It’s time to raise it or raze it for Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen and Thi Tran, who’ve launched their #SaveOurBalls Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to bring in $500,000 and save their restaurant and its popular crispy tofu balls.
Starry Kitchen, one of L.A.’s most unlikely culinary darlings, is vacating its Chinatown space at the end of the month. If the Trans don’t raise the money they’re looking for, which would allow them to find another location, they plan to call it quits.
“There is no Plan B,” Nguyen says. “We have no idea what’s going to happen if we don’t raise this money.”
The couple, who started Starry Kitchen as an illegal underground pop-up in their home, have bounced around various locations while earning critical acclaim for Thi’s bold, inventive, next-wave Asian-fusion cooking while natural-born party-starter Nguyen clowned around in banana suits at food festivals and gained a reputation as one of the city’s most hospitable and gregarious restaurant operators. It’s been a fun five-and-half-year run, but the Trans now want something that’s less fly-by-night.
For weeks, Nguyen has been talking up this Kickstarter campaign, and how Starry Kitchen needs this money so they can finally operate a proper restaurant. The goal is, as much as any restaurateur can, to keep having fun while paying employees well and making a living while not compromising on what they want to serve or constantly worrying about the whole thing collapsing. At the December 10 grand opening of Terrine, Nguyen worked the room, fully admitting that he might be crazy but that he was prepared to shut down Starry Kitchen if he couldn’t get funded. He saw this campaign, he told me that night, as a “F— You” to potential investors who didn’t share his vision for the restaurant.
Now, after creating an elaborate intro film for the campaign and Nguyen offering incentives like getting a tattoo of a unicorn with your face on it if you donate $10,000, the Trans have until 3:05 p.m. February 1 to see if they can make their dream restaurant a reality. The campaign launched late Friday and racked up a total of nearly $10,000 in donations from more than 50 people, including a $2,500 donor, in its first 48 hours. (Donating $2,500 gets you dinner for four with Nguyen, while a $25 donation is good for an order of tofu balls, $100 means Tran will serve you food in his banana suit, and $500 gets you into a R&D tasting.)
That’s not a bad start a couple days in, but Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing scenario: If you don’t raise everything you’re asking for, you don’t get a penny. So asking for $500,000, nearly $200,000 more than any other restaurant has raised on Kickstarter, is a huge risk.
“I’m not delusional,” Nguyen says. “I’m 2 percent closer, but I’m 98 percent away from closing all of it.”
Nguyen says he’s “a mixture of being excited and scared. $500,000 is a lot to ask for whether it’s crowdfunding or an investment.”
But setting the goal so high is exactly the point for Nguyen. “We’ve been bootstrapping this for the entire time since we’ve started,” he says. “We’ve learned to be smart about it and not overspend and not blow our wad.”
They’ve also learned that grinding away on an underfunded restaurant benefits nobody, so raising less than what they need is pointless.
“If something gets you by for a week but you haven’t thought about the rest of the month, that’s a problem,” Nguyen says. “If you don’t raise enough, it costs more than anyone can imagine.”
He’s tired of running Starry Kitchen with Band-Aids and duct tape. He says that the money he’s looking to raise is what’s necessary to run Starry Kitchen the right way because even the most successful restaurants deal with unforeseen circumstances: having to fix pipes, enduring weather events that keep customers away, repairing appliance mishaps. These can completely batter your cash flow while you attempt to keep all your employees paid and give your regulars the consistent dining experience they deserve.
“We want to be secure and have a foundation to deal with problems as they come,” Nguyen says.
So this is Starry Kitchen’s “Go Big or Go Home” moment. But what happens if they just have to go home?
“I think the odds are stacked up against me,” Nguyen says of reaching his $500,000 goal, but he adds that he hasn’t even really begun to promote his quest.
No matter the outcome, Nguyen is throwing a big party at the end of the campaign. It might be during the day of February 1 as the Kickstarter campaign winds down. Whether it’s a celebration or a wake remains to be seen, but you can count on this: Starry Kitchen and its boisterous front man aren’t going quietly.
Starry Kitchen, for the rest of the month, is at 943 North Broadway, Los Angeles, 213-814-1123