Panoringan: How Does A Restaurant Like Bosscat Keep Going During a Pandemic and Protests?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Chef Peter Petro and Leslie Nguyen, co-owners of Bosscat Kitchen in Newport Beach. (Co-owner JT Reed, not pictured.)

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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Despite having an airport code of SNA for Santa Ana, John Wayne Airport lies along the borders of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Irvine. If the Duke himself were alive today, I imagine he would’ve frequented the bar at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, situated down the street off MacArthur Boulevard.

The Newport Beach location opened in 2014 by Leslie Nguyen, John “JT” Reed and chef Peter Petro and their new American comfort cuisine with a whiskey focus became a local mainstay. The trio continued to expand Bosscat’s brand into a new development within the Highland Village neighborhood of Houston, Texas in 2017 – six months before Hurricane Harvey flooded the state. And they opened BCK, a sister concept in the same city, in early 2018.

In recent months, they’ve been working on taking over a coveted corner of Old Towne Orange, but their plans have been placed on hold as locations in both states have been navigating the complexities of a pandemic and protests.

I caught up with Nguyen and Petro to better understand how their brand is working to survive through these changing climates.

Newport Beach During and After Quarantine

How a patron judges their meal in a dining room often falls upon three factors: cuisine, service and ambiance.

Alternative Bosscat Dining: Take Away Meals

If you’re one of many residents who aren’t ready to head back into a dining room, Bosscat understands your situation. One of the updates they’ve made specifically caters to those choosing to savor their food at home.

They’re offering meal packs which allow you to choose a protein, vegetable, and starch. Each component is fully cooked, but sold chilled for later consumption. The price for a custom meal: $10. With a slew of options to build upon, consider it your version of meal prep, without having to prep a thing.

Proteins include grilled steak, orange chicken, slow roasted pork, grilled salmon, grilled chicken, beef short rib and curried cauliflower. Vegetable selections of roasted squash, baby broccoli, asparagus, green beans, and mixed vegetables are simply seasoned with salt and pepper; the kitchen prepares them al dente, so they do not overcook when microwaved. Ancient grains, mashed potatoes, brown rice, roasted potatoes, and sweet potato mash cover your carbs. Saucy finishes of jalapeno butter, black pepper bourbon, red chile garlic and cilantro chimichurri round things out.

After sampling a few combinations, my preferred components are beef short rib, green beans, cilantro chimichurri and roasted potatoes. If you decide to take away your own meals, request curbside pickup so you don’t need to exit your vehicle. And be sure to remove the lid before heating (it’s not microwave-friendly). Pour yourself a beverage while you wait for the “beep,” and dinner (or lunch) is served.

While cuisine is usually the most important, expectations may allow some leeway with regards to service or ambiance. For example, in the case of a hole-in-the-wall eatery, the food may be excellent, but it may be served by mediocre waitstaff, or in a setting devoid of decor.

When Bosscat was forced to close their dining room (yet continue to sell food and beverages to-go), it relinquished control over one of those factors.

Petro realized this when sales took a hit.

“Bosscat is a restaurant built on environment. When creating a concept, there are many variables. But ultimately, the goal is to provide the guest with a great experience,” said Petro.

“You have something (or multiple things) that makes the guest choose you over others. For us, it’s ambiance. Energy is a big thing (i.e. having a DJ during our brunch days) to bring a little excitement to our place.”

Both Bosscat locations strive for the same social vibe. To compensate for ambiance, Petro retooled the menu to include grocery packages and their take on meal prep. [See Sidebar].

Now that in-person dining is allowed again, procedures are in place and staff was trained in preparation for reopening the dining area a week ago. Per Petro, “The nuances are tough to navigate, and we are going above and beyond what we are required to do.”

Updates to Bosscat’s Newport Beach layout include the addition of eight hand sanitizer stations for use by both staff and guests. Customers do not have the option to sit at the bar for the time being, and all drink requests must be made at the table.

The team is relying on customer comments to help them understand how their COVID-19 inspired changes are working.

“We constantly gauge feedback through social media and online reviews. We’ve made it a point to educate our staff in the importance of showcasing some of our safety protocols that we’ve moved to since reopening after COVID,” said Petro.

Servers are taking the time to make guests feel comfortable, now that Bosscat is allowed to reopen with restrictions. This transparency in communication is a step in rebuilding brand loyalty.

Protests in Houston

The global Black Lives Matter protests that began in late May were sparked by George Floyd’s arrest and subsequent passing, contributed a layer of complexity to their businesses which were already adapting to the coronavirus pandemic. While many gatherings had peaceful outcomes, a number of them were marred by looters and outliers whose intent was vandalism and destruction of property.

Bosscat’s two Texas properties were directly affected by George Floyd’s death when the corpse was transported back to his hometown of Houston. Leslie Nguyen arrived the week prior, preparing both properties for their respective reopenings. Uncertain about how the community would react, she decided to board up operations for a few days.

