Los Angeles Chef D. Brandon Walker on Disrupting the Restaurant Industry Labor Model

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Chef D. Brandon Walker had what he calls a “rough and tumble” childhood after his father passed away when was just eight years old. Following brief stints in jail as a young adult, he found a passion for the kitchen and the structure that came with it, leading him to work alongside an array of celebrated chefs including Ludo Lefebvre, Sherry Yard, and beyond.

Eventually, Walker went on to open his own restaurants, starting with The Mar Vista, a high-end restaurant that he left in 2020, and from which he created spinoff MV Grab and Go, an all-day, counter-service spot that he continues to operate. Today, Walker is also gearing up to open his newest spot, The Art Room, pairing a fast-casual restaurant with a 2,500-square-foot art gallery. It’s set to open in April. 

Before Walker ever brought his own concepts to life, however, he spent a decade running the culinary program at St. Joseph’s Center. The experience involved teaching culinary skills to people trying to get back on their feet. And it forever changed how he operates. 

Much of Walker’s MV Grab and Go concept is currently staffed by former students. He plans to bring some of those employees with him to The Art Room, while partnering with other local social service organizations to fill in the rest. As a longtime streets-to-employment advocate, Walker thinks the industry as a whole could benefit from changing up the traditional labor model. And this extends beyond just hiring processes. With policies like universal tipping and six-hour work days, Walker is on a mission to create a more sustainable workplace. We sat down to chat about the restaurant environment he’s creating and how other operators could benefit from reassessing their own labor models.

Can you tell me more about what you envision for The Art Room, currently being described as an “art-meets-hospitality” concept?

It's an 8,000-square-foot complex that features 2,500 square feet of restaurant and bar space, a 2,500-square-foot curated art gallery, and 3,000 square feet of architectural office design space. So it's just this really groovy space that flows into itself, all about art and design. I hope that I can bring some of that into what I'm doing in the kitchen as well. We’ll be featuring a private dining experience in the art gallery itself, in addition to just the regular daytime lunch, happy hour, and dinner service in the cafe.

What inspired you to partner with a gallery?

I've always been trying to intertwine art and food because I see food as an artistic endeavor. In my first restaurant The Mar Vista, I was doing live music and we had some really stunning artwork. So it’s something that’s in my background, and I'm very passionate about bringing the two together. This is kind of my latest iteration.

Tell me about the culinary training program you ran at the St. Joseph Center prior to opening your own restaurants.

It was a comprehensive, eight-week culinary training program that included an externship at a for-profit partner. I ran that program for 10 years, created the curriculum for it, and graduated over 1,200 students with 70-percent retention. These are folks that were coming from all different walks of life – unemployed, underemployed, [people who had] experienced previous trauma or homelessness. We had vets with PTSD, high-functioning autistic students, people coming out of rehabs or out of the prison system – you name it, all different types of challenges. 

How have you brought that experience into your restaurants?

This really molded and shaped my philosophy as far as people that are eager to get into the industry, and how to go about training these folks and instilling a greater sense of willingness to take on more responsibility. I was able to have up to nine of these previous students on staff when I opened The Mar Vista. Then I continued to hire on more folks of similar backgrounds as I opened my second concept, The Mar Vista Grab and Go. And I still have many of those guys on staff. 

I’m able to retain these guys because there's equity between the back of the house and front of house. Everybody shares universally in the tips. And it’s kind of like this Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of constant improvement, working as a collective, addressing problems as a group, fostering a group dynamic, and holding everybody accountable. 

That's really the key. When people feel like they're a team and that they're all on the same level, that's how I keep my people, and that’s worth its weight and goal in this industry. 

And you plan to staff The Art Room with individuals from similar backgrounds.

I’ll be bringing a lot of my core guys who are from that program originally, and we’ll be partnering with new social service organizations that are our neighbors in downtown [L.A.]. We’ll be holding a job fair, and I’ll interview candidates from these social service organizations. I hope to fill out the rest of my staff with folks from the neighborhood.

Can you talk about the importance for you of giving people a second chance in the culinary world?

It was really a godsend for me. I had a really rough and tumble path myself. I was kind of lost in my early 20s, searching for direction and structure, and I found that in the kitchen. The accountability, the hierarchy, the structure of it all really played an important role in my life and my development. 

That’s one level of why it’s super important to me. But I also feel that people of color and minorities have been underrepresented in the management level of the restaurant industry. I’m very passionate about bringing up folks that traditionally would hit a brick wall at the dish pit or as a prep cook. Those people have great potential to interact with the customers, run the operating systems, make better money to have a better life-work balance, [and] find more of a career than just a temporary landing spot.

Given the labor shortage, do you think it’s important for the industry as a whole to reassess how they’re hiring and extend their reach?

Absolutely. I really feel like these are these two groups that might need each other. I'm talking about our vulnerable, disenfranchised, previously unemployed folks that have been facing some challenges in their life. And then the restaurant industry, which is also facing some serious challenges. 

The pandemic gave people a chance to reassess the quality of their work environment and that balance between life and work. One of the big sectors that suffered was, of course, the hospitality sector. And I think we could do a better job. We can create a better workspace, a better balance. The restaurant industry could take a good, long look at some of its more toxic management practices – the low pay, long hours, the management style that seems to be more critical than supportive and uplifting. And then get some of those people back by looking in different and new places, at candidates that might not have been considered in the past. 

Can you talk about the kind of work environment you’re striving to build at The Art Room?

