The culinary power duo, who met in 2005 when Menashe was cooking and Gergis was a hostess at Gino Angelini’s La Terza, debuted Bestia’s rustic but modern Italian food in 2012. It quickly transformed the gritty Arts District into one of the city’s buzziest dining destinations. Food-loving scenesters from across the city flocked to the distinctly industrial dining room to feast on pizzas, pastas, and charcuterie, as town cars idled outside. Then, in 2018, Menashe and Gergis opened Bavel, a Middle Eastern marvel that became another seemingly unstoppable sensation with its next-level hummus, harissa prawns, and soul-warming lamb-neck shawarma.
But, like all city restaurants, Bavel and Bestia have been teetering amid the COVID-19 crisis. Menashe and Gergis are quick to note that even popular places like theirs, which seem invincible, have little to no financial cushion. Closing a high-volume, low-margin business for even a month can mean total destruction. And while both restaurants have done a brisk takeout business during the shutdown—selling out of their 200 dinners at each place nightly—they only make a fraction of what they did when they served nearly 500 people every night at each of the bustling restaurants. But the couple says diners continued to be extremely supportive, buying merchandise and gift cards. One guy got one for $5,000.
“He was like, ‘I really want you guys to have the funds to reopen because I believe
in restaurants,’” recalls Gergis. “Customers in L.A. in general have been amazing.”
Both Bestia and Bavel are set to reopen for outdoor dining on Tuesday, July 7 (in addition to continuing takeout). Ahead of the reopening, Los Angeles spoke to Menashe and Gergis about their struggles, the uncertainty that lies ahead, and their hopes for the future of hospitality—and their own restaurants.
Initially, you weren’t doing takeout after the COVID-19 shutdown, but then you changed your mind. Why?
Genevieve Gergis: Three or four days after the restaurants shut down, Ori and I were both like, “OK, we’re just not going to open. Everyone is just going to sit at home, and we’re just going to wait it out.” And then I was on the phone with our accountant and controller, and I was looking at the numbers, and she was like, “You’re going to be out of money by May 1.” Restaurants operate on a very slim profit margin. People think we have a million dollars in the bank. Nobody has that.
Ori Menashe: There’s no such thing as a cushion.
GG: We had, like, 100 grand, which, when you’re paying $65,000 a month in health insurance, plus other things that you owe, that goes away very damn fast. So we had two choices: we either shut down everything and put our restaurants in a coma, and no one has health insurance, or we figure out a way to sell enough takeout to pay our vendors for the food we’re using, to pay for health insurance, and then, if we’re lucky enough, to pay off some of the things that we owe, like utilities and part of the rent. Our landlord Yuval Bar-Zermer is amazing, by the way. We didn’t even ask him for rent deferment. He sent us
a letter and said, “I know that times are tough. Don’t worry about your rent right now. We’ll figure it out later.”
“Restaurants operate on a very slim profit margin. People think we have a million dollars in the bank. Nobody has that.”
What kind of responsibility do you feel to the people who work in your restaurants, with everything that’s happened?
GG: The first month I would wake up to horrible nightmares, where I would see my old employees. They would be skinny and they were hungry. That’s probably why I started Feed Love L.A. [a nonprofit that feeds restaurant workers, co-founded by Gergis, Menashe, Rossoblu’s Dina and Steve Samson, Cassell’s Hamburgers’ Christian Page and Elia Aboumrad, and philanthropist Aileen Getty]. It takes pressure off my brain to know that employees are taking home nutritious food.
What are your plans for reopening at this point?
GG: We are, I think, like most people, really trying to figure out the airflow and the space and our staff and how to strategize and open in the safest way possible for both the public and our employees. Also, we need to make sure [that we’re not] bleeding money. It’s a very delicate balance, and we’re trying to make sure we’re at least breaking even. We don’t need to be making money to open, because we understand that that can come later. At this point, it’s not about profits.
OM: We’ll have a new menu at Bestia. It won’t be completely new—stuff like bone marrow and cavatelli and the margherita pizza are going to have to stay. Customers would probably kill me if I took those off the menu. We’re also going to switch some things at Bavel. I want to start with a fresh menu. Obviously, the classics are going to stay, but there’s going to be a good amount of new items.
