Just over a year ago, Caitlin and Daniel Cutler, two seasoned LA restaurant veterans, opened their first-ever restaurant Ronan tucked behind the main drag of Melrose Avenue just east of La Brea. The Cutlers, who both worked at the (now-closed) Sotto and then later at Silver Lake’s popular Alimento, wanted to do a restaurant that reflected their sensibility for Italian-inflected comfort food and craveable LA flavors. Talking to the Cutlers, the journey has been one of ups and downs, with a strong first few months of opening followed by an early spring lull (no thanks to Coachella and tax season).
Yet eight months after opening, new LA Times critic Bill Addison gave the restaurant a positive review, remarking on the pizzas, appetizers, and most of all the calzone. That provided a jolt of business that’s since mellowed out due to a long, warm summer. Caitlin recently gave birth to the couple’s second child, which means she was on the sidelines for much of this year.
With the dog days of summer coming to an end, the Cutlers are ready to tackle their second fall, hoping for a more of the neighborhood to discover one of LA’s most charming mom-and-pop restaurants. Here now, the Cutlers talk to Eater about the struggles and joys of operating a 70-seat restaurant in trendy Melrose Avenue, from the general lack of local diners to the heartfelt loyalty of longtime regulars who often travel from far-flung parts of LA.
Caitlin Cutler on Ronan’s first month of business: “The first month was the easiest month. The staff was trained and committed. We had everyone here. We had a lot of extra people on staff, and we were busy right away. It was such a relief to be open after such a long build out. After the write up on Eater, people were excited and we had a good crowd. It was so exciting to be open and have money coming in the door.”
Daniel Cutler: “That energy carried us for the first six months.”
On the impact of the LA Times review, which came eight months after opening: “It was really weird timing right after Coachella and tax season. There’s a natural dip. [Addison’s review] didn’t have the same response as with [Jonathan] Gold’s reviews. With him, it was instant at Alimento. Since [Addison] is so new, it was stressful. He had just torn apart Simone with a review so we were scared. He ordered the calzone three times and no one does that in a week. We overstaffed just to prepare for the review and we made sure everything was top notch. We knew people were talking and we wanted to make sure the word of mouth was good.”
DC: “We tend to get more word of mouth from people who eat here regularly, and on Instagram. Eric Wareheim posted on Instagram and people came in for two or three weeks just to get that pizza. People just asked for the ‘Instagram’ pizza.”
Daniel Cutler on the biggest struggles from the first year of business: “We were so ready in the beginning. The first few months we were consistently busy. It’s a very LA thing, then you see a dip. We were staffed up and ready to go.”
CC: “After the dip [in sales], we had to let people go. It’s hard to tell people to move on because they weren’t going to have any many shifts.”
DC: “Right now we’re just borderline staffed up, which is good because it keeps our labor percentage more on target.”
CC: “We probably opened a bigger restaurant than we should have, but we can’t change that now. Friday and Saturday we’re busy, and we still want to good first impressions. We have busy weekends, but not as busy weekdays. We’re trying to make sure our staff is happy. When you cut shifts, they think you’re the bad guy. I want to keep to keep the same people that I’m comfortable with. Our kids are here, they know their names. You don’t want to have to invest in new relationships. But we don’t have endless supplies of money behind this restaurant, we have to make those choices.”
On some of the changes they’ve made, and will continue to make in spite of a tough first year: “Our accountant gave us good advice that showed a lot where we could cut down. You overspend when you’re busy. The percentages are on point, and you’re doing great, but you have to balance it when the business slows down. Our linen costs were high, and the accountant suggested we bring it down a quarter of a [percent]. Every little bit counts.
Right now we don’t have a nightly cleaning crew, which means we can give more hours to staff. They don’t like doing that, but at least they get their hours. Sometimes that means the bathrooms aren’t as clean, so we [Daniel and I] need to clean them.”
Daniel Cutler on the thin margins small restaurants like this have to deal with: “It’s such a big thing that people do. Everyone goes out to eat. You could say that probably very few people have never been to a restaurant. The margins are sliver-sized. There’s so much expertise you need to have. You need to execute a great service model, a wine program. You need all these things that they don’t teach you in school. You could go to business school, but it’s going to teach you how to operate a restaurant with people in it.”
