Editor’s note: this story was originally published in The Industry Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Subscribe today.
After three years of living in Austin, Greg and Daisy Ryan left Texas in November of 2017 to open Bell’s in the Central California town of Los Alamos, whose population hovers around 1,600. Micah Fendley, who was working with the Ryans at the time, told them to give him a call when they were ready to open. When the call eventually came before their opening in March of 2018, he booked an apartment showing in the neighboring town of Lompoc that same day, leaving Texas behind.
Fendley has been working at Bell’s ever since, now in front-of-house as a server. It’s a testament to the culture Greg and Daisy have built—Fendley is among a handful of other members of the team, like Steve Dobozy, the executive sous chef, who have stuck with Bell’s since the beginning.
Before opening Bell’s, both Greg and Daisy worked in the restaurant industry throughout their 20s. “The restaurant culture could be described during that time as toxic,” Greg Ryan says. “And probably still could be in many ways as well.” Today, workers in the industry are still notoriously overworked, underpaid, often reliant on tips to make a living, and are subject to abuse from superiors whose misconduct continues to be accepted.
At Bell’s, however, the Ryans aim to build their own culture and community through giving their staff a different expectation and experience of what working in a restaurant could be. They’ve created an environment where this line of work is not only a way to make a living, but it can also provide benefits that match those of other careers.
“Hopefully whatever we’ve done and what we’ve shown and what it feels like, there is a sense of purpose and a sense of place,” Greg says. “People start to want to be in that orbit. For us, it is now kind of a burden of proof on a daily basis.” The Ryans have created a restaurant that is more equitable and fair for their employees, while running a sustainable business that continues to book dinner reservations weeks in advance. Bell’s is proof that the state of the industry and how it treats its workers is not inevitable or unchangeable—it just takes care, commitment and work to empower those who make up its backbone.
Even so, for those who work there, Greg hopes the time spent at Bell’s is a stepping stone to something greater. “We want to be like the Oakland A’s of restaurants,” he jokes.
“I want [our staff] to have aspirations that are far beyond this valley,” Greg says. “And that they can see that for themselves because of what has been afforded to them and what they’ve earned working with us.”
For the Ryans, it really is the people who work in the restaurant industry who make it special. “I’m fine with food. I’m fine with beverage—that’s all great,” Greg says. “But what I’ve come to realize, and I realized early on, is that it’s not so much about the actual act of it all. It’s that I like the actual people who have decided to participate in this profession, and that’s what brings us back to it.”
At Bell’s, the food is outstanding, and the idyllic location certainly doesn’t hurt. But behind each title, it’s the people—from the purveyors, to the cooks, to the servers—who make it what it is.
Here is a series of portraits of the staff who make up Bell’s, including purveyors who help bring the restaurant’s vision to life.