JL: Would you ever do another food truck?
AC: I think about it every single day because there’s something liberating about it. You can make specials and you can make food tailored to that part of the city. I like that. Downtown, it’s a little different. Because we’re so busy, we can’t do cool new sandwiches. Every time we do, we can’t sell as much. The cooks are like, “I’m wasting my time.” These cooks are like a machine. You throw a new part in it and they’re just funny. I was talking to my business partner: “Maybe we should just do a food truck again. We can just park it in front of our new restaurants, and by the time it opens, they already know it’s there.”
JL: To test the new concept?
AC: Right. Coffee shops are popping up left and right. Special days, what if we just went up to their coffee shop and do Eggslut or some type of breakfast concept? The only problem is the cost of gas, the cost of insurance, the cost of propane. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. Especially with our popularity, we’re going to have to staff up at $15 an hour. It might be tough, but I think about it every day, as long as I don’t have to drive.
JL: Was that the part that bothered you the most?
AC: We used to park our truck in Compton and had to drive from Compton to West Hollywood.
JL: For the commissary?
AC: Yeah. Every single day. Driving a food truck on the freeway is tough. You have all that water weight, so you hit the brakes and that thing pushes you two feet before it fully stops. We would just take the side streets from West Hollywood to Compton every single day. It would take us two-and-a-half hours.
JL: Given all you’ve learned with Eggslut, your truck, the stand, with Ramen Champ, how are these lessons going to make life easier with The Proper?
AC: What I’ve learned with all three of these places is we’re under such a microscope. I’m doing something with you, one day people are going to read it and say, “I’ve seen this guy before.” It just generates all this pressure. “This guy’s food better be good.” That’s what drives us with all three concepts: the truck, Eggslut and Ramen Champ. It’s all hard work. The moment you loosen your grip as far as focus – “I have four days with nothing crazy to do, I’m just going to hang out” – that’s when things start to fall apart. When you start getting really complacent, you’re tired, you want to get rest. When you mentally say, “I want to take it easy this week,” you can’t, because it’s infectious. Everyone says, “It’s an easy week,” and the next thing you know, 150 people show up to your restaurant, and you’re not prepared. Now, the way we work on both restaurants, we detail our week, we detail our day, we detail our hour so we have those times we can take a breather. We’re good. All our I’s are dotted. Our T’s are crossed. I’ve never been as organized in my life until this moment. Being organized is so huge.
If you’re not organized, and you don’t have great people working with you, who have the same ambition, or at least want to have that, you’re in a war. I’ve been a pretty strict person, and maybe some people who have worked with me would say, “He’s an asshole,” but I can’t invest in people who don’t invest in themselves. Sometimes you work with me for a week, and I have to let you go. Sometimes you work with me for a year, and I have to let you go. Purely because if your life isn’t organized, and you don’t know what you want to do, it’s hard for me to help you, and it’s hard for you to help me. I’m on this thing, from one hour to one hour, I have to get this done. If I don’t get this done, we’re already behind. If there are personal issues or there are issues at work – it happens all the time – I make a decision. No brainer, I have to let you go… That’s the hardest part about doing this type of restaurant, finding the good work force to train. Everybody has problems. I have problems, but be able to compartmentalize everything at work. If I’m doing it, everyone else should, but it’s super hard to find people who can actually do that.
JL: Who are some of the key people you’re bringing in on The Proper?
AC: I have a few pastry people. I can’t talk about them yet, because they’re all at other restaurants. I have my old sous chef, who opened the truck, he left to go to Cleveland and work for a couple really great chefs over there. He came back. His name’s David Kocab. We went to culinary school together and were both in competing restaurants growing up in Portland. We became really tight friends. He came here, helped me, then he had to do his own thing. He worked his way up to sous chef [in Cleveland], then I said, “Look, man, I’m ready to have a right hand man. Do you want to come back? We’re going to be working on The Proper. Amazing breakfast, lunch and dinner, coffee, hopefully some snacks. Are you in?” He’s like, “What kind of equipment are you going to have?” “The best kind.” The last time he was here, it was on a food truck. We were making things work off a griddle and a grill. We made it work. He’s like, “Imagine what we could do with proper restaurant equipment.”
I’m really trying to focus on the proper way of doing things. I’ve made burgers with crazy stuff inside it, but this is meat, cheese, onions, sauce and a bun. Really good fried chicken. A really good fried chicken sandwich. A really good breakfast sandwich. We want to do croissant sandwiches. We want to do amazing salads. Stuff that you can eat every single day. It’s not going to be restaurant where people eat once a year. It’s a real good, feel good restaurant. We’re really just trying to flex our culinary skill. We get all these purveyors coming in here, “Look at these amazing radishes, and look at all this amazing stuff.” Yeah, that’s great, but I’d have to put this dish at $15-$16. I want my customers to come out here on a Friday night, have a meal and go to a Dodgers game.
JL: It’s not an occasion restaurant.
AC: Exactly… We need restaurants down here that’s not made with crappy stuff. Ledlow is great. I go there a lot. It’s that style of restaurant, but with a little bit more restraint, simpler.
JL: Finally, when people say the name Alvin Cailan, what do you want them to think?
AC: That’s tough. When people hear my name, I want them to know it’s a guy that followed his dream. I went to a regular college, I worked for a construction company and did regular 9 to 5 work, and I hated it. All I could think about was going home and cooking something. Simple stuff, whether it was carbonara or schnitzel. All I could think about was making something. “I’m going to leave this place and make food.” I came back to my hometown, and luckily people have been really great to me out here. In my neighborhood I grew up in, my friends are still there and think, “That guy, he followed his dreams.” The chefs I worked for in Portland, they come to my restaurants here and say, “Holy crap! I remember you’d be on the line saying, ‘One day, I’m going to have my own place.’” And I did it. If my name is synonymous with pushing yourself to make your dreams come through, I’ve accomplished what I had to accomplish.