Actors and musicians aren’t the only ones heading to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big – restaurateurs are doing it, too.
Need evidence that opening a restaurant in L.A. pays off? Consider the success of Toronto native Jonah Freedman and his Jewish-American restaurant that’s changing the way diners experience traditional delis in Los Angeles.
In this article, Jonah Freedman, owner of Freedman’s in Silver Lake, discusses how he broke into L.A.’s food scene and created a restaurant that’s been praised by some of the top critics in America.
In this article, we’ll tell you:
Food is an experience of culture and an exploration of place.
This is the philosophy that drew Jonah and his family into the world of culinary arts. Growing up, Jonah’s parents held a deep appreciation for food and placed an emphasis on travelling to try new cuisines. For Jonah, this is what opened the door to the possibilities of the restaurant world.
“I realized that I loved being in restaurants. It was just a really amazing confluence of art, design, and experience,” Jonah says. “It felt like all of my interests wrapped into one nice little package, where it could be both a functional business but also satisfy those creative urges that I had.”
Jonah started in the industry working back of house jobs first in Toronto, and then Chicago during college. After graduating, Jonah moved to London and worked a front of house job at a small restaurant. He attributes much of what he’s learned about running a restaurant from his experience working with an intimate and nurturing team.
“I sought out a restaurant that was small so I would be able to see all the moving parts,” Jonah explains. He was interested in the disconnect between the customer experience and the behind the scenes restaurant operations. “I think if not for [this experience in London], I wouldn’t have opened a restaurant so quickly.”
The “food revival” trend caught Jonah’s attention when he was developing his restaurant concept. “In every city we’d been to, there had always been a type of food that was having a moment,” Jonah says, offering Spanish and Italian food as examples. “Those cuisines were given a more contemporary treatment: taking classic dishes and breathing new life into them.”
At Freedman’s, it’s all about recreating Ashkenazi Jewish cooking – rooted in nostalgia for many Jewish Americans – and adding a unique spin through a French influence. Freedman’s take on traditional comfort food is what makes Freedman’s shine.
Though inspired by Jewish food, Jonah reminds us there’s more to this cuisine than delis. “We are by no means a deli, but we are absolutely deli-inspired,” he says, noting Jewish steakhouses and country clubs as further inspirations for his restaurant.
With so much thought put into his restaurant’s concept, it’s hard to believe that Jonah had only visited L.A. a few times before deciding to open a business there.
Straying from the typical L.A. aesthetic, Freedman’s is an intimate, wallpaper-clad restaurant and bar that Jonah describes as, “an old family home, [styled in] the way you would collect pieces over time from different eras, either passed down or purchased”. The brunch menu features popular Jewish dishes like fresh bagel spreads and house-smoked fish. For dinner, executive chef Ryan Costanza serves up Jewish bistro classics, including glazed brisket and waffle latkes.
“The atmosphere, the vibe, the size, and the type of food we’re putting out – it feels like it belongs in New York. It feels like it belongs in Toronto. It doesn’t feel like it belongs in L.A.,” Jonah says. But bringing the East Coast’s flare to the West Coast allowed Jonah to become a part of L.A’s young, bustling food scene.
Thank L.A.’s diversity, developing neighbourhoods, and emerging chefs for the bounty of opportunities that its restaurant scene has to offer. Its temperate climate makes produce accessible year-round, and opening costs tend to be lower than other major US cities. These factors make L.A. the perfect setting to experiment with an original concept.
L.A.’s casual approach to dining makes its food scene irresistible to foodies and restaurant owners alike. “I think the food scene in terms of ethnic food and street food is really interesting,” Jonah says. “Where I think L.A. really shines is in all the noodle shops and Chinese restaurants, and all the taco trucks.”
But despite the abundance of food to try in the city, you’ll likely need a car to get there. Unlike cities with dense urban centers like Toronto, New York, and Chicago, Los Angeles doesn’t benefit from much walking traffic – many L.A. restaurants, including Freedman’s, are located in strip malls. These restaurants have to build loyalty within their neighbourhoods and use strategic marketing tactics to maximize their audience.
