Friday, June 5, 2015

Attack of the Killer Potatoes: Restaurateur Eric Ong's Humble Journey


Attack of the Killer Potatoes

Restaurateur Eric Ong sees community involvement and philanthropy as an extension of his Humble mission

by Michael Aushenker

May 8, 2015. The Humble Potato owner Eric Ong greets guests to his new Culver City restaurant one week after its grand opening. Photos: Michael Aushenker
 
A funny thing happened to Eric Ong en route to creating the patio garden at his new Humble Potato restaurant.
A few months ago, Ong was driving around Westchester, looking for inspiration, when he reached the end of a road. At the cul de sac, he gazed upon the perfect lawn of succulents he was after.
The owner of the house came out, almost antagonistically interrogating what Ong was doing parked outside her home. After Ong explained, she invited him inside and they talked.
Cut to a few months later, and Ong, with the consultation of the homeowner, attorney Jesse Croxton, was able to create the garden he was after.
“This was all concrete,” Ong said, proudly overlooking the drought-tolerant garden. “I’ve never done landscaping in my life.”
Drawing upon the talents of members of the community around him is typical for Ong, not to mention in the spirit of his endeavor down to the restaurant’s name.
With the original Humble Potato on Lincoln Boulevard in Westchester since Halloween 2012 and now a brand new location on Culver City’s popping Washington West district, the resourceful Ong has not only imported some much needed quirkiness to the Westside on a visual and epicurean level, he has drawn on the respective communities to execute his vision and further the Humble Potato philosophy of modesty and gratitude (as spelled out on the wall of Humble Potato’s original restaurant: ‘Simple food. Happy people. Humble lasts, hunger shouldn’t. Where there’s good will, there’s good eats. Eat well. Feel good. Live humbly”).
All the while, his capacity for these traits was put to the test in the past year as a series of obstacles led to the opening of his Culver City outlet seven months later than scheduled.
The shotgun-style interior of Humble Potato Culver City leads straight back to a rear patio with drought-tolerant garden.
 
A Humble Beginning
 
If Ong, 35, is not your typical local restaurateur, well, his Humble Potato outlets are not your typical eateries.
The colorful, cartoony J-Pop vibe at the original Westchester eatery brings a dash of Sawtelle’s Giant Robot store (or even San Diego Comic-Con) while its purposely finite menu strong-headedly attempts to deliver with perfection comfort food (hamburgers, hot dogs, steak and chicken sandwiches) with a twist that is equal parts Indonesian and Japanese.
The steak sandwich and new chicken wings appetizer at Humble Potato Culver City.
A veritable celebration of localism, Humble Potato enlisted Otis College students to paint the 1970s-style anime-laden decor, where imagery and figurines from “Gatchaman” and “Speed Racer” stare down from the shelves alongside Marvel superheroes, Superman, Super-Mario, Garfield and Darth Vader.
“I’m a hybrid,” Ong told The Argonaut in 2013. “I love design. Simple words, light colors, making it fun.”
Born and raised in Jakarta by a Taiwanese mother and Indonesian father, Ong spent four years living in Japan, where he was exposed to its cartoon pop culture.
“My dad launched a Japanese fast food concept in Jakarta,” he said.
His father grew Hoka Hoka Bento into one of Indonesia’s biggest franchises.
Ong originally arrived to L.A. to attend Santa Monica College, later receiving his degree in business administration in technology at Cal State-Northridge.For 12 years, Ong managed the data center infrastructure at Beach Body as the Santa Monica fitness enterprise grew into a billion-dollar company.
However, the corporate life proved too confining. In 2012, Ong converted a failed Quiznos on Lincoln Boulevard into the first Humble Potato. And so began Ong’s daily odyssey of people asking if his place specializes in potato products (no, although several varieties of French fries, including Shichimi and garlic-parmesan, are offered).
Humble features Angus burgers bearing wacky names (the Hambàga, the 9 to 5) and fusion-y items such as Yuzu jalapeño slaw. Ong insists on Indonesian-style tempehover soy or garden patties for vegetarian customers. The only shake offered is a practically unsweetened confection—an ice-blended avocado confection perked up with a drizzle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup — that nonetheless makes for a compelling signature drink.
“There’s no strawberry or chocolate shake,” Ong said. “That’s not who we are.”
The year 2012 holds meaning for Ong for other reasons, too. Ong and wife Keiya becames parents to daughter Kendra, now 3. It also brought his mother’s battle with breast cancer (she has since recovered).
 
