When Los Angeles-native Terry Heller opened his first Plan Check Kitchen + Bar on a sleepy corner of Sawtelle Boulevard in February 2012, skeptics were anything but shy. “Ultimately, I love when people tell me I can’t do shit,” Heller speaks confidently, recalling the reception when he put his plan into motion. “People said, ‘You can’t open an American concept on an Asian thoroughfare,’” adding that “the name had naysayers too.”
As I sit with Heller on a sunny Santa Monica afternoon, he explains how this doubt fueled him then – and now – to prove folks wrong. When the history of Los Angeles’ dining renaissance is written, much ink will be shed telling the story of Tsujita (whose empire now includes Tsujita Annex and Sushi Tsujita). It should be noted that when Plan Check – whose name and decor are inspired by the City of Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety (located next door to the original location) – opened on Sawtelle in early 2012, the Tsujita takeover had not yet begun.
The once quiet strip of Sawtelle between Santa Monica and Olympic Boulevards is now a bustling culinary community known as Sawtelle Japantown. Nestled between ramen and spicy tuna is Heller’s flagship location, unwavering more than five years after opening its doors. Consider the skeptics proved wrong.
“Ultimately, I love when people tell me I can’t do shit.”
Man With a Plan
Heller, who grew up in Los Angeles, first scratched his entrepreneurial itch while attending Pepperdine University by producing and directing music videos for artists including the late Eazy-E, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Linkin Park, and the Black Eyed Peas. In 2003, after a successful decade-plus in music, Heller founded Heller Holdings LLC, a residential and commercial real estate company.
Nearly another decade later, Heller felt the need to scratch the itch once more and could not think of a better way to do so than a restaurant. Heller, admitting he drew inspiration whilst dining around the city, says “This is what Los Angeles is about … the mixture of cultures and cuisines. Whether you’re eating pastrami at Langer’s, taquitos on Olvera Street, or Chinese food in Chinatown.”
It was this lifetime of experiences across the city he enjoyed that he blended with his passion for creating, which he explains by saying “I like the idea of creating … taking a concept and the seed of an idea, cultivating it, and having it come to life.” “It’s incredibly exciting for me,” he finishes.
Despite his unquestioned success half a decade later, one cannot deny the unconventional route Heller took in late 2011 and early 2012 leading up to Plan Check’s debut. Heller will be the first to admit he is not a chef yet also admits, “my team is really important to me,” adding “I live and breathe for my team.” This honest and crucial recognition led Heller to handle what he knew best – the real estate. He found a corner he liked, and brought his vision to life.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Was it risky to build the space and concept before securing a chef to come onboard? Not in Heller’s estimation – nor in mine after all these years. “I am interested in chef-driven concepts but it has to be about the concept,” Heller explains. “I think it is a less risky proposition to build the concept first as opposed to building the concept around a chef … but this does not discount the value of a chef’s creativity, heart, and the soul they breathe into the place.” Ultimately, Heller found his chef – formerly of Umami Burger.
As we discuss the less-than-traditional restaurant route Heller took, our conversation shifts to rarity when he notes “rarely is a restaurant owner the face of the company if they are not a chef,” adding that “Danny Meyer is a major player in the industry … and likely the exception.”
“We want to build relationships and friendships and equity with customers through service, consistency, and great food.”
Meyer is certainly the exception which only accentuates just how badly the deck was stacked against Heller, who battled back to beat the house by fusing entrepreneurial spirit with business acumen out of the gate – building the concept to be scalable from day one. Opening his next three locations in winter 2013, fall 2014, and fall 2016, Heller’s Los Angeles expansion was tactical and timely.
Timely, Heller acknowledges, has its pros and cons. As we’ve written over the last year, the Los Angeles food scene has never been crazier. Heller rejects the claim that it has been crazy, instead calling it nuclear. The pros are obvious so Heller points out the cons: “There’s a lot of seats at the table, a ton of competition in the market, and it’s been harder for us to find good people … we’re labor intensive and I can’t build this company with subpar people.”
Today, Heller’s four Plan Check locations are successful in their own right, his second concept Wild and Free – a rotisserie chicken concept he thanks, in part, to California Chicken Cafe’s 20-plus year regional success – opens in Sherman Oaks this summer, and he brokering a licensing deal to open a Plan Check in Dubai. Beyond borders is just the start, as Heller hints at a Plan Check product line centered around his trademarked Ketchup LeatherTM.
Though Heller is breaking down borders and traversing north into the Valley, he acknowledges the little things that keep him focused and motivated, noting that “the unexpected responses to the brand have been phenomenal, and it is very moving.”
As our time together comes to a close, Heller is his most reflective. As his eyes wander across his busy dining room, he notes, “I used to think I was passionate about making money but I now know that I am truly passionate about creating … and we want to build relationships and friendships and equity with customers through service, consistency, and great food.”