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How To Start a Restaurant: Interview with the Owners of Croft AlleyThe Sampler

How To Start a Restaurant: Interview with the Owners of Croft Alley

16 November 2015,   By ,   0 Comments

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Much like oil and vinegar, the two owners of Croft Alley, Michael Della Femina and Phuong Tran are a complimentary pairing perfect for the conception of their old-world restaurant.  I had the opportunity to sit down with these two creative entrepreneurs on behalf of The Sampler and grill them on their passion-turned-business.

 

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Croft Alley is a fairly new restaurant, tucked away shoulder-to-shoulder with an alley opening in the storied Melrose Place district of West Hollywood.  Although they haven’t even reached their one-year anniversary (a few weeks away), they’ve already achieved praise from the Wall Street Journal, Living Out Loud LA, Urban DaddyLa Eater, and countless LA chatter to name a few.

When building the business, resident chef Phuong Tran’s gifted eye for food quickly translated into creating the feel for the restaurant. As he puts it, one of the difficulties with the space was “striking the balance between function and form”, an idea born of the same mindful attitude he brings to his dishes. His upbringing was shaped by both his father (who specialized in running hotels) and his birthplace, the culinary heart of the country, New Orleans.  With dual influences of food and business, Phuong went on to seek formal education, receiving training in New York, Napa Valley and finally Los Angeles. He’s been opening and operating restaurants and concepts since 2005.

 

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Michael Della Femina, on the other hand, spends more of his time in front of the counter making sure the hospitality feels like home. Like Phuong, this is far from Michael’s first foray into the restaurant business. He has worked extensively in all capacities of this business in New York as well as Los Angeles. Outside of Croft Alley, Michael exercises his business skills as the founder of the production and marketing studio StoreFront and as CEO of Della Femina Hospitality.

When it comes to Croft Alley, they let their actions speak louder than their words. Their brand was built organically, forming over time with each conscious decision they choose to put forth.  Though their passion may be of the culinary kind, the business sense Michael and Phuong serve up is nothing short of impressive.  In terms of vision, they’ve held onto it through the grueling process of building the business and the Croft Alley you see today bears a strong resemblance to the one they imagined over a year ago.

One of the other reasons we’re huge fans of these community-minded creatives is that they don’t hesitate to give thanks to those that have shown them support in the past and to those who continue to keep the operation running on a daily basis. Friends and family first, that’s their brand, that’s Croft Alley.

But that’s just an overview of the insights into their business that they gave me. Read beneath for all of the divulged details from the back and forth between The Sampler and the two owners of Croft Alley (Michael Della Femina and Phuong Tran) to hear about what they’re doing today and what they have planned for the future…

 

Q&A

TS: When did Croft Alley officially open?
MDF: We opened to the public Dec 1. Prior to that we had been doing private events.

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TS: What was your original vision for the Croft Alley brand?
PT: The original concept was to be this ‘design your own sandwich and salad’ idea with abundant choices of charcuterie and artisan lettuces from great local farms. It was empowering the guest to design their own meal.

MDF: I dont work that way as per starting a “brand” as it becomes too contrived. I have a lot of respect for the process. We give a lot of thought to everything we do at Croft Alley and I feel its more about what your brand does then what it says. Your brand changes over time based on the decisions your business makes and the identity that it communicates.

 

TS: Now that you’re open has it changed?
PT: Yes, it has changed.

 

TS: What have you learned the most so far from this project?
PT: Patience is so key – the time it takes to open will test everything you have and is character building.

MDF: To trust your instincts and remember you’re wrong at least 60%of the time.

 

TS: What was your goal with Croft Alley?
PT: To go back to artisan and a thoughtful delivery of an old-world concept of the European deli of yesteryears.
MDF: We wanted guests to feel like they were coming home when they came to Croft Alley.

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TS: Have you achieved it?
PT: Yes

 

MDF: Yes we achieved that on some level and of course will continue to strive to be the dysfunctional family that everyone wants to return to often.

 

TS: What difficulties did you face with Croft Alley?
PT: Because of the minutiae size, it was abiding to all the rules of city permitting and striking the balance of function and form.

 

MDF: There are always many difficulties in starting a business. If you believe in what you’re doing then its about staying the course and not giving up no matter what you are hit with. The most daunting obstacles were delays while procuring appropriate permitting and such to sell food out of what was a raw space.

 

TS: How much help did you have along the way?
PT: Help comes from all those involved from the landlord to contractors to professionals in the industry. But learning along the way from the city officials who dictate how things should be was the biggest help.

 

MDF: We received a tremendous amount of support from so many including our investors, our landlord, contractors, architects, plumbers, electricians, accountants, food suppliers and the community.

 

TS: What do you foresee in the near future of Croft Alley?
PT: Space is important in the concept as well, so we like to stay patient in finding something that resonates what we are doing here as well.

 

MDF: We continue to improve on all aspects of our day to day business. At the same time we are hosting more private dinners, creating our own product lines, expanding our off site dining and room service (delivery service). We also have opened up an incubator of sorts upstairs above Croft where we are introducing new products, classes and ideas to the community.

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TS: Exciting collaborations or events?
PT: Our Dinner Series, in-store dining, and collaborations with visiting chefs have been fun and nurturing and we will continue this.

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TS: What do you foresee in the far future of Croft Alley?
PT: We see this artisanal application as an important development and will stay patient to our next location.

 

MDF: We have had several offers to open additional Croft Alley locations in LA, New York and the Middle East. We fell in love with our alley location and the community of Melrose Place which made it impossible to say no to opening here. I am looking for that same inspiration from our next locale where ever that is.

 

TS: Expansions? Other cities?
PT: New York is where we’re exploring now.

 

What advice would you give to anyone opening a restaurant or to entrepreneurs in general?
PT: Staying patient and true to your message is very important, but at the end of the day, listening to one’s audience is crucial.

 

MDF: Buy the building if you can. Surround yourself with great talent and people no matter what you’re doing. Croft Alley is a success because of Phuong’s food and our team Madison Bright, Chelsea Fazio, Allie Brown, Sara Sterling and Hope Iacullo in the front of the house, Amanda Lanza, Q Phan, Jeff Bailey, Lauren Atkins, Nellie Nguyen and Ashley Santora in the kitchen, Rachael Paget, Maguis Sosa, Amanda Overton, Gary Robins behind the curtain, Manny delivering us fresh daily and Colleen DeLee’s bread. That’s Croft Alley…

 

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If you’re a Croft Alley fan, feel free to share this article with the buttons below!!!

To stay updated on Croft Alley happenings, subscribe to their blog… CroftAlley.com


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