It may have once been known as an idyllic suburban hub surrounded by orange groves and craftsman cottages, but Pasadena’s urban center has morphed in recent decades into a nexus of leisure, entertainment and gastronomy comparable to that of any metropolitan city, with offerings as diverse as the people who inhabit the City of Roses.
In fact, from the carefully crafted California cuisine to Japanese ramen to autentico regional Latino fare, Pasadena is among the top cities in the nation in restaurants per capita, falling just behind Manhattan and San Francisco. The city boasted 680 restaurants in 2018, including many local, independently owned businesses that have been mainstays for decades.
“Pasadena is a destination for dining, and it has been for quite some time now — it was on the cutting edge of the California cuisine explosion and has since developed a more experimental edge as well,” said Pasadena Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Paul Little. “As people’s tastes have gotten more sophisticated, they’re looking for quality ingredients, well-prepared and nicely plated meals, and our restaurateurs meet and exceed that. They can offer every type of cuisine and just about at any price point.”
Many of those longtime owners are also fervently loyal to the community, supporting public schools, hospitals, parks and nonprofits with countless donations of time, space and — what they do best, of course — food.
“These local restaurant owners, they live here, work here, and their employees live here and work here, their children go to schools here, so they want to support the community and they’re very generous in doing that,” said Little, noting that the chamber’s largest segment of members is restaurant owners. “There’s probably not one nonprofit in town that’s not a beneficiary from one of these restaurateurs.”
The sheer number of nonprofits in Pasadena might just rival that of its restaurants, as the city is also known as having one of the highest concentrations of nonprofits per capita in the nation.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between the community, the nonprofits and our businesses, and without that it would become very difficult to survive — we all need one another, just as in anything in life,” said Gale Kohl, owner and founder of Gale’s Restaurant, a pillar on South Fair Oaks Avenue for 18 years.
Kohl was gearing up for one of her passion projects: supporting the Armory Center for the Arts and its annual fundraiser, which she assists by donating Gale’s food and recruiting any other food-and-beverage providers or pals she can get on board.
Sitting down to talk about some of the issues facing the community and restaurant business in Pasadena, Kohl admitted that not a day goes by that local owners aren’t asked to contribute to a charity or public school event. Gregg Smith, co-owner of Parkway Grill on Arroyo Parkway since 1984 (as well as Pasadena’s Arroyo Chop House and Smitty’s Grill), gestured to the “small stack” of donation requests he and his brother Bob receive weekly. Next to him, Michael Hawkins, co-owner of Green Street Restaurant for 40 years, leaned back and smiled, reciting a small list of the nonprofits near and dear to his family over the years. The three restaurant pros met on a recent afternoon over a plate of freshly baked cookies, chocolatey morsels encrusted in sea salt.
SUPPORTING THE NONPROFITS
“If ever there’s an issue in the community and somebody needs something, we are there to help,” Kohl said. “We just do it: Number one because it’s the right thing to do. And also, I know for myself, it gives me tremendous joy to be able to do that and give back, and the reason we can do it is because the community supports us.”
With the easy air of old friends, the three were representing a contingent of longtime local entrepreneurs, a greater “divine circle” of owners who’ve helped create the culinary fabric and neighborhood appeal of Pasadena.
Hawkins, whose Green Street has created such iconic plates as the “Diane Salad,” recalled how in the aftermath of 9/11 he and his wife took a walk to discuss the devastating turmoil. Upon returning to the restaurant, they knew they had to remain open that night, though others closed amid the nation’s shock and mourning on that September evening in 2001.
“That night, we were jammed. Not just busy, but with people staying, jumping up and moving to different tables, hugging their neighbors,” Hawkins recalled. “When I look back on it, that’s what we opened our restaurant for to begin with, to be a real neighborhood meeting place, where people could come together.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Kohl opened up the parking lot at Gale’s to create an impromptu fundraiser for disaster relief. Pasadena area-restaurants came together to help donate food and drink, and on just one Monday night raised $20,000 for the cause.
