In late February 2020, several weeks before Mayor Eric Garcetti officially ordered Los Angeles to shut down on account of COVID-19, Ryan Wilson was already moving to ensure the survival of one of the city’s oldest and most beloved restaurants. The 40-year-old CEO of Lawry’s Restaurants Inc. gathered the nine people on his senior management team to brainstorm ideas for how the restaurant could stay afloat if guests were unable to dine on the premises.
“The idea of closing down seemed implausible. I thought, ‘That’s never going to happen. It’s never happened before,’ ” says Wilson, whose great-grandfather Lawrence Frank cofounded the iconic restaurant with Walter Van de Kamp in 1938.
The management team came up with plans for a takeout-and-delivery service and took an inventory of the supply of the Certified Angus Beef steaks stored in the restaurant’s freezer.
“I thought, ‘Let’s get scrappy,’ ” says Wilson. “I remember seeing a lot of product on the shelf and wondering, ‘How can we package this perishable meat and create something for our customers as they’re learning how to adjust to the virus?’ ”
In the many months since, Wilson and his team have operated in a near-constant crisis mode, riding a roller coaster of closings, reopenings, lost revenues, safety regulations, and employee layoffs. As at other restaurants across the city, the strategy has been to do anything—and everything—to generate business and somehow stay afloat.
“We’ve had to create countless revenue opportunities,” says Wilson, who also oversees Five Crowns in Corona del Mar, the Tam O’Shanter in Los Feliz, and several other Lawry’s locations. “I didn’t have time to be scared or angry.”
Lawry’s employees, many of whom have worked there for decades, braced themselves. “It was a strange and eerie time,” says Tiffany Coty, who has worn the affectionately named “brown gown”—the famous frock the restaurant’s servers don—for 15 years. “We all thought we’d be back at work after two weeks . . . When it became apparent that the whole city was closing down, it was a big shock.”
The day the doors closed, on March 15, 2020, Lawry’s furloughed 116 of its 124 employees. Wilson committed to covering the cost of health benefits for employees for the duration of the pandemic, a promise he has kept.
“It was harrowing,” recalls Lawry’s president and chief operating officer, Tiffany Stith, who has been with the company for 17 years. “We were putting together food bags and toilet paper for employees to pick up. We initially thought this was a short closure, but then it extended beyond our wildest imagination. No one knew how long they would be out of work. We were all just watching the news and the body count going up.”
With only a skeleton staff, Lawry’s launched its first to-go business on March 25. Takeout and delivery were uncharted territory—except for the occasional to-go meal offered on a holiday—for the Beverly Hills institution. Disposable containers would somehow have to replace its famously theatrical presentations: a salad servers prepare in front of diners, pouring the dressing from a great height into a spinning bowl; and prime rib carved tableside from gleaming 600-pound art deco silver carts that cost $45,000 apiece.
“We’re known for our service as much as our food,” says general manager Aniel Chopra.
After lockdown, the restaurant was reconfigured to accommodate the flow of food from the kitchen to an outdoor area. With the permission of the City of Beverly Hills, a side door was opened so that customers could drive up along La Cienega for pickup.
One of the biggest challenges was packaging. Container samples were ordered from vendors all over the country. “It had to be large enough to hold a ten-ounce piece of prime rib and two side dishes and not slide around or get dismantled. And it had to hold the temperature,” says Eric Lysaker, vice president of company operations. Ultimately, a large, Styrofoam box was found to hold the prime rib, and a microwavable plastic vessel was selected to contain smaller cuts of beef and two side dishes.
Lawry’s new to-go business turned out to be successful, in large part due to the loyalty of longtime customers.
“People are doing what they can to help keep our business alive,” says Wilson, who notes that regulars often chose takeout rather than delivery during the worst months of the pandemic just so they could wave to the staff from their cars.
While an extensive $5 million revitalization in 2018 updated the look of the restaurant, Lawry’s remains one of the few classic, old-world dining establishments in a city overflowing with hip upstarts. Cofounder Lawrence Frank was friends with Walt Disney, which may account for the theatrical flourishes that are part of the traditional dining experience. For generations of Angelenos, Lawry’s has been the go-to place to celebrate holidays—carolers stroll about at Christmastime—and special occasions.
Wilson has capitalized on the finely honed Lawry’s brand to make it through the bleakest period in restaurant-industry history. A customer-loyalty program targets longtime guests through email blasts and rewards deals for those who purchase meals online or through the to-go department. Facebook, Instagram, and Google advertisements have also been used to keep people thinking about prime rib.
But even the most creative marketing and entrepreneurial zeal haven’t spared Lawry’s from the economic toll of the pandemic. In 2020, sales declined by $7 million compared with 2019, putting it firmly in the red. On a typical Saturday night before the pandemic, Lawry’s racked up between $70,000 and $80,000 in sales. “But when we were closed down, we were lucky to break $25,000 or $30,000 in takeout and delivery,” says Chopra. “We’re losing a lot.” Lawry’s received some funds under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the federal loan program established to help employees of certain businesses during the pandemic, but it did little to offset the losses. It was basically “12 weeks of money for ten months of the pandemic,” says Stith.
