It’s eight o’clock, and Dan Moody is directing traffic. Plates pile up on the small ledge between the kitchen and the dining room, and skittish servers wait, wide-eyed, for Moody to point them in the right direction.
This is opening night at Moody’s – and San Diego’s – first pop-up restaurant, Relate. It’s showtime.
Dan recently graduated from the kitchen of super chef Ludovic Lefebvre. Chef Ludo, the master of the pop-up concept, took Moody on after the two met at the now shuttered L’Orangerie, in West Hollywood, CA. Dan was doing an externship from the Culinary Institute of America; after finishing up at CIA, Moody stayed on at the restaurant as a full-time employee. When Ludo left L’Orangerie, the two lost contact until Dan found Ludo and his wife, Krissy, on Twitter and volunteered for the third incarnation of Ludo’s pop-up, LudoBites.
New recipes, disagreements, mutual camaraderie and three more wildly successful LudoBites later, Dan decided to pop up on his own, and began the hunt for an appropriate breakfast/lunch restaurant in his hometown of San Diego.
It’s sort of a hard concept to sell, isn’t it? Taking over someone else’s restaurant, for a limited amount of time, lugging in plates and glasses and servingware… Giant piles of foreign pots clanging against someone else’s stove, in someone else’s sink, as someone else’s property is entirely transformed – a host to this new life form. It’s not something everyone would agree to – and that’s after the specific someone has been selected, from a limited number of desirable candidates in a particular city, as the very special someone who owns the kind of restaurant in which one would want to set up shop.
Then there is the nitty gritty – how much will the temporary people pay to the permanent ones for use of the restaurant. Once an agreement is reached, piles of paperwork have to be filed with the Health Department, (and in a governmentally burdened place like California, there is always the risk of a misfiling or oversight that can shut down the entire operation in an hour).
After the paperwork, the next worry is cataloguing everything that’s brought into the restaurant: all of those plates and glasses and that servingware; the pots, the pans, every single chef’s knife. The pop-up has to locate their own meat and produce suppliers and create brand-new accounts (something that isn’t always easy to do when a new chef is just starting out. In this case, Moody had to pay cash, upfront, for everything – and that was before a single meal had been sold). All of that meat and produce – and everything else that ends up on the plate – has to be ordered and organized, and then the storage areas at the restaurant must be divided to ensure there is enough room for the daytime supplies and the pop-up ingredients to exist in harmonious balance. Or – if not harmonious balance – at the very least, it all has to fit in the fridge.
It took Moody months to find a home for Relate. He says he took his time, and his patience seems to have paid off in spades. Roy Salameh wanted to renovate his Encinitas-based St. Germain’s Café, transforming it into Bistro St. Germain’s. Moody got a space; Salameh gets a spotlight on his new-and-improved eatery. Everybody wins.
But that’s partly due to Moody’s social media savvy. This is less than a one-month run, remember. As hard as it is to get a permanent establishment off the ground, think of the marketing that’s required of an ephemeral eatery – something that comes and goes in a flash. When we spoke to him a week before he opened, Moody admits, “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m certifiably nuts. I’d have to be, to want to deal with all the hassle for being open just a few days.’” Moody has taken on a PR team and has a list of interviews, TV spots and status updates to rival the grocery list for Relate.
It seems to be working. The pop-up is open and virtually every table is packed.
Lest you think the challenge is over once location scouting, red tape and produce producing are out of the way, one cannot forget the staffing of a pop-up. Or the not-staffing – there are never any guarantees. To find workers for Relate, Moody resorted to Craigslist, and at the time, it seemed he’d struck restaurant gold; the response was overwhelming. The follow-through, not so much. “I…set aside a day for interviews and not even half of the applicants showed up.” Moody continues, “It was crazy how hard it was to find people to work at a time when, supposedly, there are a lot of people out there looking for jobs. I didn’t anticipate that.”
After the initial setbacks, Moody says he ended up with a fantastic staff, and he’s thrilled with how things turned out. The servers are a band of beautiful young people in matching uniforms. Their crisp, white oxford button-downs and ankle-length white aprons share the same insignia – A black ‘R’ and ‘C,’ with the ‘C’ outlining one-half of a red heart. The symbol represents Moody’s brand as the “RelationChef” – it’s his logo. The waitstaff look the part, but they seem to be moving underwater. They’re careful. They’re deliberate. They’re nervous.
To be honest, everyone seems a little tense – especially Dan. He’s not feeling well. He had to be awake at 3am the other day, and admits he hasn’t slept much since. That hardly seems like a surprise with a restaurant opening around the corner, but it’s more than that. One of Dan’s cooks didn’t show up for work from day one, and today – on Moody’s Big Night – his produce vendor didn’t bring the correct order; they didn’t even arrive until 5pm. Relate’s first seating was at 6.
To make a long night even longer, after the final guests go home, Dan – as part of his contract with Salameh – will have to clear the counters and start baking quiches for tomorrow morning’s breakfast service.
Along with his 5-course meal, Moody is offering two optional beverage pairings. One is craft beer from San Diego’s TapHunter. The other is Mount Palomar wines, out of Temecula, CA. During a free moment between seatings, Dan is asked how he chose the beverage vendors. He looks tired and shrugs a little. “That was my PR people.”
Luckily, the beer is fantastic. TapHunter’s brewer is even on-hand to relate his story to Relate’s guests. “There is a beer renaissance in full bloom,” he says, “San Diego is in the center.” An appreciative customer quickly chimes in, “It’s wonderful!” There is gentle laughter and the room relaxes.
Moody goes back to his post at the little window.
It’s 8:30 now, and the second seating is starting to trickle in. Sated diners excitedly have pictures snapped with the chef, as hungry patrons take their seats. Plates begin to fill the small ledge again. Dan calls one of the staff over and asks why the patio heaters haven’t been turned on. Behind him, in the kitchen, someone shatters a wine glass. Moody stops for a minute and stares at the glinting mess. But then the moment passes. His mother/hostess touches his arm to get his attention and asks him a question. His brother/serving captain practices his pours. Moody smiles. Everyone is getting down to business. Traffic is moving quickly and Dan settles in and gets ready for the ride.