In a restaurant scene increasingly dominated by million-dollar build-outs and deep-pocketed restaurateurs, the story of Peter and Lauren Lemos seems not only unusual but downright remarkable. The husband-and-wife duo opened the sandwich shop Wax Paper in 2015, scraping together their personal savings while working multiple jobs in the hospitality industry—he as a chef, she as a server. The space they were able to afford, a 226-square-foot modified shipping container on the edge of a then little-known neighborhood called Frogtown, wasn’t much to look at. “It was four walls and a floor. That’s it,” recalls Peter. “We weren’t permitted to cook anything in there. We couldn’t even boil water for potato salad.”
But restrictions begat creativity. “It became this cool challenge, because you’re forced to think: How can I make raw vegetables taste delicious?” says Peter. “What can I do with pickles and cold cuts?” The rest, as they say, is history.
Buoyed by a loyal lunchtime following and ingeniously engineered sandwiches named after NPR hosts (“We thought about doing Seinfeld characters, but figured we’d get sued,” says Lauren), the mom-and-pop operation has defied the odds to become a beloved Eastside staple, recently opening a second shop inside a processing plant-turned-minimall in Chinatown. “For years our biggest goal was, ‘How are we going to make it to Sunday so we can sleep in? How can we cover the bills through the week?’ ” says Peter. “It wasn’t until six months ago that we started thinking about the big picture.”
Wax Paper now has nine employees, a substantial increase from the first eight months or so when Peter and Lauren ran the shop themselves. They’ve been able to cover half of the health care costs of their staff, as well as expand the sandwich menu in Chinatown, including a roast-beef-and-pickled-beet number named for Neda Ulaby (there’s also Formica counter seating there, a first).
Still, the couple’s greatest challenge is around the corner. Come August they plan to open Lingua Franca, an all-day restaurant attached to a new work-live loft complex. Two streets over from their Frogtown flagship, it’s outfitted with 50-odd seats and a patio overlooking the L.A. River. The plan is to serve their brand of comfort food with a twist, though with the added benefits of a stove and oven (“I want to make big pots of soup, and maybe a daily casserole,” says Peter wistfully). They will, however, have to deal with one element they’ve avoided thus far: investors. “It’s a huge leap of trust partnering with someone,” says Lauren, “but in order to sustain things, I think you actually have to grow. It’s terrifying, but we’ve only gotten this far by diving in and figuring it out.”
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