Even when your Hong Kong restaurant is a smash hit, expanding to Los Angeles is easier said than done.
By Lindsay Jang as told to Chris Mohney
Born into a restaurant-owning family in Canada, Lindsay Jang moved to New York and, after a stint in theater school, landed a front-of-house gig at Nobu. Later she relocated to Hong Kong with her partner, chef Matt Abergel, where they opened the hugely popular yakitori restaurant Yardbird HK. Jang’s entrepreneurial drive led her to open another restaurant, an e-commerce business, and a fashion/media site as well. Now she and Abergel are working on bringing their restaurant concept to Los Angeles.
Once you open a restaurant and it looks like it’s making money, or has an opportunity for growth, people start knocking on your door or emailing, “Hey, we’d love to bring you to Dubai or Beijing or London” or whatever. I was a front-of-house event person. Matt is a chef. I have a hospitality background. My family had a small restaurant, but not at a massive scale. We were young—we were 29 when Yardbird Hong Kong opened. So when people started calling us about another restaurant, it wasn’t like, “Let me call my lawyer, let me forward this to my legal team, let me hash out what this deal looks like.” Suddenly, I’m the business development part of our business now. I was doing my own exploration, and learning, and asking the questions I thought were relevant, like meeting these people that we were actually interested in.
People came to us with opportunities in various places. We vetted them based on what made the most sense. We thought about Singapore for a while because of its geographical proximity to Hong Kong, the ease of living there, the known household income there, and how people behave. It seemed very safe. Matt was not a fan. Matt is the creative. He is the passionate chef, and the designer, and all that kind of stuff. He really wanted to have our second location be somewhere that he would enjoy in his spare time. He thought Bali was a good idea because he loves to surf, and there’s sun and the vacation vibe. I was not that interested in Bali because at the time, there wasn’t much happening there. Now it’s totally different—people are opening restaurants left, right, and center in Bali. And sometimes, the infrastructure in a country regarding how to do business isn’t always clear, and that made me nervous. The barrier to entry in Bali seemed high based on administrative complications, like how to get stuff done.
So then we were like, “OK, it’s not Bali.” New York is where we both were before we moved to Hong Kong. We love Hong Kong, and we want to stay in Hong Kong as well. New York is too similar to Hong Kong—the vibe, the pace, the city life. We did want something that was complementary to that vibe though. We landed on LA because I had been going to LA more for other reasons, and Matt has tons of friends there.
A lot of our industry friends supporting the decision were also living in LA—natives like Nancy Silverton. Her whole team was rallying behind us to help figure it out. It felt like the right place to go.
Nancy’s like our bubby—our grandmother. Not in terms of age! The first time I went and looked at a space in LA, she came with me, drove me there, and gave me her two cents. Her COO helped us build out all of our numbers. Even though we’ve outgrown what we thought we were gonna do at that time—this was over five years ago—Nancy’s still very much a big part of our LA family.
So that was the next step, finding space in LA. Figuring out what our budget was. Figuring out the ideal footprint based on our experience from Hong Kong. That was before we reopened the bigger Yardbird in Hong Kong, which was two and a half years ago now.
When I look back on how long this has taken us, it makes me want to vomit. First, there was this amazing space. In so many ways it seemed serendipitous, from the owner of that space having fallen in love with our design of Yardbird Hong Kong, and then he hired our designer to design that LA space for him, and then subsequently coming to us later, not even on purpose, and trying to lease us that restaurant. We were like, “This is so weird. It looks like Yardbird HK already.”
Everything seemed perfect. The rent per square foot was perfect. We’re next to this person, perfect. This other person is involved, fantastic. Then we were dealing with the owner’s team, his lawyer, his whatever. By the time we spoke to the actual owner, we were like, “Wow, you are a psychopath or a sociopath.” Matt and I know how hard it is to work with someone for a very long time. You have to really love that person. We looked at each other, and we were like, “Hell, no! I don’t want to see this guy every day, let alone let him have any attachment or affiliation to our business.” So scratch space number one.
I had a fantastic consultant who was a broker. He’s just super smart, so over the years he decided, “I can build a restaurant. I know all the permitting.” He’s great and he’s still with us. So we just started hitting the road, like, “Let’s look at this neighborhood, let’s look at that neighborhood.” By now, I could probably be a real estate broker.
We found this other space that we loved. It was in Silver Lake, and it had its own parking. It was this old, old building, but the property developer was refurbishing the place. It was just cool, and seemed like it was going to be really great.
And then again, fast forward. You have a lease in your hands. After every lease revision that we would get back, something would be changed. And by the time we got to the fourth lease revision—and bear in mind, every hour, every minute costs money with the legal side. And the opportunity costs. We were like, “We just want to open a restaurant.” I’m definitely being hyperbolic, but in Hong Kong, you can walk into a space that you know is for rent with a check in your hand or an envelope full of cash and say, “OK, I want it. Here you go. We’ll work on the lease.” The litigious nature of the US has been our biggest hurdle.
The space in Silver Lake—we got to the point where we were like, “You know, our rent started here, and now we are almost 30 percent higher through these lease revisions. Now I’m paying for the elevator shaft space. I’m paying for the hallway that isn’t even usable by us, and all this kind of shit.” We always come back to this core value—are these the kind of people we want to be with for the next 10 to 15 years? Not really. We want someone to see the opportunity and the vision of building something with value, not just nickel and dime every little thing along the way. It just didn’t seem like it was in good faith. No, we’re not doing that. That lease took a good year and a half of our business life.
That leads us to where we are now. I can’t really speak too much about this because we’re still in the middle of it, but we have a space in Downtown LA, and we’re just working on getting it open. Optimistically, I’m hoping we can open in the next 12 months.
I could also be an intellectual property lawyer at this time in my life. We’ve gone through the gamut with Yardbird HK, our name in Hong Kong, and 50 Eggs, who owns Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in the US. That was its own situation. Now it’s fine. We have a book, we called it Chicken and Charcoal for IP reasons. For a while we were entertaining the thought of using “Chicken and Charcoal” for the new place. We were saying it out loud with some of our friends, and it didn’t have that same sort of romance as a one-word name.
We played around with it, and Matt came up with Yakido, which is a breed of Japanese chicken known for fighting. That sounded perfect. So we went through the whole ”Let’s register it before we announce, let’s make sure we can own it.” The only events that we did with that name started last August. So that’s the name, and Yakido will be the name for any restaurant we open with the same yakitori concept.
The highlight of this whole thing has been how supportive and comforting people have been—not only our friends in the industry, but even strangers who know our story and said things like, “Trust me. It took me years to do this.”
We’ve learned along the way. And when we get really down and are like, “Why are we even doing this? Why? Who cares? Let’s just cut our losses”—we realize that people want us here. We’ve been so stuck in the legal situation that we’ve forgotten how much we love to do it. I think the silver lining is it takes time to build great things, and we never want to cut corners. When we do open, it’s going to be exactly what we wanted.