Restaurant restrictions come and go but good pizza—and the demand for it—is forever.
It’s a founding concept of Little Coyote, and a chief reason Long Beach’s new quick-and-casual pizza joint can pivot with the whims of an unrelenting pandemic, an evolving restaurant industry, a volatile economy and the complicated, seemingly weekly updates to L.A. County’s dining rules. But that was always the plan.
Conceived back in the spring toward the start of coronavirus and built with versatility in mind, Little Coyote launched last month as a kind of restaurant roadmap: Weather the storm with an affordable menu; optional indoor seating; a patio with socially-distanced tables; few touch points; delivery; disposable plates; and, of course, some killer pizza.
Offering New York-style slices at lunch and all-day whole pies, salads, sandwiches, and beer as cheap as $3, it’s a classic-minded pizzeria that blends simplicity (cheese, pepperoni, veggie) with enough shine (gourmet toppings, good wine, off-menu focaccia-style “grandma pies”) to draw a crowd—and enough of a crowd to sell out nearly every day since its launch two weeks ago.
The decent pedigree of its founders doesn’t hurt, either: Hatchet Hall co-owner Jonathan Strader and former L&E Oyster Bar executive chef Jack Leahy always joked about opening a restaurant together, and as coronavirus began shuttering restaurants and changing the industry’s landscape, possibly forever, the duo decided to launch a sustainable model, and quickly.
“We were just like, ‘What can you do that can sustain itself under a stress test?’” Leahy says. “The whole industry went under this extreme stress test to go, ‘Wait a minute, this whole thing is backwards and we need to fix it.’ You can even see now that some estimates are like 65, 75 percent of all restaurants are going to close. That’s a huge number and, to us, indicated there’s a systemic problem within the industry, too.”
Strader credits the simpler business model with helping Little Coyote succeed so far while a number of fine-dining and full-service restaurants struggle. Those businesses’ reliance on indoor seating—currently outlawed in nearly half of California’s counties—has only compounded the challenges of employing full staffs of servers, bartenders, pastry chefs and bussers through all-out closures, pivots to takeout and delivery models, mass layoffs and an uncertain future.
“We were like, ‘We can easily transform the space into a pizza shop and run it with pretty much just the two of us and a couple employees—really bootstrap it and not have to worry,” Strader says, “and keep the overhead low, to not bring in a lot of people who could be transmitters of the virus, too, because at the time we were all so spooked. Those weeks following the end of March, we were all so lost; we didn’t know what to expect. Full lockdown? We’d never seen anything like this before.”
In the three months between signing their lease along Retro Row and launching Little Coyote, the pair had time to plan the shoestring operation, and Leahy to perfect his dough. Experimenting with hot and cold fermentation, the former Hatchet Hall chef de cuisine noted the way temperature affects the way yeast devours sugar—how new flavors can develop, how bubble-packed baked crust can become—and eventually landed on a cold fermentation that yields just enough chew to the dough with a thin, crunchy sheen along its edges.
It’s now the base for simple, nostalgic pies that involve a stripped-down sauce of hand-crushed tomatoes, olive oil, salt and nothing more, with custom and set options for toppings.
When the time came to turn the space, the logistics were already set and the transformation from pho shop to breezy, laid-back pizza parlor took fewer than two weeks. Thirteen days later—after they personally tackled the landscaping, reformatted the patio and deep-cleaned the kitchen until early morning—Little Coyote opened to a (socially distanced) line out the door.
Strader and Leahy are already toying with new locations, not to mention a second quick-and-casual concept set for Long Beach, as well as a Little Coyote catering menu and possibly even a food truck.
It’s a comfort to see a new restaurant launch with such success in an upended industry and on a five-figure budget. But not every restaurant can launch as a fast-casual operation and millions in the service industry are still unemployed. Strader and Leahy don’t have all the answers, but it’s a start.
“It’s hard being a restaurant operator and owner,” Strader says. “Where’s the line of being able to show people a good time and have a safe vibe when there are other people who yell at you when you tell them to wear a mask? We’re just rolling with all the punches at this point just trying to create concepts to survive this thing.”
Little Coyote is now open Wednesday to Sunday at 2118 E 4th St in Long Beach, from noon to 8pm.
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