The restaurant business has always been difficult, and no one knows that better than mother and daughter Tami Bennett and Eve Fouché, who own and run Mo Better Burgers at 9th and La Brea. This is the third incarnation of the restaurant, which Bennett (ironically a lifelong vegetarian) originally started back in 1991 on Pico Blvd., and then re-opened with her daughter (also a vegetarian and a raw foods expert) at the current location five years ago.
Back then, the Umami Burger juggernaut was in full force at the same intersection, but Mo Better outlasted that chain’s original outpost and, with the help of its own original and loyal clientele, who migrated easily to the new location, it has never been at a loss for customers.
What has been more difficult, however, Bennett and Fouché told the Buzz yesterday, is maintaining a strong staff, and growing the business to compete successfully with new and better funded restaurants now opening up and down La Brea. More specifically, it’s been especially hard to find the extra cash they’d need to expand and improve Mo Better’s hours and physical space, which would be critical to their long-term survival and ability to compete in the rapidly up-scaling local market.
Two years ago, with exactly that goal in mind, the duo leased half of an additional storefront in the mini mall where Mo Better is located, making room for a new customer waiting area, additional dining tables and a relocated bathroom, all of which would be necessary to serve additional customers.
But after Bennett and Fouché signed the five-year lease, they ran into some permitting issues — a change in grade between the old and new spaces would require some additional construction they hadn’t planned on. They also realized that their sparse kitchen setup (one griddle, one small fryer, and two very small fridges) needs upgrading to handle more business.
And that meant a lot of extra funding they didn’t have. Finally, the restaurant also ran into some staffing issues (it’s hard to find great employees when they can’t compete with the salaries and benefits offered at larger restaurants)…and the smaller staff (with Bennett and Fouché doing most of the work themselves), means they can stay open only until 5 p.m., so they miss out on the area’s increasingly lucrative dinner trade.
When the need for cash became apparent, Bennett and Fouché began investigating every possible source for the funding, including city-sponsored programs for loans to small businesses, minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses. But even though they say Mayor Garcetti himself visited and assured them help was available, they were surprised to learn, in every case, that they didn’t meet the loan programs’ qualifications for one reason or another.
Trying another avenue, Bennett and Fouché also looked for new business partners, including well-heeled restaurant chains and corporations. But while those relationships would have brought the cash Mo Better needs (along with other helpful resources), they also came with a lot of unwanted baggage that “we weren’t comfortable with,” said Bennett. In every case, she said, the potential investors would have insisted on switching from her and Fouché’s carefully selected, locally sourced fresh ingredients – personally chosen by them for quality, healthiness and affordability – to frozen, mass-produced burger patties and other items they found incompatible with the ultra-fresh, hand-crafted products on which they’ve built their reputation.
But now, after a two-year funding search, while mainting rent on both the restaurant and the adjacent (and still unused) space, the two have decided that they can’t keep going without some progress. So they’re making one last-ditch effort at raising the money they need to expand and remain competitive – a “mobettergogo” campaign through the crowd-sourcing website Indigogo. They’re hoping that the community and those who have been their most steadfast supporters for so many years will also turn out to be their saviors in this critical time of need.
Bennett and Fouché’s goal is to raise $300,000 by February 15. And if they don’t meet that goal, Bennett said quite bluntly, Mo Better may be no more. “We would have to retire the restaurant business,” she said. “We’ve done everything that we could, but nothing has worked that made sense for us.”
But both Bennett and her daughter would hate to see that happen. They love their restaurant, and – more than anything – they love their loyal customers, who come from all walks of life, from both the neighborhood and farther afield…and who include both regular folks and those more famous. In fact, many of the more well-known patrons – including Magic Johnson, Reginald Hudlin, Michael Beckwith, Tone Loc, and Kerry Washington (who appears in the Indigogo fundraising video) – drop in regularly, if not weekly, for the beef and turkey burgers “crafted with love.”
The only problem, Bennett says, is the funding. “Everything else is wonderful”…including the work, the neighborhood (she was born and raised in the area), and the people she cooks for. “It’s like a family,” she says. And she hopes she can keep the family intact. “We’re like the last ones representing the neighborhood…from the neighborhood.”