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Bill Chait navigates rocky shoals of L.A. restaurant business

The entrepreneur, who backed Short Order, Short Cake, Rivera, Playa, Picca and Sotto, works behind the scenes on Bestia and more.

February 16, 2012|By Betty Hallock, Los Angeles Times
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Bill Chait is leading a half-dozen colleagues through a two-story factory that has been converted into lofts on the edge of downtown's Arts District. The building is the future home of his next project, a $1.2-million, 140-seat trattoria called Bestia, in the shadow of the 7th Street bridge, next to train tracks that run along the L.A. River. Among its neighbors are a furniture warehouse, a diesel gas station and an all-nude strip club.

"It's the SoHo of L.A.," says Chait, a soft-spoken but steely 51-year-old with dark, side-parted hair, slightly big ears and metal-framed glasses. He waves his notepad: "This is going to be all patio. Over here, a sophisticated drink rail. We're getting an Acunto [pizza] oven" from Naples.

Where others might see a gamble on a stretch of urban hinterland, he already envisions the restaurant.

Though Chait is the biggest mover and shaker in Southern California's restaurant business, most diners have never heard of him. While most restaurateurs would be happy to open one well-reviewed, commercially successful fine-dining restaurant, and two would be considered nothing short of miraculous, Chait has opened six. And that's just in the last three years.

He's the guy behind Short Order and Short Cake with Nancy Silverton, Picca with Ricardo Zarate, Rivera and Playa with John Sedlar, and Sotto with Steve Samson and Zach Pollack.

And he shows no sign of slowing down. In the fall, he plans to relaunch Test Kitchen, last year's pop-up sensation that hosted more than 50 chefs in three months, then open Bestia. He and Sprout, the restaurant group he formed with philanthropist Aileen Getty and L.A. Specialty Produce founder Mike Glick, are also in talks to partner in a restaurant in downtown's Vibiana with chef Neal Fraser.

Chait is not a celebrity chef, hip designer or night life impresario. Instead, he's something that might be even more vital in the restaurant world these days: a keen businessman. He has the entrepreneurial battle scars of a restaurant-chain founder who lived through a crash-and-burn after go-go growth plans in the '90s.

Now, propelled by a "new L.A. food scene," he seems to have a winning formula for what he calls "premiere boutique neighborhood restaurants" — good locations, the right chef partners, unique concepts and design, and a business model that revolves around not-too-big-not-too-small restaurants that cater to consumers' expanding palates and shrinking wallets.

"Somebody asked, 'Oh, is he L.A.'s version of a Danny Meyer?'" says Silverton, referring to the successful chief executive of New York's Union Square Hospitality Group, which has restaurants as varied as the Modern, Shake Shack and the Michelin three-starred Eleven Madison Park. "Maybe he is…. He certainly has all the beginnings of a Danny Meyer. Everybody involved hopes that's the case."

So far so good? More than 800 customers showed up on Short Order's opening day last month at the original Farmers Market on West 3rd Street, and 2,300 came out on the first weekend. "Sales are 125% of what we expected," Chait says.

According to Chait, 3-year-old Rivera, which features Sedlar's refined Latin cuisine and which received a rare 3½-star review from Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, is "really successful," though he wouldn't provide sales or profit figures.

It hasn't always been multi-star reviews and tasting menus. Chait got his feet wet in the restaurant business just after he graduated from UC Berkeley, delivering pizzas alongside actor Tim Robbins at Jacopo's Pizzeria in Beverly Hills. "I liked the restaurant business, the mechanics of it, the way it worked," he says.

Chait says he inherited his drive from his mother, "the true entrepreneur of the family." She earned her law degree at 50, started her own practice and saved enough money to fulfill her dream of buying real estate in Beverly Hills. (Chait's parents divorced when he was 5, and he describes his father, an engineer, as a "decent guy who didn't take any gambles.")

Starting young

At 25, he asked a broker to show him a restaurant, something he could get his arms around, he says, and he bought Louise's Italian Kitchen on 26th Street in Brentwood (back when there really was a Louise), partly funded by a loan backed with one of his mother's buildings. The next year he bought a second location on Montana Avenue and spawned the Louise's Trattoria chain.

By 1996 there were 15 Louise's, and Entrepreneur magazine put him and then-partner Howard Weinberg on its list of young millionaires, with sales projections that year at nearly $30 million. It was a red-sauce empire built on pizza-and-pasta Italian favorites. But the following year, Louise's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing too-rapid expansion and rampant expenses.

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