The Black-owned cocktail bar continues supporting local cocktail culture and community.
Among one of the frontrunners in Los Angeles’ cocktail culture scene is restaurateur Cyrus Batchan who first opened Koreatown’s cocktail den Lock & Key in 2013. Locals will attest to the fact that the area is one of the most diverse spots in the larger metro region, and while there are many bars to choose from, Lock & Key quickly became a destination with a regular clientele.
But the Black-owned business faced many obstacles during the pandemic, propelling Batchan to overcome unexpected challenges with sheer persistence and new programming to not just survive but also thrive, even as the hospitality industry continues to learn how to adapt and embrace COVID-era fluctuations.
Celebrating Cocktail Culture
“The original vision for Lock & Key, when cocktail culture was really taking off in L.A., was to bring a neighborhood cocktail bar to Koreatown, which is one of the most densely populated parts of L.A. and has a very mixed group of individuals—aspiring actors, aspiring musicians, locals. There was an opportunity in the market for bringing that kind of cocktail culture that felt more like a neighborhood bar,” says Batchan. “Koreatown actually has the most liquor licenses per capita in California, it is dense with bars, but there weren't bars that were doing something different.”
A big advocate of creating a great guest experience, Batchan narrowed in on an unsuspecting corner of Koreatown and created a speakeasy behind a hidden door that any first-time visitor would be wowed by and certainly want to bring along more friends to wow them.
“The thought was how do you take somebody from the corner of Third and Vermont, a busy intersection across from a grocery store next to a gas station and transport them somewhere else. Just walking straight into a front door and experiencing that didn't have the same kind of effect for the consumer. It really was Alice in Wonderland. How do we get them down the rabbit hole?”
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As for the name Lock & Key, Batchan says, “We wanted it to essentially blend into the neighborhood. We spent time driving around Koreatown and writing down names that were on signs: dry cleaners, locksmith, shoe repair, restaurants. We were immediately drawn toward lock and key or locksmith—great name for a bar, so what is that experience like. And that's the evolution. It started with how we create an experience to what blends into the neighborhood and then how is that distilled into an actual concept,” says the California native.
The restaurant’s drink menu rotates through the year and includes some fan favorites as well as some new cocktails. The food options have gone through a couple of iterations, starting with a more Asian-themed food hall vibe featuring everything from a Taiwanese fried chicken sandwich to short rib, paying homage to Koreatown.
Now it is a deep-dish pizza concept launched later in 2019. The new menu is helmed by chef Tony Hernandez and also includes New York style and Sicilian pizzas, and for the sweet-toothed—a decadent deep-fried PB&J, which is the only dessert on the menu and an absolute house favorite.
Powering Through Adversity
Of course, the pandemic brought its challenges, but there were a few other incidents that threw obstacles in Lock & Key’s way. It started with a fire in the adjoining property in March 2020, followed by a series of other fires in and around the area, and then a burglary this past January directly targeting the venue.
Despite it all, moving away from the location wasn’t an idea Batchan was entertaining. “There were moments of despair, but I never thought about giving up. As an entrepreneur in the food and beverage industry, we deal with a lot, and it is a stressful endeavor to always engage in. As restaurateurs and F&B operators, we keep going back to it because it's just what we know. What we're happy to do,” he says.
As a result of his experiences, Batchan has toyed with the idea of starting a group for restaurateurs to address such issues. “We go through all these stresses because we're really in the business of creating experiences and livelihoods and jobs. My staff and family, we don't ever really give up on that.
“When you see the customers in the seats, and you hang out with your staff and you see that you're providing for a lot of people, not least of your family as well, and creating all these opportunities for people to meet and gather and mingle, those are the rewards.”
Charging ahead, Batchan recently introduced a natural wines event as part of the restaurant’s new programming and has a few other plans in store as the venue reopened this year, serving as “The neighborhood bar that provides something for everybody.” Batchan’s experience in the hospitality industry has played well into that success.
Catering to Community
As an owner of another restaurant in Los Angeles and two other hospitality-related businesses in Vietnam, Batchan’s familiarity with the industry began at a young age. His parents owned several restaurant businesses through his childhood, where he worked different positions and learned the ropes.
Batchan’s father, an engineer of African American descent, and mother, a first-generation Iranian American, ensured food brought the family together. His father bought him his first cookbook when he was six, assigning him and his sister with preparing Wednesday night dinners.
Batchan had plans to become a diplomat—he studied law. His interests swerved more toward the food and beverage scene. Among his favorite culinary destinations to travel to are Barcelona and Tulum. In L.A., he counts Bludso’s and Bavel among his favorite restaurants, each reminding him of the culinary comforts of his parents' heritage.
Accomplishments aside, Batchan is involved in the community and working with local nonprofits and public schools. Some of those organizations include Ktown For All, which supports those experiencing homelessness in the community and KFAM LA, which empowers underserved Korean American and Asian Pacific Islander families. He has also provided food donations to the local fire department that supported Lock & Key throughout the restaurant's added hardships during the pandemic.
“One of the biggest impacts for me with the George Floyd moment that we all went through, being a Black man in America growing up, was realizing that I happen to be a successful Black American in this F&B space. And who do we have to talk to? What mentors do we have to look up to?” shares Batchan, after a recent opportunity mentoring a younger member of the Black community.
“I've always been a person that’s about the brand and the business and it should never be about me. But if a young brother wants to start a bar, why shouldn’t he look to a bar that's successful, be able to tap in with the owner, have a conversation, get some guidance and avoid some pitfalls.”
Batchan adds, “Especially when speaking to our African American community, the idea and concept of what it means to be a successful restaurateur and how you access capital and what your network is to be able to overcome the challenges that you have, a lot of light needs to be shown on the fact that there are individuals who are successful.
“But as a community as a whole, we need to get a lot more comfortable in sharing and continuing to help each other grow because we have been through a lot of challenges. That brain trust of however many generations and however many years is very important to helping everybody overcome those challenges.”