Meanwhile, the Parkway Grill began supporting local hospital trauma care when funds for emergency treatment in the city were being depleted and centers were closing. The Smith brothers began to worry about where they, their clients and neighbors would have to go if Huntington Hospital’s trauma care center began turning people away. Hence the “Fall Food + Wine” festival, an annual event held on the restaurant’s grounds that has raised $4.2 million since its inception, and last year sold out at 1,900 attendees.
“As home to the largest trauma center in the San Gabriel Valley, these funds are essential to providing for the more than 70,000 people that turn to us for emergency and trauma care each year,” noted Jane Haderlein, the hospital’s senior vice president of philanthropy and public relations. “We are extremely grateful for their support and their strong dedication to Huntington Hospital and the Pasadena community.”
The list of local restaurateurs supporting the city’s nonprofits shows a breadth and depth that rivals its food, said Pasadena Community Foundation President and CEO Jennifer Fleming DeVoll, noting that restaurant owners not only offer space, time and food, but also sit on a multitude of boards to help develop nonprofit causes in the community. Mijares Mexican Restaurant, a family-owned culinary bulwark since 1920, exemplifies the commitment, she added.
“Pasadena is not home to a lot of large corporations, so local nonprofits rely on the generosity of local businesses to support their work,” said DeVoll, noting that many owners have been steadfast in their support of Pasadena’s public schools and the programs that help them. “The locally owned restaurants have been exemplary in their support of the community. I hope everyone will go out this weekend and have dinner at one of these local spots and support them as well.”
CHALLENGES LIE AHEAD
Despite their deep commitment and community ties, local, family-owned restaurants are facing an uncertain future. The City Council approved a series of tiered minimum-wage increases in 2016, with wages moving to $14.25 an hour on July 1 and to $15 by 2020, a more rapid increase than in the rest of California.
It’s expected to hit full-service, traditional-dining restaurants hard, costing as many as 1,000 jobs, Little predicted, noting that the chamber opposed the ordinance: “Being out of step with the rest of the state didn’t make sense to us.”
Meanwhile, owners have said they are gearing up for the wage hike but have yet to see how hard it might impact them. While they want their employees to do well, they note, they question how high they can raise prices without losing clientele. Higher wages also mean higher costs across the board when restaurants purchase products or even launder linens.
Meanwhile, a secondary effect is a sway to quick-casual food services, eateries where clients order at a counter and take a number. A recent saturation of national chain restaurants, backed by large corporate funds that can more easily absorb costs, also has hit the local market.
Combined with tariff changes, which can send the price of lettuce, tomatoes or avocados skyrocketing, the local industry is set for its challenges this year and next, noted Smith, adding, “It’s never a dull day.”
“But even if you lose 10 customers per night, that might come to a loss of $15,000 a month, and that’s someone’s job in the kitchen or on the floor. … We hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said.
“There is certainly attrition where we lost clientele,” added Kohl. “We are saturated by these quick-service restaurants that have come in … but hopefully [patrons] wander back to us because we give them comfort and quality that they can’t get in those other restaurants.”
Little also emphasized that quality and attention to detail as helping restaurateurs’ longevity, saying, “These folks who’ve been in the business a long time, they know their customers — to get it right it takes years of sourcing and work, inspiration and cultivating a clientele.”
Darryl Dunn, Rose Bowl Operating Co. CEO and general manager, added that local restaurateurs also help out in ways many people don’t know. One year, the city was close to canceling its traditional, annual Fourth of July fireworks display at the stadium. In came the Smith brothers, he recalled, and then a contingent of private donors in later years until the program could get proper funding again.
“We are very, very fortunate to have these wonderful owners putting so much back into the community,” he noted. “Besides the quality of homegrown restaurants that really understand the community, not just with their cuisine selection, but with the pride they take in the city of Pasadena. You really can’t replace homegrown.”