Jean-Luc Kayigire will readily admit that opening a new restaurant during a pandemic was not a wise business decision.
“For me, as a businessman, deciding to open – it was a bad idea,” Kayigire said. “Of course, it’s a bad idea to open any type of business during a pandemic, especially a restaurant.”
But the Los Altos Hills resident, who already owns the Amandine Project – a bar on First Street – is doubling up on real estate on that stretch of downtown Los Altos. Last month, Kayigire opened up House On First, which is taking the place of the family-friendly restaurant Bumble.
As the Amandine Project had to temporarily close due to the county’s COVID-19 restrictions, Kayigire looked around for options. He was still paying his employees, but he wanted them to stay sharp, engaged and bring in some kind of cash flow. The veteran restaurant owner didn’t want to deal with the city, which was closing down streets to vehicular traffic and offering its Open Streets program as a means to attract more patrons to dine outdoors. But Kayigire thought the process was moving too slowly. Too much equipment, too many hassles setting up, too much uncertainty. He wanted a private space.
Kayigire approached Bumble’s landlord, asking if he could rent the place. The landlord instead offered for him to do a temporary pop-up restaurant for the Amandine Project.
“The reception was really, really, really good,” Kayigire said. “We realized we had something.”
Pretty soon Kayigire realized that Bumble was not coming back. He signed a long-term lease on the space, and three months ago began the process of launching House On First – an Amandine spin-off, if you will.
Kayigire bills House On First as a place with a “house vibe.” He came up with the name because it is the only house-shaped building on that block. From morning until early afternoon, the place is a bakery, offering pastries and coffee. At night, it becomes a restaurant of the “California-French” variety. Menu items include burgers, fish, pasta and duck as main courses, and oysters, sashimi, salmon poke and sweet-and-sour pork belly as small plates.
“We have so many great restaurants in Los Altos, I just wanted to bring a little bit of a different side,” Kayigire said. “I wanted to bring a little more French food around here. Everything here is Italian or American or California style. Nothing French.”
But the question still begs itself: Why do this now?
As Kayigire tells it, his employees always come first. His staff of 10 relies on his business’ success for a steady paycheck. They worked really hard to help the Amandine Project succeed, and he wanted to help them.
“The only solution I could find was not just to give them money, but to give them the opportunity to create their own restaurant, basically,” Kayigire said. “That’s what I told them: ‘It’s all you. Make it happen. I’ll take the financial risk to do it. But you guys have to work hard to make sure it’s fixed.’”
Kayigire has thought through his financial strategy. Let’s assume, he explained, that the pandemic lasts for two years. If House On First survives for two years in the middle of a pandemic, that means whatever they are doing is working.
Kayigire has the bandwidth to “inject money” for the next two years into the restaurant, and hopes to turn a profit in years three and four.
“That’s the idea, but it’s really a bad idea,” he said, candidly.
But Kayigire also acknowledges the positives, such as the chain of events that led to him being able to take over Bumble’s space, which provides a nice setup during pandemic times. The patio area (“We have the biggest patio in town,” he said. “Nobody is even close.”) is massive, enough for 21 tables to be spaced out, 10-feet apart.
Kayigire was afraid of some pushback when he first opened House On First, because Bumble was a popular destination for Los Altos diners, especially those with kids. But the reception has been positive, which he believes is due to the fact that he is a local and has a track record with the Amandine Project.
“Los Altos people definitely took the restaurant and embraced it,” Kayigire said. “It’s still a massive risk, but slightly less than before – because of the community.”
House On First is located at 145 First St., Los Altos. Hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, opening from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for coffee, pastries and lunch and 5 p.m. for dinner. For more information, visit facebook.com/houseonfirst.