Catering to everyone, Pappas Artisanal serves more than food
story and photography by Julian Burrell
The experience at Pappas Artisanal begins before you even set foot in the restaurant. From outside the door on D Street, you hear an eclectic musical mix of hits and classic rock. As you walk inside, you see televisions tuned to popular sports news and highlights of the day while customers talk and laugh. One group of friends finishes their sandwiches and prepares to order another round of beer. Two men wearing collared shirts bearing the restaurant logo come over and greet them at the table. They introduce themselves as Matt Fong and Travis Flood, co-owners and founders of the restaurant, and thank them for visiting Pappas Artisanal. The patrons compliment the two on the meal and then settle into the next basketball game sipping their beers. And with that, Matt, 33, and Travis, 35, know that their team has left the right impression on their customers.
Downtown La Verne has seen dozens of restaurants over the years; each eatery has had its own unique identity from bars, to Mexican food, to wings. However for every establishment that survives the test of time and goes on to become a staple in the La Verne community, it seems that three more close within one year of opening. The space that Pappas Artisanal now inhabits has had an especially problematic history, having been owned by multiple restaurants in the past year. Matt says his restaurant’s predecessors lacked the distinction necessary to survive. “I think that three restaurants have left this space in the last four years,” Matt says. “That’s a lot of turnover for one area.”
Matt and Travis were a part of several businesses before they founded Pappas. Matt had previously headed up “everything from a fashion shop in New York, to online dry cleaning and eBay stores,” while Travis worked in the food business as a chef, but “with a restaurateur’s attitude,” for more the 15 years, he says. This experience has given them a breadth of knowledge to help them in their latest venture.
When they decided to open a restaurant in La Verne, they both knew that if they wanted to solve their space’s identity crisis, they would need to be sure they could leave a positive, indelible mark on their customers. To them that meant upgrading the building to ensure it was a place they and their guests would be happy to spend a long time at. “One of the first things we noticed, right when we walked in here looking at locations, was that it was cold, it was stark. People didn’t want to sit here,” Travis says. “We changed all of that.” Travis gestures at all of the changes the team made to the interior design: The darkened floors create a stronger sense of stability and warmth within the environment; the open windows let in sunlight and showcase the bright spring day; at nightfall, the large lighting structure in the center of the room fills the area with an incandescent glow. “We did such a great job that now we can’t get people out of here sometimes. That’s why we named the place Pappas. We wanted to create the tone of a welcoming father figure,” Travis says. “If it’s not comfortable, people aren’t going to want to relax here. We want everything to be soft on the eyes so people want to spend time here.”
Pappas Artisanal is trying to go beyond the simple task of providing a meal. “I think that anything involved with food has got to touch on all different levels of emotions,” Matt says. “Not only are you looking at the taste of food, but we’re looking at the presentation of food, we’re looking at the way somebody feels when they walk into the restaurant.” Still, Matt and Travis realize that all the quality atmosphere and service in the world does not matter if the food at Pappas is not high quality. The two owners are consistently taking measures to ensure their menu evolves and adjusts to suit patrons’ evolving tastes. “My food is unique but familiar,” Travis says. “As head chef, it’s my job to track the big picture of the (restaurant) and the shifts that may be happening in customers’ taste palate. It’s important that we change accordingly.” One of their featured dinners in spring was the steak milanesa torta, made with breaded steak cutlet, avocado, lettuce, tomato and taqueria sauce.
The food at Pappas Artisanal is seasonal; the menu evolves as different ingredients come to fruition throughout the year. Travis monitors the activity of his kitchen carefully, encouraging his sous chef to foster creativity and work ethic within the team. Matt and Travis constantly interact with their customers to get feedback on the atmosphere and taste. “We’re really picky with our ingredients,” Matt says. “No hormones, no antibiotics. We do our best to work with quality. It’s the attitude that we have with food and how we get the food to customers that makes our menu completely unique to the area.”