In June, as coronavirus case numbers dropped, Garcetti approved the reopening of restaurants with limited seating and indoor dining. Under the new guidelines, Lawry’s was permitted to accommodate 200 guests, down from the 500 seated for dinner prepandemic. Coworkers were organized into small pods to minimize interaction with other employees and customers. Only two servers were permitted to minister to each table. Sanitation stations were set up throughout the restaurant, and alarms went off every 30 minutes to remind employees to wash their hands. Masks, face shields, and gloves were mandated for all servers.
A two-day on-site training session helped employees familiarize themselves with the new procedures, but anxiety was still high. “It wasn’t like the new rules magically made everyone automatically feel safe,” says Stith. “When we reopened our doors, it happened very abruptly, and there was no time for people to adjust to the new information. Everything had been changed, from where we carved the beef to rules for maintaining a clean table to communicating with guests.”
But Lawry’s reopening was short-lived. On July 1, Governor Gavin Newsom shuttered indoor dining at restaurants in 19 California counties, including Los Angeles County, as the coronavirus numbers spiked. “It’s been absolutely brutal,” Lysaker says. “This company has been around for almost 100 years, and we will survive this. We survived the Great Depression because of the family’s belief in their people.”
Monitoring the constantly changing health department regulations and ensuring the safety of employees over the past year has been almost a full-time job for Stith, who says she spent the better part of 2020 managing and implementing the voluminous number of missives from city, state, and federal health agencies. Her days began with reading countless COVID news stories and watching the mayor’s press conferences.
“We received checklists of what the state and city were putting out. In a good week, they would mirror each other. In a bad week, they would contradict each other, or one would lag behind another just as everyone was trying to figure out how to be as safe as possible. We have to live to get to the other side of this, but sometimes the goal post keeps moving,” she says.
As the pandemic continued, the adrenaline rush that characterized the early months of coping with the coronavirus was eclipsed by exhaustion.
“In the beginning, it was survive or die,” says Chopra, “and we kept coming up with new ideas to keep everyone safe. Then it became a real game of resiliency and staying healthy, mentally and physically.”
Last August, with city regulation around outdoor dining loosened indefinitely, Lawry’s debuted its Silver Cart Terrace. A concrete parking lot adjacent to the restaurant was transformed into a dining area with seating for 112—the first time the restaurant had ever offered alfresco dining. At a cost of about $50,000, a translucent tent was stretched over the parking lot, with strings of small lights to create ambience. A slatted wood fence was installed around the circumference of the newly converted space to foster a cozy atmosphere and help muffle the noise from traffic just feet away. “No one wants to sit in the middle of La Cienega with the sound of sirens heading to Cedars-Sinai,” says Stith.
Health regulations imposed additional limits on the classic Lawry’s experience: The silver carts had to be parked in pre-approved areas in the outdoor space that were outlined with tape on the ground. They could not be moved. Any dish that required a close interaction between server and food was no longer allowed, and already sliced beef was delivered to the table by servers wearing blue latex gloves, masks, and face shields. All dishes and glassware on the table had to be disposable. Salt and pepper shakers were forbidden, and silverware had to be prewrapped tightly in a napkin and handed to guests once they were seated.
“We had to adopt a new way of serving for safety,” says Coty.
In the fall, another surge in COVID numbers set the stage for a decidedly unmerry holiday season. On November 25, the day before Thanksgiving, L.A. County’s Department of Health again shut down outdoor dining. Having been warned on November 19, managers reached out to diners who had Thanksgiving Day reservations to see if they would be interested in dining instead on the Tuesday or Wednesday before. Eighty percent of customers agreed to do so.
Then, on December 7, Lawry’s launched lawrysathome.com. Using Five Crowns in Orange County as a shipping point, the operation was initially intended to be a West Coast trial. But when orders came in from all over the country, the Lawry’s team seized the opportunity and decided to go national.
Though Wilson had been mulling over an e-commerce site for years, developing lawrysathome.com was fraught with complications. All containers had to be properly sealed to avoid contamination and frozen to withstand travel over long distances. The cost of getting the e-commerce site up and running was considerable, about $30,000, and entailed buying new freezers, packaging design, and building a new website. But it’s been fairly successful so far—in its first few months of operation, some 634 Lawry’s meals, which cost $299 to $569, were sold, shipping to 48 states, including Alaska.
On January 29, Newsom—under enormous pressure from business owners—approved reopening L.A. restaurants for outdoor dining. The following night the Silver Cart Terrace reopened. Almost two months later, on March 15, Lawry’s reopened its indoor dining, under strict COVID safety protocols. As of press time, the restaurant is allowed to seat 100 guests inside, but outdoor dining and e-commerce are likely here to stay.
“We’ve created a magical patio experience,” says Stith.
The past year has been a wild ride and an erratic one in terms of how well the restaurant is doing, says Stith. Some weekends are busy, others are slow, depending on the comfort levels of guests and the surge or decline in coronavirus numbers. The uncertainty that characterized the first few months of the pandemic, when the coronavirus burst onto the scene and changed life as we knew it, hasn’t disappeared, even as the vaccine holds the promise of a return to normalcy. Lawry’s is still operating in COVID mode.
“I’m evaluating the risk/reward every day,” says Wilson. “We’ve weathered months of not knowing what will happen, and we have a real sense of anxiety. It’s been an exercise in agility and resilience and how to be strategic in our business so we not only survive the pandemic but emerge stronger. But we don’t know what any day will look like, and it is exhausting. Our resources are depleted, financially and otherwise. I wish I had a better sense in my stomach of what will happen, but I don’t.”
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