Advertisement

How 50-pound bags of rice saved one L.A. restaurant from the winter downpour

A man sweeps away water with a broom in front of a fountain with a statue in the center.
Keeping water at bay has been an issue for hotels and restaurants as storms hit Southern California. Mathew Prado sweeps water from the front drive of the Sheraton Hotel at Universal Studio.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Using rice as sandbags, Woon battles Westlake flooding, while HomeState, Met Him at a Bar and others work to keep diners and employees safe.

Share

The water started leaking in through the walls of the bathroom, forming a pool that crept down the hall and into the dining room during service. Woon was without sandbags as this week’s punishing storms hit Los Angeles, but Keegan Fong realized that there’s a benefit to owning a Chinese restaurant in a flash flood: He could stop the water with six 50-pound bags of rice.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way we can stop this, we’re gonna have to close because the water is gonna flood in the dining room even more,’” he said. “And then once I saw the rice bags, I was like, ‘Wait a second, it makes complete sense.’ It literally saved the day. Rice is pretty expensive — it’s more expensive than usual — but it’s still not outrageous, so I was like, ‘All right, I’ll just take the hit on this rice. It’s fine.’”

Fong, like many restaurateurs in the L.A. region on Monday night, found himself faced with an impossible task: Keep diners and employees safe in a heavy downpour that flooded not only businesses but entire freeways and neighborhoods, all during the dinner rush. Some closed for service, taking financial losses. Others, like Fong, decided to push through, flooding be damned. Many are already preparing for the next onslaught of rain, set to hit Los Angeles this weekend.

Advertisement

Fong was chatting with customers when he noticed the rain progress from a steady drop to pelting at around 6:30 p.m. outside his Westlake restaurant. The customers asked if he’d had any flooding issues and he answered a little too quickly. “I’m like, ‘Oh, no, we’ve been through it all in year one,’” he said. “‘The roof caved in, someone threw a bench through the window, we had a crazy flood, but I think I fixed everything.’ And then as I’m saying that, my employee runs out and he’s like, ‘There’s water flowing in from the bathroom!’”

VIDEO | 00:17
fo-flooding-2

Flooding inside Woon. Video provided by Keegan Fong.

He and his team grabbed squeegees and mops, trying to direct the flow toward drains. One of his line cooks, a skateboarder, ran out to his car to grab a skate deck and began attempting to push water with it. Woon is built on an incline, with water from the top of the hill finding its way to the restaurant’s back walls; Fong realized if water was pouring in at such a rate indoors, there had to be water accumulating out back. Outside, against his exterior wall, there was a knee-deep pool of water only getting higher. Inside, they assembled the 50-pound bags of rice into a kind of dam, but the water kept coming.

His general manager ran to buy a Shop-Vac and sandbags; on his way, he saw an abandoned car flooded on Alvarado but pushed through to make it back to the restaurant — despite it being his day off.

Incredibly, the flooding didn’t stall business.

“It’s so funny because when customers walk in, they don’t care what you’re doing,” Fong said. “They just want to eat. They’re seeing me literally covered in dirt and carrying a soaking wet mop and they just come up to me like, ‘Excuse me. Hey, can we sit over here?’ I’m like, ‘There’s three inches of water, you can’t sit there.’ So they go, ‘We don’t mind,’ and then they just sit down.”

A zero-waste chocolate program at a Michelin-star restaurant in Los Angeles means cacao husk in your tea.

While Monday was slower than an average night at Woon, Fong says the dining room remained full all evening until the business closed at its regular hour. The team closed up for the night, had a drink together to toast the occasion, and then the restaurateur remained two hours longer, trying to minimize flood damage. The next morning his cooks arrived, asking about the bags of rice on the floor. (He told them not to cook them.) This weekend, in preparation for more rain, they’ll place sandbags (not bags of rice) along the outer wall and keep the Shop-Vac handy.

Others weren’t so lucky.

On Monday local Tex-Mex chain HomeState lost power at its Highland Park location around 7 p.m. and had to close for the night; about 30 minutes later, founder Briana “Breezy” Valdez received a video from an employee of the Sherman Oaks location: The flooding had created a rushing current along the restaurant’s sidewalk, completely submerging the bases of trees, traffic cones and parking meters.

Torrents of rushing water in front of HomeState. Video provided by HomeState.

“After seeing that video and losing power, and hearing the rain at my house pounding, and knowing it was gonna rain all night, I just thought [about] our team members getting home at 10 or 11,” Valdez said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just going to get worse. Let’s just get everybody out, get them home.’”

They closed the locations in Hollywood and Pasadena at that point; employees who normally take the bus were offered Uber or Lyft rides home, and employees were paid for what would have been the duration of their shift.

Unsure of what damage would be found at each location on Tuesday morning, ownership opted to open all HomeState restaurants in the afternoon, if possible. (Tuesday morning, the Playa Vista location also lost power but regained it and reopened.)

At Sherman Oaks, they found water had saturated the patio and the interior walls. At the East Hollywood outpost — which is housed in an older building with more cracks — they noted even more water damage; Pasadena took on a little water as well, though all are in working condition and are still being appraised for damages.

As to the expected weekend storm, Valdez says she and the team are monitoring weather forecasts closely.

‘Chef’s Table’ star Franco Pepe, whose pizzeria was named the best in the world three years in a row, discusses his fight for the evolution of pizza.

“We’re trying to play everything by ear and make calls in the best interest of the teams,” Valdez said. “I try not to worry too much about what might happen, just knowing that our team is so communicative and honest and willing to do what they need to do in the best interest of the teams and our guests, and our DoorDash drivers — there’s always a balance of safety and livelihood and paying bills in the city.”

Dine-in customers also had an alarmingly wet night.

Unthreatened by the rain, Dez Hester and his girlfriend were celebrating his 31st birthday Monday night when he had to evacuate his favorite restaurant, Mid-Wilshire’s Met Him at a Bar. Just as they were about to have dessert and a second round of drinks, they “noticed that it started getting a little crazy outside and we were like, ’Ooh, this is kind of nuts.’”

Before they could make their exit, water started pooling on the La Brea sidewalk and seeping into the kitchen, prompting a swift evacuation from the entire restaurant. With trash bags tied up to his knees and to-go containers in hand, Hester played a take on “the floor is lava,” using outdoor dining furniture to get from the storefront to the car to avoid his shoes getting ruined by the over-ankle-depth flood water.

“They gave us like a bunch of trash bags to put over our shoes to at least help with not getting so soaked,” he said in praise of the emergency service. “That’s our go-to spot. It’s our neighborhood spot. All the waitresses and waiters and the owner are really friendly with us all the time.”

Owner Vincent Kinne said one to 1½ inches of rain accumulated in the restaurant, causing issues with piping, leaks from the roof and minor water damage to the woodware. He was most worried that he couldn’t give guests the dining experience they expected but said they were great sports about it.

Hester, other patrons and the restaurant itself made light of the situation, posting videos to TikTok of their dramatic escape. “A lot of positive came out of it,” Kinne said. “It really kind of portrays the amazing clientele that we have there and the staff, who acted very professional in a timely manner just to make sure everyone got home safe and got the refunds and make sure everyone’s happy and will come back.” Kinne offered discounts and a free round of drinks on their return.


Advertisement