Everybody does everything. I tell people from day one, there's nothing that’s too small or beneath them. If you aren’t willing to make a taco, pour a cappuccino, run a POS, and wash pots and pans, we don't want you to work for us. And that takes some getting used, but people have to buy in. And the buy-in is that everybody's going to make more money, and you're going to have shorter shifts, greater accountability, a better team, and a better work life. That's the trade-off. 

Traditionally as owners, we get a lot of pushback from the entrenched front of house that are used to making three or four times what everybody else is making. And that’s what we're breaking down. I think that's for the good of the industry as a whole, and that's the model that has worked for me throughout the pandemic and in a successful, fast-casual concept.

What went into making the decision to implement a six-hour work schedule policy?

It’s not a hard cap. Some people will work seven or eight hours, but we run zero overtime, even for management, and your average shift is six hours. 

But basically the pandemic happened, and to survive those first few months of 2020, we had to look at sales per labor hour. It turned out that we were operating a lot of hours unnecessarily. Traditionally, we always thought those hours were for prep and all those little tasks that need to be done in the restaurant. But we found that we could be more efficient in the hours of operation. This not only made us more profitable, but it also boosted morale because people had shorter shifts. Not only were people working less, but they were happier and making the same amount of money. 

That’s one of the negative stigmas that comes along with this industry – “Oh you’re a chef, you probably drink and use drugs because you work 15 hours a day, and roll right back into your next day”. It’s always been known as this burnout career, and I don’t think it has to be that.

Can you share more about how your pay structure works?

Here in L.A. County, we’ve been living with a $15 minimum wage since late 2018. I think it’s appalling that the federal mining wage is still at $7[.25]. But here, everyone’s starting at a pretty high hourly, and what I've found is that by using the universal tip, I can increase take-home [pay] by $3 to $4 an hour. People are now making over $20 or $21 an hour on average, which is actually a living wage in Los Angeles. I'm very proud of that. 

The old way, only people that worked the front of the house were making all those tips, and maybe you’d tip out the back of the house or the runners 10-percent. Now, everybody's sharing because everybody has to do the same job. It was an epiphany for me, and we're never going back.

Tell me about your training process – everyone gets experience in every role, and everyone does every job. How does that work?

It’s subtle. There are folks that are more front-focused. But because it's counter-service, that front of house person will put your order into the POS and then do a variety of tasks. We have a deli case where you could grab a lasagna, so they’d put it in the TurboChef and plate it up. They make the fresh-pressed juice, the cappuccinos, and now we have a full bar as well. There are folks that are specifically on the hotline that are turning out the tacos and sandwiches and whatnot, but those people are also able to answer the phone and put something into the POS.

There are people that gravitate toward one side or the other, but no one is officially titled as such, and ultimately everybody meets at the dish pit. I do compostable stuff, which cuts down dramatically on dishwashing, but everybody has to share in doing the pots and pans. It’s a humbling, unifying thing, and that’s the reality of it.

When you first started implementing this, did you get any pushback from staff working in the front of house?

I started this back in 2019, and I used to get a lot of pushback. But my first restaurant was a 125-seat, traditional fine-dining restaurant, and I had such a bad experience with that, for so many reasons. So I started to implement some of these philosophies, and people did quit because they didn't want to do dishes. That's when I started to look for different people. Maybe I don't want the person who's been working in the industry for the last 15 years. Maybe I want somebody who’s eager to get in at the bottom and wants potential to take on more responsibility and move into management, but also isn’t jaded and coming in with all these preconceived notions.

What would you say to someone who’s hesitant to take a chance on someone who doesn’t have restaurant experience, coupled with a potentially complex background? 

I’ve seen some pretty desperate measures taken over the last couple years. This staffing crisis is the most pronounced it’s ever been in my lifetime. So I’d say why not take a chance. If you’re willing to offer someone $2,000 to sign on, why not use that $2,000 to spend the time to train someone that doesn't come with all those preconceptions.

Do you have any advice for operators hoping to improve their own workplace culture?

When there’s inequity in the house, I think you're doomed. People have to feel that they are on the same level, that they're all part of a team, and that nothing is above or beneath them. And you have to invest in your people. When you invest in your people, you're also investing in your business. I don't think that this has to cost you profits. This can increase your profits. 

Do whatever you can to get your other costs lower. A great way to offset labor cost is to introduce the universal tip program, because it does this inherently. But there are also ways to save five-percent, like [by] renegotiating your lease with your landlord. There's a lot of room for operators right now to go back and re-address these leases because there's so many places that went out of business. Landlords are eager to keep people in their spaces. So say you had a five-year lease in place before COVID – revisit that and say, “Hey, take 10-percent off here”, so you can give that 10-percent to your staff. 

If there's willingness, keep training. You have to keep training your staff. If somebody's work history was mostly in back of house, take them out if they're comfortable, and let them interact with people. Teach them how to use the POS, answer those phones. A lot of people are looking for that and don’t want to be pigeonholed. Take care of your people –  that's really my greatest advice.

Are there any other goals or projects you have in mind for the future?

I signed a production deal with All3Media for a docuseries TV show that will be following this whole process of opening these new restaurants and the backstories behind some of the folks we’re interviewing and bringing on. I can't talk too much more about that because we're still in production, but that's really exciting.

We also have another restaurant under construction that’s slated for 2023, which will be an intimate, state-of-the-art 150-person live performance venue and cafe. And we’re looking to go regional with our grab-and-go [MV] model. So we are talking to different private equity and looking to open up to 10 new shops in Southern California.