How did you react when you heard that L.A. would allow restaurants to reopen for dine-in service in early June. Were you surprised at how quickly that happened?
GG: I’m disappointed in the way [L.A.] handled a lot of it. It felt like they were flying by the seat of their pants. They were like, “OK, there’s this crazy virus, let’s shut everything down and we’ll close our eyes and maybe it will just go away.” They continued that for a very long time. People started to lose their sense of place, and had anxiety about whether they’re ever going to get their job back, whether they can feed their family. It created a lot of stress; there was no leadership. When they started to realize that the virus wasn’t just going to be eradicated, and we were going to have to live with this in some form, they all of a sudden were like, “You can just open and be really safe.” They didn’t give us any preparation. It’s like when your kid has to go through puberty, you give them the talk to prepare them. We are the city’s children. I love my city, but I expected more.
OM: I thought it would take a little bit longer and they would want to see less cases, but I guess there was a lot of pressure to reopen.
A year from now, what do you hope things will be like at Bestia and Bavel?
GG: We have enough treatments available to make COVID-19 not deadly. And then people can fully interact without fear. Because the whole point of restaurants is they’re places to let go of the stress of your everyday life. As long as this virus is rampant and deadly, people aren’t going to be able to fully relax in a restaurant. I want our restaurant to be an escape.
It’s not going to feel like much of an escape if you see people with masks in your open kitchens?
GG: It wouldn’t. I’m hoping we’ll have enough of a handle on this where people can start to enjoy their lives and not have this thing hovering over their heads.
Do you see any bright sides to the shutdown?
OM: I think people are now going to appreciate things a little bit more. You’re going to go out to a restaurant and the first thing on your mind is not to figure out what’s wrong, but to see what’s right. I feel like people are going to enjoy life a little bit more and just appreciate their time away from work and with their friends at restaurants. I never complain when I go to restaurants. I have one day off every two weeks—I don’t want to be pissed off on my day off. If the food is good, that’s good. If the food is not that great, I’m still having a good time. And I feel like people are going to be a little bit closer to that.
The weekend that restaurants were initially allowed to reopen was also when the Black Lives Matter protests really crested. What are your thoughts on how the restaurant industry can be better and more inclusive for the Black community and all people of color?
GG: I think the answer for restaurants is, instead of focusing on that perfect résumé when hiring, to be more open-minded and change the questions you ask in an interview. When you walk into places and you don’t see what Los Angeles looks like, maybe those places should look at themselves. I’m not saying they’re racist or bad people. But that would be a time for self-reflection. My mom is a social worker and I come from that kind of mindset of looking at everyone and taking everything into account. I’ve been to a million protests. I’m the one with the sign that says people should love each other. I’m a little hippie-ish. I think the best way to describe it is that when we hire, I don’t say, “Two years experience or school.” I write stuff like, “Team player, good attitude, flexible schedule.” We hire from everywhere. We hire from Homeboy Industries [a nonprofit that provides job training for people who were previously gang members or incarcerated], which I love. It’s not just about racial diversity. It’s about hiring from a diverse socioeconomic background. We have done that from the beginning. In one of our first Yelp reviews [at Bestia], somebody wrote something like, “I feel like everybody here is an ex-gang member, because they all have gang tattoos.” Ori and I were like, “They are. A lot of them are.” Sometimes we get a résumé and somebody will say, “I’m a perfect fit for Bavel because I’m Israeli,” or, “I’m a perfect fit for Bestia because I’m Italian.” That’s not how we hire—we hire people who are kind, have empathy, and are team players. Very few of our people went to culinary school. Our interviews aren’t, “Hey, tell me about your work at Joël Robuchon.” It’s, “Do you love food? Do you want to learn this? Do you have the passion?”
There’s been a lot of buzz about the Arts District, but a lot of it is really about Bestia and Bavel. Other people have struggled in the same neighborhood. What’s been your secret?
