Photographed by Tracy Nguyen
In December of 2012, shortly after Sqirl first opened on a stretch of Virgil Avenue filled with botanicas and bodegas, Los Angeles’ most dearly departed eater Jonathan Gold wrote about his meal there: “I ate this toast outside in a sort of side yard next to the restaurant, chased with sips of milky espresso, in full earshot of the auto body shop up the street and the banda music pounding from the passing cars. It didn’t just reflect a Silver Lake afternoon; it was a Silver Lake afternoon.”
The restaurant has remained much the same, an organic outgrowth of Jessica Koslow’s gang busting specialty jam business that she started a couple of years before the storefront on Virgil opened. An all-day café concept that predates the current vogue for the concept, it’s not an overstatement to say after six years in business and a best-selling cookbook, Sqirl has redefined the ever-changing face of “California Cuisine” and leveled up aspirational brunch photos everywhere.
While Koslow remains the face and the heart of Sqirl, we were interested in speaking to Sqirl’s creative director Scott Barry, who designed the first jam label, and has shaped the look and feel of the business ever since, to try to understand how one small restaurant can have such an outsized impact on food culture, and how he and Koslow plan on sustaining and growing that influence. What follows is a transcript of his responses to our questions, edited for length and clarity.
Sqirl is so happenstance, which is partly what has made it what it is, but as we’ve done more projects we’ve had to go back and conceptualize it and understand more about ourselves. We’ve been looking at places where you can see that their culture comes from the people running it rather than branding, which is usually the case — where you have investors and people who aren’t actually engaged in the communities that they’re wanting to represent making those decisions.
What works for us is that we come from such different worlds and we’re really dedicated to the craft of and obsessed with both of them. Jess is obsessed with food and I’m obsessed with design, and we find the balance between the two. When you’re partnered, there’s a dedicated relationship, whereas when you hire a design firm there can be a lot of arguments where the restaurateur wants one thing and the design firm wants another, and you end up meeting in the middle — which is the worst for design — we never want to meet in the middle on anything.
A constant question we ask is, if Sqirl had terrible branding, would it have made a difference? I think probably not. I feel oftentimes, for me, Sqirl is overbranded. I can’t stand it. I love classic, pared back, thoughtful, homey approaches.
I just went to Napa and talked to a bunch of wine producers there. We had dinner with this guy who does all the main labels in Napa and the conversation was so interesting because people in wine are so obsessive about all these factors that make their wine as special as possible but when it comes to the label they don’t pay attention. Typography is so important to a wine, but the relationship between a lot of wine producers and type is that they don’t care about it at all. I was getting the funniest questions from wine producers who would ask, for example, if I owned a lot of fonts. That’s like me asking them if they own a lot of grapes!
“A constant question we ask is, if Sqirl had terrible branding, would it have made a difference?”
Food is a good design challenge because, for one, there’s not a lot of money in it. Restaurants don’t have advertising budgets, so we’re always figuring out the best ways that we can manage to do things with the resources we have. It means that we wear a lot of hats; I do most of the photography, the web design, the print design, the books, and the interiors of the next places we’re doing.
Being in a studio and having other people to bounce things off of would be ideal, but the resources aren’t there. But limitations are nice, especially with food, because food pushes this boundary of being social and community-focused, and there’s the larger questions of what food does to a city — especially in urban areas like Los Angeles where there’s a really complicated food system. Those are things we think a lot about in the spare time we have, which is limited because it takes a lot to make this thing go every day. Jess works twenty-four hours a day, so the time we have to pose the larger questions of the restaurant like, what kinds of projects are we taking on and who are we partnering with, is super limited.
Jess was nominated for a James Beard this last time around and she was up against chefs with really high-end restaurants where you’re going to pay four hundred dollars a person for dinner. To me, what she’s doing is making food that’s really attainable in a casual environment that’s just as thoughtful as you would get at a expensive place, but it’s actually more complicated to make that food happen for that price point. That’s what’s interesting to me in food, everything else is a bit of a boring model that we’ve seen a hundred times over, but the main holes of that question are, how do you pay for everything and how do you make it afford itself?
We had this Instagram battle recently, in regards to price point and gentrification, and I said, look, Sqirl tries to be super responsible from where we get our ingredients to the staff and labor to our customer experience and all of those things are the tools we use to fight the real problem, which is capitalism. Nobody likes to say that word, but that is the main problem with food. We’ve engineered our way out of being responsible, and these are the tools you have, which are how you process the materials and how you get them to the table.
Book one [Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking (2016)] was really tough, from our perspective. We wanted to make it an art book but we also wanted it to be read and bought. It’s so complicated. The publisher would be like, “Hey, we ran the cover by Amazon today, and they don’t really like the type.” And we’re like, fuck, Amazon is weighing in on our cover? We had to tell them that we’re not making decisions based on things like that. People told us that the photos would never work, that people were going to find it ugly.
Cookbooks generally have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator — to how it’s going to sell on Amazon. If it’s a fine art book or something that’s specifically for that world it’s easier, but those books don’t sell a million copies which is what a lot of publishers want. The cookbooks we kept getting beaten out by, at least on Amazon, would be like, Cookies, Milkshakes of the Southwest, or Falafel. That’s what people want. I feel like most of America or most of the world are into basic things.
We’re trying to be inclusionary in the way that we’ve become accustomed to seeing different perspectives in the last five to ten years. The female perspective in photography is something that is exploding right now at such a high volume and it’s so wonderful. I think Instagram has been this wonderful vehicle for people to open up to photography as a whole. Even with food styling, it’s like why am I always at some vanilla-ass barbecue or backyard? Food styling is often at odds with how cooking and eating actually is. It doesn’t always look that way, and I think people are open to honesty and transparency at the moment.
We did this huge media project that starts with farmers and follows the food through to the restaurant. We did hours and hours of interviews with farmers in the central coast, and learned that farmers lives are really difficult. They’re really stressed out, they have high rates of suicide and high rates of depression, high rates of marital problems, and it’s because they’re being attacked from so many sides, from high-end agriculture and food production to water being cut drastically and prices are being changed dramatically within the course of a year. There are so many unknowns, and then you add global warming to that.
I try to stay focused on the brand. The conceptual stuff is interesting, but Jess is the person who’s really engaged and really thinks about this stuff and really cares. At the end of the day what keeps Sqirl together is that Jess really care about community, people, food, and nourishment.