Something else that’s unique to L.A. is its consumption patterns. “It’s no secret that people are more health-conscious here,” Jonah explains. Recognizing these trends and understanding your potential customers can inform your menu offerings and promotions.
Opening a restaurant is not easy by any means. Beyond deciding on a menu and concept, Jonah also had to navigate opening a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. Here are the top tips from Jonah on getting your restaurant dreams off the ground – in your hometown or on the opposite coast.
Asking for help every step of the way is how Jonah dealt with uncertainty in the restaurant industry.
As Freedman’s was Jonah’s first restaurant, a lot of research was involved. But even if you’ve had experience opening a restaurant elsewhere, keep in mind that each city is unique. Labor and tip pooling laws, permit and licensing procedures, and alcohol regulations vary from state to state. Conduct adequate research to better prepare for the challenges you’ll encounter while opening your restaurant in a new city.
Asking for help is also important to ensure that your restaurant opens on time and on budget. “If you understand the exact steps that need to happen, from the day you break ground to the day you open, you’re able to hold people accountable in a different way,” Jonah explains.
Finally, Jonah reminds us to stay curious throughout the process. “If there’s anyone I’ve been introduced to, it’s always, ‘Yes! Absolutely, I’d love to pick your brain.’”
For Jonah, one of the most challenging parts of opening a restaurant in L.A. was obtaining a liquor license. Although he lucked out by winning the liquor license “lottery” – meaning that he didn’t have to purchase it on the open market – the process of obtaining a permit to use the license in his restaurant was lengthy.
“It took us a year and a half until we were able to serve alcohol,” Jonah says. “And that was constant work – going to the city multiple times, going to district heads, council meetings, and pleading our case to all of them and the neighbourhood.”
Persistence is key to overcoming unexpected turns in opening a restaurant. When you stick to your restaurant’s concept and communicate your intentions, your hard work will pay off in the end!
Now that Freedman’s is proudly serving its curated selection of wines, spirits, and cocktails, Jonah reflects on the process of obtaining his liquor license. “There is a reason that there’s so much bureaucracy around these things,” he says. “It is, in some senses, to deter people who are doing it on a whim.”
Hiring top talent makes this process a lot smoother. However, this takes time and that relationship will change along with your business’s needs. “Surround yourself with the most capable people you can, even if you have to pay them a little bit more than you’d like,” Jonah explains. “That rewards itself ten-fold in the future.”
If L.A. is all about trends, then staying relevant is the key to success.
Social media plays a huge role in staying top of mind. Thoughtfully curated social media profiles communicate your restaurant’s brand to a wide audience on a low budget. Freedman’s uses Instagram to showcase its mouth-watering menu items, promotions, and events to an audience of loyal and potential customers.
On the other hand, experiential initiatives like events are another engaging way to drive business to your restaurant. Stepping outside your normal operating procedures to offer experiences is a great way to get the community talking about your restaurant.
Feel free to get creative with the events, too! “We’re really trying to do more of that within the food, art, and music world, and really engage the community at large,” Jonah says.
In under two years of operation, Freedman’s has already proven to be a winner in L.A.’s restaurant scene. Listed as one of America’s Best New Restaurants by Bon Appétit, Los Angeles Mag, and The Infatuation, and having received a raving review by Jonathan Gold, you might think that it’s smooth sailing from here for Jonah and his team.
But fame doesn’t necessarily equal fortune. Jonah remains fixed on continuing the success he’s received so far.
“We got all these accolades – and you see spikes in business with each and every one of them,” Jonah explains. “But to rest on those laurels is not possible. You constantly need to stay focused, attentive and top of mind in the community.”
But what’s next for this rising star? Maybe another restaurant – Jonah hints at bringing his modern deli back to his hometown of Toronto. “I’m definitely very excited to return home and work on something there as well.”
From a big city like L.A. to a small town, breaking into the restaurant scene is never easy. Each city has unique challenges – but with hard work and persistence, your concept can take off. Just ask Jonah, who found the recipe for restaurant success in an unfamiliar city!