“This is really unchartered territory for business owners in general,” said Nguyen. “We have faced so many different obstacles with hurricanes, summer heat, the pandemic, and most recently, protests. However, the protest hit home differently. We are a very diverse ownership group with a very diverse employee base. We preach about culture, family and loyalty all the time. There’s no better time to actually live those core principles than right now; making sure we support and promote our diversity as a company and as a nation.”

Fortunately, protesters in their part of the country were conscious of the potential for events to take a negative turn, and effectively diffused any notion that they would be anything other than respectful. “Houston is such a wonderful city from the ground up. While we did take precautions to protect our business. We were so pleased to see not only the Floyd family, but the community itself project peace in such a difficult time. The city responded, and the effect was so profound we truly believe the rest of the nation was watching,” said Nguyen. BCK reopened on June 4, 2020; Houston’s Bosscat followed suit the next day.

Orange is the New Bosscat

Expansion was not on their minds when the city of Orange presented itself as a potential restaurant site. When multiple contacts began suggesting they scope out the corner of Chapman and Olive in Old Towne, the team researched this former liquor store. According to Nguyen, “Our dance card was becoming so full with various opportunities that we didn’t think we could give it the full attention it required. Vanessa Brown, our real estate broker, had told us about this property. And then a week later, our general contractor Monty from Platinum X Construction told us about it, so we had to see what it was all about.”

Nguyen, Reed, and Petro eventually met the Fraser family, who owned the property, and became better acquainted. They learned that the Frasers possessed both a restaurant industry background and strong family ties with the city, “The Frasers sought us out as local restaurateurs they felt would honor the space appropriately,” per Nguyen. “The history of the building had a profound impact on us.” Many conversations later, a mutual respect was built and the Bosscat team undertook the opportunity to grow their concept.

Originally slated for later this year, delays in construction due to the current pandemic have adjusted their forecast to 2021.

In Other News…

Sunny Cal Farms at Irvine Regional Park

Back in April, I wrote a piece on how many local farmer’s markets remained open during quarantine, being deemed an essential service. I took my own advice and made it out to Irvine Regional Park recently to meet with Shaun Rosendahl, co-owner of Sunny Cal Farms. Based roughly 22 miles from Fresno in the city of Reedley, they normally serve a dozen Orange County (and Long Beach) markets during the week, from Orange to Dana Point.

Photo courtesy of Sunny Cal Farms

Produce and goods offered by Sunny Cal Farms at the Tuesday farmer’s market in the Irvine Regional Park.

The Tuesday market is modest in its number of vendors compared to others, but the quality of its roundup such as Sunny Cal Farms is apparent. Rosendahl regularly works with local chefs to assist with their inventory, pointing out a box of peaches reserved for crafting desserts by sweets specialist Front Porch Pops.

His approach to business is threefold: people, product, and process. Per Rosendahl, “First, I feel it’s very important that you hire really strong people who can get your message across to the customers and provide a peppy, happy environment, energy-wise. Second, you have to have a great product and put out a different variety than what others offer. Third, the process is in the details. How we put things out – the signage and the display. How we put our fruit.”

I witnessed all of the above during my visit. For starters, staff would greet everyone browsing the tables. One might even overhear one of Sunny Cal Farms’ catchy jingles like “Take my peaches to the beaches!” They offer fruits as close to ripe as possible, eliminating the guesswork of when one should consume it. If produce is just past its prime, it’s moved to their Jam and Juice table for repurposing and sold for a buck per pound. Additional products include dried versions of their fruit, as well as almonds in assorted flavors – cinnamon roast crunch, garlic roasted and roasted chili-lemon all come to mind. With regards to process, it is an informative blend of colorful signage, laminated info sheets offering serving suggestions, and creating an eye-catching display of their seasonal goods.

Additional services include delivery as well as a CSA box option. A bonus to visiting Irvine Regional Park: parking is free on market day, plus visitors have access to the rest of the facility to enjoy as they please. For additional information, please email sunnycal.shaun@gmail.com.

Branded by Compassion’s Project Gratitude

A donor who requested to remain anonymous asked Troy Hashimoto, founder of non-profit Branded by Compassion, what they could do to help unemployed workers in the hospitality field. That conversation resulted in a monetary contribution and the assembly of 400 care packages named Project Gratitude. It would not have been possible without the assistance of volunteers and a community of Orange County chefs and industry professionals taking time on a Sunday morning to coordinate and distribute boxes filled with freshly baked and prepared goods, including soup, bread, cookies, pasta and chili.

Project Gratitude’s goal of supporting the brothers and sisters in the restaurant industry during this stressful time was achieved yesterday. While there are too many names to remember, I wanted to say how proud I was to be associated with a generous group of individuals. Also wanted to give a shout out to Ben Vazquez for allowing Project Gratitude use of the El Centro Cultural de Mexico property that day.

Branded by Compassion is a lifestyle commitment. Their mission is to empower individuals and impact communities by developing relationships and commitment to those they serve. To learn more about their projects, please visit www.brandedbycompassion.org.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.