restaurant. Maybe because of this pandemic and maybe because we had to build something new, we get new ideas of how to build a restaurant better.
So Beverly Hills has been supportive during the pandemic?
Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have been great because they let us expand into the street. Now, the health department, our governor, our mayor, that’s a different story.
They only have problems—they said let’s shut them down and they forget that the restaurant industry is the biggest employer, after the government, in America. I think the government, in general, was a failure. I think that’s one of the reasons they are recalling Gavin Newsom maybe. They did a terrible job now you’re trying to save their ass by saying, “Oh, we can get vaccinated or whatever,” but they did really badly. So, if there is a crisis, I don’t think we can count on them.
What do you wish the government would have done?
I wish they would have come to us and say, let’s have a meeting on how we can save jobs. Also, obviously, first we want to save lives, that’s most important to say, I’m not taking it lightly. But how can we actually help a lot of people who are depending on their job also?
We could have gotten together on a Zoom call and say, “What can we do to keep the restaurant open outside?” Well, the first thing is, let’s test all the employees all the time because the safety of the employees is important. When they stay home, nobody’s going to test them—they don’t want to go to a doctor’s office to spend extra money, so they don’t know if somebody has the virus. People want to come together—which is normal, we’re all social creatures—and they want to have friends and family over in a small apartment. So why not keep the restaurant open, but have mandatory testing, even twice a week—we test twice a week. People could have come to work, got tested, found out they had the virus and acted quickly.
There was bad miscommunication. The only thing [the government] decided was, okay let’s shut down restaurants—even the outside. I can understand the inside, but the outside, I think it’s ridiculous and a lot of people really suffered because of that. Having people out on the street, why did they even think about that it’s not the right thing—why did the health department make it so difficult? For what reason? For nothing. They have to think how they can help people, not handicap them—especially help the small restaurants. If you spend $5,000, that’s a lot of money, just to go get the permit and the time and then one person sends you to another person and nobody can give you an answer and maybe you have to hire a lawyer. It’s crazy. But I must say again, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica helped us a lot because they let us expand into the street and that is great for the future.
How is outdoor dining great for the future?
Instead of having all these three lanes for cars, we have one lane and people can eat outside and especially in Southern California where the weather is so nice, it’s perfect, but in other cities, too. In New York, for example, Cut in New York is downtown. The building is designed by Robert Stern—it’s like this massive stone building. So now we are building a terrace outside, and it makes it more human. You can see people sitting outside when the weather is nice. We have heaters and people really like it. In Washington, DC, we have a Cut there at the Rosewood Hotel—we use the rooftop with a beautiful view of the city, and we’re going to serve up there more. So a lot of spaces we didn’t think of using before and now we are using that really helped us a lot. It also that helped us thinking about the future—maybe we don’t need these big indoor spaces, if we have more outside space, especially in warmer climates like Florida or California.
So you want to make this outdoor dining more permanent?
People love to sit outside—I’m surprised how much people enjoy to be out on the street, on the sidewalk, even in a luxury restaurant like Spago. In a way, when I looked at it, I said Spago now doesn’t look [like it’s] only for the elite when you see people sitting outside.
This will change the way the streets are, where you have people in the streets and not just cars. I hope that there is going to be more outdoor seating. The streets are going to feel alive, and the city is going to feel alive because you’re going to see people walking in the streets. It’s like if you’re on a vacation somewhere in summer in Europe.
How long will you get to keep up your structure outside Spago?
I hope for this year for sure, and maybe next. As they build the Metro, the wall stays there so I don’t think there should be any problem to keep it up for two years. I certainly need it up for a year, because just the return on the investment—I mean, to spend $350,000 on something, you don’t want it to tear down in six months. We wouldn’t make back the money to pay for it.
What are other things you learned while trying to navigate the pandemic?
We learned a lot how to operate better. We actually looked and said what is necessary to survive because we’d lost customers with less space. We had to change the way we operate with social distancing and eight feet apart for the tables. So we had to learn how to operate with less people and operate better and watch more what’s going on. That will help us in the long run.
At Spago Maui we opened at Thanksgiving. Obviously, the hotel is only half occupied, but we actually made more profit in December, January and February this year than we did last year. We did less customers, but also we needed less labor. We gave the people more and saw our average check went up.
With stretches of no in-person dining, you had to rely on delivery and takeout in a way you hadn’t before, were you able to make that work?
It was really bad when we only had takeout. At the beginning it was fun to do it, where we had Sunday fried chicken and that was very popular. But when we got closed down again in December in January, it didn’t work as well. As a matter of fact, in the two months, I lost $300,000 at Spago alone, just by doing takeout. I wanted to stay open because I wanted some people to have a job over the holidays, but it was certainly not a business. I told Ari [Spago executive chef Ari Rosenson], “If we continued for another month or two and then we have to close down for good.” So thank god we opened in February.
How did dealing with the delivery apps go?
We tried at Spago. We did a lot of pickup, the customers actually at the beginning wanted to get out, so they went to pick up their food, so we did a lot. We added a little bit of Doordash and, you know, some other apps after, but I didn’t like the apps because they did not pick up just our food. They might be on the road for three hours to pick up in different restaurants, and then delivered to different places. So, then you really get food which sits in the car for a long time already. It’s not what we want to do. I’m actually happy not to do it.
Are you not a fan of takeout and delivery at all?
I personally don’t like it that much because I don’t think you get the experience. If you go to Spago, you get an experience—if you go Matsuhisa, you get an experience. If you take out the raw fish from Matsuhisa and put it in your refrigerator and eat it, the sushi is not the same. The same thing is true of Spago. If you heat up the steak or the veal chop or whatever at home, it’s not the same.
Are there factors other than the food not being well-suited to takeout that hit fine dining restaurants hard during the pandemic?
The fixed labor costs are generally very high in a fine dining restaurant. Even at 25 percent capacity, you still have a chef, sous chef, pastry chef, the restaurant manager and the sommelier—these are really upscale professionals. You need all these people. You can cut somebody’s salary 10 percent or 20 percent, but it won’t make up for the loss because we’re only at 25 percent of the business. Should I cut their pay 75 percent? Then they’d stay home and get unemployment. So 25 percent is very hard to do, even in some of our restaurants, like in New York, where the manager is the waiter, he makes cocktails, he does everything. Everybody has to do everything instead of just having your specific job. A restaurant like Spago I don’t need indoor dining. Now, we know we can stay closed for the rest of the year [and] we’ll be fine. But at Cut in the Beverly Wilshire, everything is indoors so it would be difficult to do anything under 50 percent.
You don’t need indoor dining at Spago because of the ample outdoor space you have?
We almost have the same amount of seats, except there is no bar business, and there is no party business, so obviously that used to be a big part. And we closed for lunch because not many people had business lunches, and not many people went shopping because so many stores were closed. So, the dinner service was open only five nights, six dinners now. And I think it’s actually busy so I’m happy with that, and we can be in the positive, which is important, and with a little PPP money I think that would go a long way.
Will the pandemic change how you structure your restaurants going forward?
The pandemic obviously hurt a lot of people, but we learned a lot too on how to operate better and we came out stronger than we were before, and that’s really exciting. Now we say, “Why do we need four managers instead of two? How many people do we really need?” And everyone knows we have to tighten the belt because we lost money in the last year and have to figure out how to make it back and be profitable.
And we also say, “How can we re-engineer a menu so that it is more balanced?” At Cut we have 14 steaks on the menu, and because steaks have a high food cost, do we need 14? Maybe eight is enough and we can make more pastas and some risotto and some other things which are not as expensive and we can make a better profit.