GG: Me and Ori and Leah Bunch, our director of operations, are really scrappy.
OM: We’re always there. We never leave our restaurants. We’re not moving on to the next project, so we focus on those two restaurants. I’m still spending 17 hours a day at the restaurants, and all three of us are workaholics. I guess we’ll be able to travel one day, but we’re trying to keep things as best as we can keep them. The work never ends.
Did people have special tricks to get reservations at your restaurants in the past?
OM: We’ve gotten some crazy emails. Remember that crazy one that was, like, a sexual email?
GG: Oh, that was a good one. Someone was like, “My wife will give Ori a blowjob.” It came from a well-known comedian, so it made sense he would say that. And then instead of creepy, it became funny.
OM: It was still creepy.
GG: The truth is, we’re very first-come, first-serve. But once in a while, you’ll get someone who’s like, “My 80-year-old grandmother finally finished her chemo and it’s her birthday.” How do you say no to that? You can’t.
But you’re not encouraging people to lie about medical conditions?
GG: You know when it’s real and when it’s not. You can just tell.
OM: The best way to get a reservation is at 11:00 in the morning, when our hostesses do all their confirmation phone calls for the next day. They’ll get some cancellations because people are making a reservation a month or two in advance, and then they’re like, “Ah, shit, I can’t make it.” Go online at 11:00, 11:30, or just make the phone call and you might be able to get in the next day.
What restaurants have you missed the most during the
OM: My top five would be Taco Maria, Broken Spanish, Hatchet Hall . . .
GG: Don’t go so fast, you’re missing people.
OM: . . . Cassia and Fishing With Dynamite.
GG: Let’s go get some Cassia! I [also] love Tsubaki and Ototo.
I can’t decide which one I like more, because, you know what?, Courtney Kaplan is the most amazing sake expert, I think, in all of Los Angeles. Fishing With Dynamite is amazing for me. All I want to do is have oysters next to the beach. Or go to neighborhood restaurants like Elf in Echo Park. I just want to sit there with a glass of biodynamic wine and have their halloumi salad while my daughter pulls on my hair because she wants more sugar in her lemonade. I miss so many little places. I miss driving to work and stopping at Konbi for their amazing chocolate croissants. There’s too many little things. It’s not just about big experiences.
What do you think of quarantine cooking, and how everybody was suddenly making sourdough and banana bread?
GG: Banana bread is the best thing ever, so I definitely agree with that.
OM: It [was] the perfect time to make sourdough. It’s very difficult to perfect something like that when you’re working and busy. Letting your sourdough sit at room temperature and then refrigerating it, you can see the whole process and understand its habits because you’re at home all day. It’s pretty cool to see people making sourdough.
How did your daughter, 6-year-old Saffron, handle quarantine?
GG: Saffron thought it was the best thing that’s happened to her. She came to work with us.
OM: She loved it.
GG: With her little mask. So cute.
OM: I was in quarantine when I was a kid in Israel during the Iraqi War, and I was in the fourth grade. And I think those two months, I can still remember how great they were because I was with my family all day. We would go into the bomb shelter together with gas masks and spend hours playing Monopoly. It was amazing. I’m sure my parents suffered, but all us kids enjoyed it.
Which of you handled quarantine better, and how’s your marriage
beyond your business partnership?
GG: I feel like we were both handling quarantine equally well.
OM: Both of us are working. I think I would torture her if I was at home all day. I’m probably going to be on the sofa and just watch movies all day, and that would annoy her a little bit.
GG: Yeah, it would. Our marriage is great because we don’t have time to torture each other. I’m less naggy.
I guess your marriage is going to remain strong, because you’re not going to have downtime in the foreseeable future.
GG: I don’t see any downtime for the next 30 years, maybe 40. Unless they have a frozen-food line, restaurant people don’t retire.
OM: Yeah, whenever you feel bored, you’re like, “Let’s open another restaurant.”
So you potentially could still open a third restaurant?
OM: Yeah, definitely.
GG: It’s like when you ask people about kids. One of them is like, “Two’s good.” The other is like, “Three might be OK.” And the other one is like, “Really”?
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