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When Life Gives Your Restaurant Lemons, Use Them To... Make Hummus?

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This story is part of a series focusing on how restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are coping with the COVID-19.

Joseph Badaro was raised in Temple City but he likes to say he grew up in his mom's kitchen. Standing at her side, he learned how to roll grape leaves and soak, boil and blend garbanzo beans. He knew that one day, he would open a restaurant. He loved cooking and experimenting with food too much to do anything else. In 2013, at the age of 27, Badaro launched a catering business. After six years of feeding people at weddings and office parties, he was finally ready to open his own place. He had spent months planning the menu, designing the space and securing the permits to open Hummus Labs in Pasadena. What he didn't account for was the timing.

"It was November, everything looked awesome. The economy was booming. I saw this location by accident and it was for lease. It was exactly where I wanted to be," Badaro says.

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Chicken and beef kababs on the grill at Hummus Labs in Pasadena.
(Courtesy of Hummus Labs)

He signed a lease for the approximately 900-square-foot storefront blocks from the heart of Pasadena’s Financial District, an area filled with offices and the promise of robust lunch crowds. Badaro was hoping many of the same companies he had served as a caterer would patronize Hummus Labs, which sells Mediterranean cuisine and specializes in homespun hummus flavors such as roasted tomato habanero and brown butter sage garlic.

By December, as renovations for the space were in full swing, Badaro started hearing about coronavirus in China. He wasn't worried. But by early March, his catering business had tanked.

"All the offices that I used to go to were basically banning anyone from coming in. That's when I realized this was not going to end well," Badaro says.

He got on the phone with his landlord, who wouldn't budge on the rent. For a moment, Badaro thought about calling off the whole thing but his family eventually talked him into staying the course. The only way he could make the financials work, Badaro figured, was if he went solo. As long as he could make rent, he could go another month. So he let go of the five people he had lined up to help him, scaled back his menu and vision (the fresh hummus tasting bar would have to wait) and focused on the restaurant's soft opening on April 1 — nearly two weeks after the L.A. County ban on dine-in restaurants went into effect.

"I had this soft opening in mind where people were going to be there and we were going to have champagne for friends and family," Badaro says.

Instead, Badaro spent the day alone, on his feet, filling a stream of take-out orders placed by friends and family members.

The 33-year-old native of Temple City, where he still lives, has deep roots in the San Gabriel Valley. Those people have been among the biggest supporters of his restaurant. A buddy of his drove up from San Diego, ordered a bunch of food, then drove back down. His mom showed up for the big day but not his 83-year-old dad, who has been strict about observing the stay-at-home order.

"He hasn't been to the [restaurant] yet so it's been really hard. Every day he calls me and says, 'How's it going? Did you make enough to pay rent?'" Badaro says.

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Badaro is confident he will make enough to pay May's rent. Before his soft opening, he started a GoFundMe campaign. The donations are sort of like a prepaid gift card. Whatever amount you give, you can use toward meals at the restaurant, provided it's still open.

A friend donated $200 with the request that Badaro use the money to feed frontline hospital workers. Hummus Labs has so far provided food for workers at five local hospitals.

To Badaro, the pandemic is only one of many obstacles blocking his path to success.

He hopes to bring Hummus Labs to different locations throughout Los Angeles and to eventually franchise the company. Forget the stuff that comes in prepackaged plastic containers at the supermarket, Badaro dreams that one day, Hummus Labs will be to chickpea dip what Intelligentsia is to a cup of coffee.

"I'm hoping in 10 years from now, when things are different and I've accomplished the dreams and goals I've had for this," Badaro says, "I'm going to go back and look and say, 'Wow, I opened during a 100-year pandemic,' and it's going to be something I'll never forget."

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