Charity as a Boulevard to Success
 
Ong feels as humble as his restaurant’s cartoony potato mascot Ma-San for “being able to connect with people and being part of a community (through his restaurant). I get so much warmth and people from different cultures. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Although the longtime Palms resident currently lives near Beverlywood, Ong has exercised an emphatic outreach to the communities where his Humble Potatoes stand.
He has already become a prominent mover and shaker in Culver City, where he is working with Elaine Warner of Culver City Business Development to further consolidate what is being dubbed as the Washington West Business District.
 “Elaine and I are working closely together in hopes to create awareness and creating marketing campaign around the neighborhood for the new business district,” said Ong, with a goal to turn the Washington Boulevard strip into a formidable restaurant row. (Roy Choi’s A-Frame already stands across the street from Ong’s new joint.)
"I have been a huge fan since Humble Potato Westchester,” said Michael Flannagan, co-owner of neighboring Culver City restaurant Fin, who enjoys the new store’s “great vibe with hip decor. I love the Hambaga and Humble Dog. Best comfort food ever!"
In the past three years, Humble has joined forces with Pastor Doug Lee and his Catalyst Church in Westchester on American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, held at Venice High School, where Ong donated Hambagas— as well as during Thanksgiving time to feed the homeless.
Philanthropically, Humble also supports Westchester Science Magnet School via many fundraisers.
“He exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Ronald S. Mito, professor of Clinical Dentistry and associate dean of Academic Programs and Personnel at UCLA School of Dentistry. “Eric’s goal was to create a restaurant with a unique menu and become a staple of the community. Even though the restaurant was only open for a few weeks, he enthusiastically jumped at my request for him to support some of our community activities including the Westchester Science Magnets and the Race 4 Success,”
“He has a good balance of knowing what he wants versus letting artists do their thing,” said Emmet Ashford, whose Street Craft L.A. team—a pool of troubled but talented kids mentored in the fine arts—worked closely with Ong to execute Humble Culver City’s interior design. “Eric has a very clear vision but he is also open to innovation and variation.”
With Joey Furutani, Ong recently organized a fundraiser at his Culver City location to benefit Bresee Youth Center, an after-school programs for underprivileged youth nonprofit.
Longtime Westchester resident Mito knows an Eric Ong who is selfless and giving, no matter the circumstances.
“I remember the financial and operational stresses he was incurring during those early days, but that did not deter him from donating back to the community,” Mito said. “Now that several years have passed, Humble Potato Westchester is an integral part of our community and Eric continues to support community fundraising.”
 
Bumps Along the Road to Culver City
 
Last month, Ong —seated in his newly opened Culver City on a gray, wet day a few weeks shy of obtaining his beer and wine permit — recalled, with even emotion, its botched completion.
The original plan was to open the second Humble Potato (shorthanded “HP2” by Ong) in Culver City by Halloween 2014, rhyming with the Westchester original’s Halloween 2012 grand opening.
Destiny had other plans.

For a stretch, things seemed to go according to plan with this larger, more expensive Humble, Ong says, as the contractor he had hired embarked on building this new one from scratch.
By January, “he ran out on us. They just walked away from the job,” leaving the edifice in “a rough stage. There were a lot of mistakes with the plumbing and framing.”  
At the time, the young restaurateur turned to his wife for emotional support: “Usually, you have partners you can lean on, but I’m a one-man show. It’s a new experience opening it up by yourself.”
By January, Ong brought in Karl Kelm, who had done some woodwork for the original store, to help complete HP2. Kelm found Martin Alvarez to handle plumbing.
“They saved the day,” Ong said.
On May 1st, Humble Potato Culver City finally opened its doors offering a similarity in spirit with the Westchester original, albeit with an array of different details.
Every menu item offered at the Westchester store can be found at HP2, plus new additions such as spicy chicken wings and the Blondie Bar, a bed of granola topped with a scoop of black sesame ice cream.
The goal with HP2’s menu is “to see how we can elevate it,” Ong said. “We’ve grown up a little bit. There’s always room for improvement.”And, of course, there is the ambiance. Arriving at HP2, one finds a shotgun-style restaurant receding all the way back to a patio replete with warming lamps and picnic benches. Adorning the interior of each bathroom are cartoony, freewheeling black-and-white murals (the woman’s restroom sports a female Godzilla with lipstick).Whereas the original boasts figurines and Ma-San on the wall, HP2 depicts a Cartoon Network-worthy samurai mural over the front entrance while walls are plastered with posters of Japan-flavored kitsch, including the Japan-set James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” and a Japanese “Batman ‘66” ad, plus images of Japan’s veritable ambassadors to America: Godzilla and Ultraman.

And then there is the curious dated-looking, staid black-and-white photo in the eye of this J-Pop tsunami.
“That’s Keio University,” Ong said. “It’s the school where my parents met.”
            
                     *******************
The Humble Potato Team. 
Ladies: Sydney, Liony. Gents: Luis, Minh, Johnny, Jaycee with owner Eric Ong (far right). Photo Credit: Andrew Humphries Photography.