This chef found creativity and a new business in the middle of the pandemicOctober 21, 2021 | By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
Last October, as climbing COVID-19 cases kept Californians home, Wes Avila started to get antsy.
The classically trained chef was used to staying in perpetual motion, transforming his food truck into the popular Los Angeles restaurant Guerilla Tacos. Known for his inventive fare — tuna poke and sea urchin tostadas; sweet potato, Oaxacan cheese, braised leek and corn nuts tacos — he served as executive chef there until last year. Then he left to focus on his latest endeavor, Piopiko Bar and Taco Lounge, at the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, Japan. Avila had been planning to travel there frequently before COVID brought the project to a halt.
“I told my wife that if we find a cool space with a patio and a takeout window, we should jump on it,” says Avila, a Los Angeles native.
The next day a friend called offering him just such a space in LA’s Chinatown. Avila signed the lease, cleaned the space and, along with Tanya Mueller — his wife and business partner — opened sandwich shop Angry Egret Dinette five days later.
But the location came with a unique set of challenges. Like other Asian American communities in the U.S., Chinatown felt the impact of COVID earlier and more acutely than other neighborhoods, according to an analysis of spending by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.
The early decline could have been the result of xenophobia and a misguided fear of Asian establishments at the outset of the pandemic, says the Center’s data scientist Edward Lee. It also didn’t help that businesses in these neighborhoods were less digital when the pandemic began and many people turned to e-commerce. Spending in Los Angeles’ Chinatown fell 41% in 2020 as opposed to a 37% drop for the whole city, according to the Center’s research.
The downturn forced businesses in every Asian American community to think more creatively and respond more fluidly to COVID-related hiccups than competitors in other neighborhoods. Avila became a representative of that creative energy, as he quickly pivoted his business when needed and found clever menu items to keep bringing in new patrons.
“Los Angeles is a true melting pot,” says Avila, who is Latino. “The resilience and strong sense of community can never be stripped, only momentarily misplaced. Our business is helping bring life back into Chinatown.”
Wes Avila and his wife and business partner Tanya Mueller at Dodger Stadium, celebrating their win in the Home Team Advantage Small Business Contest, presented by Mastercard and MLB.
Avila’s own resilience and community spirit in the face of COVID scored him one of three grand-prize finalist places of the Mastercard Home Team Advantage Small Business Contest, which awarded $10,000 to one small business in each city of Atlanta, Boston and LA, a business consultation with a Mastercard small business expert, a Digital Doors toolkit, a trip to attend a 2021 MLB World Series game and unique local marketing support to build and grow their business.
Opening during COVID helped him and his wife quickly master the art of adaptability. In its one-year tenure, Angry Egret seamlessly shifted from takeout only to patio dining plus takeout — and back to just takeout when the city temporarily stopped outdoor dining in November. “That didn’t really hinder us as much as other businesses that had been in place before COVID,” Avila says.
To get started, the couple named the restaurant after the egrets that frequent the Los Angeles River, and did a quick renovation, repainting walls, retiling the ceiling and recruiting an artist friend to paint a mural of tropical trees and flowers. On a patio adorned with grapevines, Avila serves homey but creative breakfast and lunch sandwiches and burritos, with fresh, local ingredients like leeks and squash blossoms.
“I took what I was doing at my other spaces and tried to picture sandwiches in a way that I hadn’t really seen them before, and a way that I enjoy them,” he says.
Soon diners were flocking to Angry Egret to sample sandwiches like Hey Porky’s, which features roasted pork shoulder, scrambled eggs, black beans, queso Oaxaca and salsa verde — or the Whittier Blvd, stuffed with beef brisket, red peppers, avocado, queso fresco, horseradish cream and serrano chiles.
Now, Avila is focused on getting a beer and wine license and is readying the restaurant for indoor dining — only admitting vaccinated customers — for October. He bought tables off Craigslist and wicker chairs and is adding items to the menu that lend themselves to seated dining, like pu pu platters and whole lobsters. The prize money is already helping — as a new business that opened mid-pandemic, he was not eligible for U.S. Paycheck Protection Program or other loans. “It’s kind of a miracle for us right now.”
He also plans to enhance the restaurant’s website to attract more customers, adding higher-quality images and making the site sleeker and more user-friendly. Last year, he dabbled in catering, delivering salads, ceviches, tacos and other dishes from his pickup truck to private homes. This year, he’d like to add a catering van.
Even as he plots his future, Avila is poised to address unforeseen challenges at any given moment — a skill he’s learned to embrace. “I’m doing what I love. And as we evolve, the menu evolves.”