Michelin-trained chef Dean Yasharian is determined to keep his Old Town Pasadena French restaurant, Perle, afloat during the pandemic.    

He’s heads to work at 6 a.m. and leaves at 3 a.m. He takes orders, and acts as prep cook and line cook. Finally, after nearly six months, he’s starting to see the light.

“We’re adding a prep cook and another cook on the line by next week to free myself up a little bit more to work on menu evolution,” Yasharian said.

Yasharian’s restaurant opened in March. The day the States closed down was the same night as his friends and family night.

“We couldn’t have timed it any worse,” he said. “I had 15, 16 people training for about a week. I think the first night of our friends and family day was the day of the COVID shutdown. We had to cancel all that and lay off the staff. The stay-at-home order was pretty strong.”

Since then, business has wavered as the restaurant opened and closed, in accordance with government regulations.

“With the outdoor dining, things are seeming a little more regular,” he said. “That’s giving us some sense of normalcy now. We’ve had 10 tables outside the last couple of weeks.

“Now we have some consistency and we’re finding a little bit of rhythm. Prior to that, it was challenging. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Perle offers a sustainable and organic-focused menu featuring classic French dishes as well as modern, seasonal creations influenced by California’s fresh cuisine. Yasharian employs a mirrored menu concept, with half of the menu consisting of meat and seafood dishes and the other half composed of vegetarian and plant-based dishes. In better times, the menu is updated weekly.

Dishes on the meat and seafood menu may include organic coq au vin with tahdig rice, grass-fed steak tartare and Santa Barbara ridgeback prawns with salt-cured Meyer lemon and saffron. The vegetarian and vegan menu will feature vegan French onion soup with cashew cheese gratin, frisée Lyonnaise salad with tofu “egg” and tempeh “bacon lardons,” and braised Le Puy green lentils with plant-based sausage and Dijon.

Initially, Yasharian wasn’t going to offer takeout, as he saw Perle as more of a “dine-in place.”

“We shine the most with the ambiance of the service. That’s what we do,” he said. “I knew we needed to discuss takeout when we learned we could reopen dine-in with restrictions. We put together a plan to do takeout and right around the launch date, we went ahead and stuck with our plan to do takeout for a week.

“The following week, we opened for dine-in. We had the 6-foot distancing on the tables. We had plexiglass barrier walls. The restaurant was full. It was a great feeling. After a week, they shut it down again. Just in the first week, we ran pretty tight on staff. We didn’t get hardly any government funding, which doesn’t make sense.”

Yasharian said the lender said Perle wasn’t eligible because the restaurant was so new.

“We were left out to dry and set up to fail through the COVID-19 thing,” he said. “We had some working capital left to scrape us by.”

For the second shutdown, restaurants can use sidewalks and alleyways—anything adjacent to the building. Perle had space for two tables on the sidewalk. Chignon Salon let Yasharian put tables in front of its place, as they share a landlord.

“What’s great is the little community of restaurants here supports each other,” Yasharian said. “They really welcomed us nicely. I’m talking Union, Bone Kettle, The Blind Donkey. We banded together and we told the city as a group.. The main focus is always on Colorado and Green Street.

“They didn’t talk about Union Street or Raymond. We put ourselves out there. We requested they shut down one lane on our block. I have to say it happened quickly. We’re happy with the support of the Old Town Pasadena and the historical association. They put the barriers up and it’s been a game changer.”

Yasharian’s restaurant is packed every night—with social distancing in place, of course. It’s been challenging to find a rhythm, he admitted, because due to the lack of a PPP loan, he could only rehire the staff he absolutely needed. Little by little he’s getting there, but the staff is stretching itself to the “absolute max.”

“We’re looking at grants and local grants,” he said. “We’re at a point now where we need more tables to be profitable. With the ones we have and outdoor seating, we’re scraping by.

“I wouldn’t say we’re breaking even, but at this point, we’re not losing money. We’re not paying the full amount of rent. We don’t have the amount of stuff that we want. This outdoor seating is the only thing keeping us going. Even with the delivery, we’ve had to tone down the quality and almost go in a more casual direction to sell more volume.”

He’s trying

Yasharian has been a chef for 20 years and an executive chef for 10. He’s experienced crisis situations but he just isn’t giving up.

“We don’t have the choice to sit back and ride this thing out anymore,” he said.

“It’s stretched so long. We have to keep moving forward. We’re at a point where we’re building a core team to find our rhythm. What would be great is if we could keep the outdoor space for the long term and allow us to reopen dine-in. That would be amazing for us. We’re fighting to survive. We’re pushing every week to improve as much as we’re allowed.”