Caitlin Cutler on the big takeaways from the first year: “We feel pretty good. There was a moment when we didn’t know if we were going to make it, but it made us rally. We really believe in the concept and we’re still committed to it. We could be busiest, but we get good feedback. We have relationships with customers. We already have people who brought us gifts for our new daughter and came in to see her. That makes it all worth it”
DC: “It’s nice when a table pulls you over and says, ‘you made this? It’s the best clams dish I’ve ever had.’ People are coming back two or three times a week to eat to clams. Unfortunately, those people are the not ones leaving you Yelp reviews. Only the people who don’t care are the ones that trash your business. They don’t realize that we’re here every day. We don’t get to take parental leave. Caitlin is collecting disability for maternity leave to alleviate pressure on payroll.”
CC: “LA has so many celebrity chefs. I don’t think there are enough mom-and-pop restaurants. I hope that people know we really do care. We didn’t do this to make our lives easier. We did it so we could spend more time as a family. It’s not easy, and we’re not making buckets of money. It’s not setting us up to buy a house. Maybe we should’ve bought a house instead of opening this restaurant. Seeing [Birdie G chef] Jeremy Fox talk about balancing family life makes everyone feel more connected.”
DC: “We had to make this restaurant personal or else it’s just a place to go to and forget about.”
Daniel Cutler on the evolution of the menu in the past year: “We just like to go with the flow. We get inspiration from a lot of things, like the French dip pizza. No Italian person would ever put roast beef into a calzone. We get to have our own restaurant with “no rules,” as long as it can go on a grill or pizza oven. There’s no fryer here.
It just kind of evolved into a playful menu. We changed it a lot in the beginning because we wanted to keep it interesting. We got feedback from regulars asking about that dish or this thing. We change the menu based on what’s selling, or not selling. If something doesn’t hit, we’ll take it off. We’ve brought back things we’ve taken off. There’s a playfulness to the menu. Jeremy, the sous chef, and us have a group text where we spitball recipes and talk about crazy stuff. It’s kind nice that there’s no one else to answer to.”
Daniel Cutler on balancing dishes he thought were cool versus giving people things they like: “In the beginning, I said I’m going to do all these things because I think they’re cool, but sometimes they fall flat. I’m not cooking for myself — I have to cook for however comes into the restaurant. If they’re not into it, they’re not going to order it. The dishes we put out now are more grounded, with technique and execution, and a little less head-in-the-clouds food. We have more stuff people are going to like. My test subject is Caitlin’s father. If he likes it, then most people are going to dig it.”
Caitlin Cutler on the difficulties of operating on busy Melrose Avenue: “When we worked at Sotto, it wasn’t really a neighborhood restaurant, but it was accessible for LA. We thought that was the benefit of this location [on Melrose]. I think coming from a strong neighborhood like Silver Lake, it was a hard transition. There aren’t as many neighborhoods. We get people driving in from the [Pacific] Palisades.”
DC: A lot of the homes nearby here are Airbnbs. We just don’t have as many neighbors. And people compare us to Mozza just because we have pizza. That’s a comparison we get from locals, and that’s kind of frustrating. We’re not trying to be Mozza.
Caitlin Cutler on trying to be a mother but operate a restaurant in its first year: “I was pregnant in our first year, which meant I had to step off the floor five or six months in. It was really hard because there was no representation of us on the floor, and that really bothered me. I’m excited to get back out and show people who we are, walk through our experience.”
Daniel Cutler on what’s in store for the next year: “We want it to be more fun. We just did this Parm Boys pop-up, it was the coolest two hours of my whole life. Chris Amirault of Otium is from Boston and wanted to do the event here. We’re trying to take to the next level so I said let’s do it. Between 8:30 and 10 p.m., the whole place was full and everyone was cheering. The bar was busy, music was all the way up. It was really fun. I want to do more of that stuff. Maybe that’s how we’ll bring in change, have Ronan be Ronan but also bring in these outside elements to make it more fun.”
CC: “We’re going to keep giving it a shot. We can’t let ourselves burn out because that’s not good for business. It’s about finding balance and having fun. It was great because people started dancing, letting loose, and not take everything so seriously.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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