Bill Chait was 25 years old and his experience in the restaurant industry was limited to the driver’s seat of his car, where he sat while delivering pizzas in Beverly Hills back in June of 1985. A Los Angeles native armed with a business degree from Berkeley, Chait’s interest in finance and operations trumped experience and led him to purchase the struggling Louise’s Italian Kitchen on 26th Street in Brentwood. A year later, a second location opened on Montana Avenue. Changing the name to Louise’s Trattoria, which sounded more authentically Italian, was just one example of Chait’s natural affinity for the industry. Before you could say “chicken parmesan,” the Louise’s Trattoria empire was born.
A decade later there were nearly 20 Louise’s, and Chait, along with then-partner Howard Weinberg, landed on Entrepreneur’s list of young millionaires. An over-ambitious expansion plan and rapidly increasing expenses led Louise’s to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997. After his departure from Louise’s, Chait was at a crossroads, left to decide whether to pursue a career in finance (at a restaurant or otherwise) or keep plugging along doing what he had become passionate and successful at – owning and operating restaurants.
Chait chose the latter. His next venture, Spark Woodfire Grill, which like Louise’s wasted little time expanding, kept him busy through most of the 2000s. Then in 2009, Chait, along with tenured Los Angeles chef John Rivera Sedlar, opened Rivera in Downtown Los Angeles. The restaurant’s success catapulted him back to the elite class of restaurateurs in the region.
As Chait’s culinary fortunes turned, the lessons learned shaped the businessman he became and informed the decisions he now makes. “The growing, reorganization, and financing of Louise’s created a unique life experience and the greatest education I could have,” he explains.
To be clear, Chait is not a chef. He relies on his relationship with the person running the kitchen at each of his restaurants, which he describes as complex and dynamic. He’s not looking for a head chef; he’s looking for a business partner who shares his vision, beliefs, and morals.
Following the opening of Rivera, Chait formed Sprout LA in 2010, where he now partners with Aileen Getty and boyhood friend Mike Glick. It is under the Sprout umbrella that Chait would convert a struggling Spark Woodfire Grill into Picca and Sotto, spreading his wings and building some momentum. Following in rapid succession would be Short Order and Short Cake with Nancy Silverton followed by Petty Cash (Los Angeles), Redbird (Downtown Los Angeles), Bestia (The Arts District, Downtown), Republiqué (Los Angeles), Barrel & Ashes (Studio City), and most recently, Nuance (Santa Barbara), BS Taqueria (Downtown), and Catch & Release (Marina del Rey).
Since the germination of Sprout, Chait has been operating in the margins. Each of his verticals have their own unique look and feel, drawn from the spirit of Chait’s chef partner, meant to keep the diner unaware that each brand belongs to a bigger entity. Chait defines the position he is in and the space he fills by simply saying, “in a nutshell, I’m in the partnership business.”
One unlikely partner is billionaire titan Eli Broad. Broad has partnered with Chait, who will be opening a new restaurant, Otium, at The Broad when it opens in September. “Eli has zero interest in being in the restaurant business but what he is excited about is the partnership and collaboration of what we want to do,” Chait explains, adding intrigue by saying they are “creating something that, in a lot of ways, is groundbreaking.”
As for his more conventional partnerships, those involving chef partners who have equity in the restaurant they operate, Chait admits that when identifying prospective partners there has been a “tremendous learning experience between today and the last four years.”
All of that learning paid dividends when Chait partnered with Executive Chef Ori Menashe to open Bestia, another Sprout crown jewel. Chait describes Menashe as “unbelievably passionate and committed” and describes Bestia as not only “a great restaurant but [also] a great company.… There are so many parts of what make that restaurant so successful that have nothing to do with the food.”
So after three decades of many soaring ups (and a few sobering downs) in the restaurant industry, what is Chait’s secret sauce? “The first thing I say is, ‘Can I imagine being in business and being friends with this person for a lifetime? Do they have the same perspective on things that I have or Mike [Glick] has or Aileen [Getty] has?’” he posits. Every association he pursues serves to bolster his education. “Everyone that I’m involved with going forward is evaluated with an evolved filter,” he states.
“Eli [Broad] has zero interest in being in the restaurant business but what he is excited about is the partnership and collaboration of what we want to do.”
Today, thanks to his creative vision and a knack for finding talented and innovative culinary help, Chait has a handful of notches on his belt that have afforded him certain liberties he never could have dreamed of when running a company rearing to go public like Louise’s. His recent success has given him the ability to do what he feels is best and is right, selflessly disrupting an entire industry for the sake of his employees.
In early 2014, one of Chait’s crown jewels – Republiqué – implemented a 3% health care surcharge to equal parts criticism and acclaim. In a June 2015 op-ed penned for Eater LA, Chait went on the offensive, explaining that in Republiqué’s case, “One hundred percent of the cost was paid by the restaurant and subsidized by the surcharge, with no government subsidies required,” Chait wrote. “We negotiate directly with Kaiser or Anthem for rates. The ownership of the restaurants gets the same insurance as the staff.”
In addition to the healthcare surcharges, Sprout restaurants Barrel & Ashes and Catch & Release impose an 18% service fee in lieu of tips, which allows management to fix what Chait calls a broken system. “We allow a service system that creates a gigantic winner in the front of the house and a real hard time for the people that work in the back of the house.”
Though they may cause diners to do a double-take, Chait’s policies are not all that revolutionary. As far back as 1989, Alice Waters implemented a similar system and Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry has been doing the same since opening its doors in 1994.
As Chait readily acknowledges, a restaurant such as Republiqué has a staff of 130, 70 to 80 of whom are “on the clock” at one time. Chait has created a system that balances the bottom line, ensuring that each of his employees, from the cheerful hostess to the hustling line cook, is taken care of. It is for this reason that Chait could aptly be referred to as the Robin Hood of the restaurant industry. It has surely resulted in a staff of (more) merry men and women.