In Los Angeles’ restaurant scene, hours are long, diners fickle and competition fierce. So what makes it all worth it? We checked in with USC alumni behind three popular Southern California hotspots to learn how the business looks from the inside — and why they love it.
“I love creating something from nothing and being my own boss. I do love the food industry, but I almost love it more for the people and the experiences than the food part of it.”
Hemmat was a 23-year-old graduate from USC Marshall School of Business in entrepreneurship when she took over Lido di Manhattan, a traditional Italian restaurant in Manhattan Beach. It was the first time the USC alumna ran a restaurant, but she learned fast. “It looks glamorous, but it’s a tough business with a lot that goes on behind the scenes,” she says. Now a seasoned restaurateur, she opened Playa Hermosa Fish & Oyster Co. on the Hermosa Beach pier in 2017 with her husband Levi Lupercio. She says the people around her made all the difference in her career—some of her staff and customers have been with her from the beginning.
Her favorite part of the job? “I really enjoy planning catering and banquet events,” she says. “We get to celebrate people on their special occasions, like weddings and birthdays. That’s my driver, it’s what makes me happy.”
“From day one, it’s been about bringing people together and improving lives. It’s that simple. Come in on any Friday afternoon and you’ll see a hundred people having a great time and enjoying each other.”
— Brent Knapp MBA ’13
Co-owner, Common Space Brewery
Getting people together to soak up some sun and good beer is what motivated Knapp to switch careers from asset management to the brewery business. It’s even built into his company’s name: Common Space Brewery. The Hawthorne-based bar’s expansive 9,000-square-foot space includes a taproom and indoor and outdoor communal seating. Knapp, a co-owner and longtime craft beer enthusiast, keeps the brewery as welcoming as possible with kid- and pet-friendly areas and a rotating schedule of food trucks.
It took nearly 3 years to get Common Space off the ground, but the USC alum loves the restaurant community he’s a part of. “The level of camaraderie and mentorship that people give each other in the industry has blown me away,” he says. “We can see the impact we have on people.”
“Personally, I like this style of work. It feels like it matters in some capacity. Even when it’s as basic as running plates and making sure someone’s tacos or drinks taste good.”
— Pete Figliulo ’14
Co-owner, Thunderbird Bar
Figliulo likes to call Thunderbird Bar in Brentwood a neighborhood bar. A lot comes down to practicalities: “We’re in the Wilshire corridor west of the 405. … No one wants to do that west-to-east drive at 5 p.m.”
Happy hour drinks and Tex-Mex plates draw office workers and locals alike before the commute home. Having weekday regulars is a refreshing change for Figliulo, who spent years working at bars catering to weekend party crowds.
After putting in 14-hour days in the first months, he’s proud of the bar’s success, but also the community he has built from the ground up. “In the beginning, it was like running for mayor,” he says with a laugh. “I try to meet everyone. When I walk into the bar, at any time I’ll see at least 12 people I know.”