How Lien Ta Created a Legacy of Supporting Women-Owned Businesses with RE:Her
The RE:Her co-founder and Here’s Looking at You co-owner saved her restaurant from COVID closure, and now she’s helping other women-owned businesses around LA and beyond.
In a city that’s sometimes too cool to smile, restaurateur Lien Ta reminds us of the importance of celebration. Co-owner of All Day Baby and Here’s Looking At You, two of LA’s most convivial restaurants and one of which was almost a COVID casualty—Ta understands how much better we are, well, together. After all, it was online fundraising that brought her Koreatown restaurant Here’s Looking At You back to life.
“It was a really difficult decision and a vulnerable position to decide to launch that GoFundMe campaign,” Ta admits. “But what I learned throughout that last year was that Here's Looking At You was enormously impactful, not just to me. So many people came up to us to say how much they missed that restaurant or ask why wouldn't we bring it back? So I was like, well, maybe I should just ask for help.”
Five weeks after launching the campaign, against all odds, the restaurant reopened.
“It's amazing,” Ta says. “It's truly, truly amazing to be reopened again, to meet every single guest, mostly old, but many new too. It's a lot of love and it's very powerful and validating and scary. We're in this still fragile place. It's a lot of money that we owe. It's a lot of money to just run a restaurant normally.”
What was already a difficult industry became even more challenging during the pandemic, which brought months-long closures to restaurants and bars. Family-, women-, and BIPOC-owned restaurants were especially hard hit, with many passed over for pandemic loans. Out of necessity, Ta, alongside other LA-based women restaurateurs like Kim Prince of Hotville Chicken, Sylvie Gabriele of Love & Salt, and more, founded Regarding Her Food (RE:Her), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women-owned food businesses in LA at the end of 2020. The organization launched its first virtual 10-day festival on January 20, 2021, kicking off on the anniversary of the historic Women’s March. Despite soaring COVID numbers and a citywide shutdown, the festival was a success, allowing restaurant owners to collaborate across neighborhoods and cuisines to introduce their offerings to new diners.
“I think everybody needed some way to still celebrate during a really uncertain time,” Ta reflects. “And when you see a woman-owned restaurant partnering with another restaurant to offer something special and unique, how can you not be inspired?”
RE:Her didn’t slow down after the festival ended—within the same year, it was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as an organization of resilience and partnered with DoorDash to award 15 $10,000 grants to women restaurateurs. The grants went to recipients like Chef Marilyn, who’s been a fixture in South LA’s dining scene for 34 years.
“It came at just the right time,” Chef Marilyn says. “We were applying for a few other grants and opportunities, and they all fell through, except for RE:Her. The grant made it possible to keep our doors open last year.”
For Lucy Haro, owner of Qusqo and another RE:Her grant recipient, the award offered hope. “The pandemic had been taking a mental toll,” she says. “It was so empowering to have a group of successful women in the restaurant industry say, ‘We believe in your art, your vision, your restaurant and we want to give you funds to keep you going.’”
It was a no-brainer that the festival would return this year, though the Omicron variant thwarted their original plan to host the festival in January. Instead, they debuted their first in-person, 10-day festival from March 4 through March 13, during Women’s History Month and overlapping with International Women’s Day. This year, there are even more participating restaurants and all are given free range to join in a way that works for their individual businesses, whether that’s collaborating on a special dish with another restaurant, offering a limited prix-fixe menu, or breaking the world record for the longest grazing board. Participants can print a festival passport and earn stickers for each RE:Her special they take advantage of—a completed passport with 10 stickers earns a RE:Her gift bag at the end of the festival.
On Saturday, the fest is celebrating women restaurateurs and chefs with a benefit concert at Vintage Records and Tapes Store, starring musicians Miya Folick and Kathleen and with all proceeds going to RE:Her. One easy way to support the fest is to stop by one of the RE:Her Mini Marts that have popped up in various LA neighborhoods and are stocked with specialty pantry items, merch, and more.
The festival ends with a RE:Her celebration at Smorgasburg this Sunday, March 13, featuring a pop-up RE:Her Mini Mart and the opportunity to redeem your passport for RE:Her swag, as well as a special “She-Shandy” drink courtesy of Three Weavers and Boomtown Brewery in the Beer Garden.
Though RE:Her was originally created to support women restaurateurs and chefs in LA, it’s since expanded across the coast. After the LA fest ends, RE:Her will kick off a two-week festival in Washington, D.C. from March 14 through March 27.
“Looking forward, we’ve got other cities to come, as well as another grant program that will also be an accelerator program,” Ta says. “By getting to know all of these other women that own restaurants in our own vicinity, we've got to learn what their needs are. One restaurant or owner may be really great at finances and she's ready to scale her business all over the world. But then another restaurant may just need help purely with marketing. And one would not know anything about doing third-party delivery apps. So we wanted to provide resources for any and everything.”
But for now, Ta is ready to celebrate.
“We’ve worked so hard to stay open and reopen our restaurants,” Ta says. “This festival is about celebrating that tenacity and resilience and making sure we stick around to keep serving you amazing food and creating memories.”