Serving mouths and minds
An altruistic attitude is at the forefront of Pappas Artisanal. The desire to provide a service to anyone who comes through their doors is something Matt and Travis take seriously, and that does not only apply to customers. Employees take free business classes hosted by the owners, which offer lessons on how to succeed further in the business world, both at Pappas Artisanal and in whatever careers the employees want to pursue in the future.
Each of the weekly courses are mandatory for employees and are geared around a different study of business, pulling on professionals from different industries such as accounting, consulting and banking. Matt likens these courses to Regional Occupation Programs or online training. The lessons offer a constant source of education for their employees to learn while they’re on the job. “I absolutely loved junior achievement programs,” Matt says. “But I found that the messages were not always tailored toward the audiences … Going through a bunch of (businesses) myself, I found that you’re sort of faced with the same challenges no matter what business you’re going into. We just took those components … and tried to make them into digestible bits and treat our workers to them.”
“It’s really difficult having to work a part-time job and be a senior in college at the same time,” says waitress Sheri Lillie, a University of La Verne student. “I feel like I’m lucky that at least at my work, I’m getting insight on how to succeed from all of my co-workers and bosses. I like finding any sort of edge … that I can use to my advantage.”
Travis says it’s part of the plan to make Pappa’s a fixture within the community. “I guarantee that no one on my team wants to be in a kitchen for the rest of their lives. We feel like we need to help them to succeed beyond the restaurant. It all goes back to helping, doing something bigger than yourself,” he says. “If [Matt and I] can’t change people’s lives on our way to getting older, then we’re not doing our jobs right. That’s also where the father-figure idea of Pappas comes in.”
Becoming a community fixture
Matt and Travis also believe that building a mutually beneficial relationship between the restaurant and the surrounding community is critical to their business. To that end, they have sought out relations within the University of La Verne in order to sustain their ties to others in the area. “From a business standpoint, ULV is what’s keeping us alive,” Matt says. “We feed the faculty, and we feed the students, and if we don’t feed those guys, we see a drop in business of about half.”
In February, Pappas Artisanal had its first ever art show featuring the work of University of La Verne students. The project to host quarterly art shows came about after an agreement was reached between the art and photography departments at the school. Matt and Travis want the restaurant to be important to students. Matt admits that he and his team have been more aggressive than other owners who previously occupied the space when it comes to getting involved with the University and with the La Verne community. The art shows will continue to be held quarterly, with future shows in the summer and fall of 2014.
In addition to the art gallery, the restaurant has also hosted the ULV’s poetry club’s open mic nights. The students who performed at a recent event said the ambiance of the restaurant matched the tone of their beats and rhymes, and made the place their own for the night. “Having somewhere with that kind of lighting and atmosphere really helps you feel the emotions of your poetry,” says Christian Moore, a University of La Verne sophomore and spoken word poet. “I’m debuting two new poems tonight so I’m glad that the mood is right.” Lillie is also a member of the university’s poetry club.
“I think Pappas was a great venue for us to have the open mic night at,” she says. “They were welcoming and gave us a lot of things that we couldn’t have if we just had the event at the school.” According to Matt the practice is “driven by the fact that we’re a startup, and it’s largely sink or swim. We felt like the artists needed a place to showcase their work, and we felt like it was something our customers would like to see, and that was that. We have to change things up like that. Otherwise the restaurant just kind of falls to the wayside.”
Pappas Artisanal may be the latest in a long line of restaurants that have set up shop in La Verne. However, they are far from ordinary, and they look to prove that to their customers every day. “I can just look at everything we’ve done, whether it’s our food or our service or our place in the community, and I guarantee no one has done the things that we’ve been doing,” Matt says. Travis agrees that Pappas is setting a standard when it comes to being a destination in La Verne. “We want to be a business that is involved in and supports the community. We want our employees to come and succeed in the restaurant industry and beyond. And if we can be known for having the best local beers on tap, that’s always a plus.”