When Ashley and Tyler Wells opened All Time in 2018, it was done in waves: breakfast first, followed by expanding the menu, and then dinner came four nights a week. People who came in for coffee and a scone during the day rarely came in for dinner, and vice versa. That all changed during the pandemic — and more emphatically after.
In March 2020, the Wells closed for indoor dining before mandates were issued to do so, and they pivoted hard to keep some staffers employed and the community fed. There was a sourdough starter (of course) that turned into bread and pizza; market boxes full of gorgeous cuts of meat and fresh produce from favorite vendors; and a wine club. Anything to keep the business going.
Getting back to in-person dining was as calculated as everything else they’ve done up to this point. They didn’t reopen All Time as soon as they could, but waited until refrigerators and speed racks could be moved out of the dining room, until the takeout operation they had become could be reverted back to a restaurant, until new employees could be found. It also allowed them time to finish expanding an outdoor space that would once again become a bustling haven for regulars.
“I feel like we’ve been opening this restaurant since January 2018 in some form or the other, constantly adapting and changing,” Ashley says, with somewhat exhausted laughter. “It was like seven different restaurants in the last year alone.”
Ashley spoke to Resy about how she and Tyler continue to stick to their vision of the restaurant, their tenets of hospitality, and ensuring their Los Feliz community always has a place to go, any time of day.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Resy: When you opened All Time, did you intend for it to be an all-day kind of place?
Ashley Wells: The inspiration and vision was always simple, something based on places we found when traveling through Europe, where a great local spot isn’t a concept, it’s the place you go for coffee in the morning, wine in the evening. It’s an ethos and familiarity. It can have a seamless evolution from day to night. Something that could become the heartbeat of a community. We just wanted to provide that for the neighborhood.
It really is the quintessential neighborhood spot, but one that garnered lots of praise, great reviews, and attracted clientele from all over L.A. Did that change much during the pandemic?
It’s still a total neighborhood spot. I know some of our regulars have left L.A., and new people have moved in. People who supported us during the pandemic by ordering takeout are only just now discovering us as a sit-down restaurant. So they are just now discovering the true original purpose — to host and feed people in person.
There’s also a new population creeping in and discovering us, driving over to find us. And there’s the evolution of the neighborhood itself. It’s dynamic. There’s a core consistent loyal community that has supported us and literally kept us in business the last two years. No matter what, I see the same faces day to day, and that’s what I love.
You shifted to a takeout-only restaurant early in the pandemic. Did that leave room for exploration for the menu, the concept? Has any of that stuck around?
We had a lot of that. We didn’t do it in a place of desperation, but tried to use the time to experiment and learn. Tyler is so much that person, you know, like, “I’ll focus on baking and that’s what I’ll do now.” We started baking our own bread because Bub and Grandma’s, where we sourced our bread, had to close for COVID. So we kept doing it, and now we have a whole bread program out of that. We did pizza, but we don’t have resources to keep that going. We kept the wine club, which is fun, and it’s not something we’re actively growing, but it’s good to keep around.
I would love to bring takeout back, and yes, people are asking all the time. We don’t have the capacity, there’s nowhere to put it. It is a busy restaurant again. If we were dead, we might be doing some of those things. I don’t want to let people down. We never did takeout before the pandemic. It’s this tension between what the neighborhood wants and what we can provide. It’s going back to focus on what we can do well, and maybe we can get to that place. Right now we can’t do everything, and what we chose to do is what we’re good at: hospitality.
What other changes were you able to implement?
We did a complete rebuild of the inside of the restaurant, adding maybe 50 feet, plus an outdoor greenhouse and covered deck. So we really expanded the outside seating area. We were planting and fixing things. Tyler built all new tables for the restaurant; just things we do ourselves.
We were building a second project in Glassell Park, a brand-new place scheduled to open in May 2020, but we ended up moving on from the project. We couldn’t take it on. But there is a lot of growth on the horizon.
You penned a piece for Grub Street about why you didn’t reopen right away. That was in March. How do you feel now?
We weren’t waiting to open because of COVID, but we were working on the space. Didn’t want to open it with a fridge in the dining room and speed racks everywhere. We had to unpack the wine, clean the plates and glassware again. And staff it. We were opening with a skeleton crew.
We waited to open until we could celebrate it, to see and be seen, do what we do. And we achieved that, I’m proud of that. We’re in a moment now where we’re under this small cloud and don’t know where it’s headed. Don’t know if it will pass or become a storm again, and that’s unsettling for all of us. I feel a little less stable. And navigating that kind of stress as a business owner on top of normal challenges of running a restaurant is a lot. All of the normal pressures are just turned up because of a shortage of parts, or staff, repair people, and the threat of who knows what’s coming.
Being tired and spread thin is not new territory for a restaurant owner. It’s a lot of problem solving, it’s motivating, and I love it. The day I wake up and All Time doesn’t need anything anymore, that’s when I want to start something else.
In that piece, you described what true hospitality means to you. Do you think the pandemic has ruined that forever? How can we get it back?
I will always steer the ship in what I believe in and what hospitality means to us. It’s a two-way covenant, a deal. We show up to provide something, and what we provide is sourcing the best of what we can find, whether it’s produce, meat, wine, or how we build our furniture. We want to create an experience that includes a meal that’s special, tasty, beautiful. Whether it’s a celebration or a Monday night I-need-a-break type thing. It gets kind of spiritual when you break it down. There’s real human connection, and it comes from a place of love. Loving our team, our regulars, our farmers.
The guest is the other part. It’s not one-way, I’m filling my gas tank and leaving. It’s keeping an open mind and respecting our staff and our decisions.
There are a lot of people who aren’t getting that right now. They’re expecting everything to be what it was before. What are they missing?
It’s what prompted me to write that piece for New York magazine. They’re not understanding that exchange, that it’s a privilege to dine out, and it comes with constraints based on the times. Whether it’s the skyrocketing cost of product and labor and rent, or whether it means the bandwidth of a restaurant is limited. You can’t get everything you want from a restaurant these days.
A lot of restaurants had to say yes during the pandemic to stay open. People who aren’t getting it are people who are looking for their needs to be met, even if that restaurant can’t do it, whether it’s therapy or delivery. The people who think you should be able to get whatever you want whenever you want, and that’s not the case here. It stands out much more now.
Along with the ongoing stressors of regular restaurant life plus getting back on track, now there’s the Delta variant. How are you planning the next few weeks, and after?
To be honest, before we opened for sit-down service, during most of the pandemic, it felt very clear to both of us what was the right thing to do. But now, it’s harder than ever. We’re open again and grateful, but it’s less clear to me how we’re going to operate. We shut down and did takeout before the government mandated it. We made those decisions on our own, and the city mandates followed. So when we reopened, no one was talking about delta yet, and it felt celebratory. Then this resurgence and the vaccine debate…it’s all this murky territory.
It doesn’t feel right to shut down the restaurant again. It feels clear it’s not safe to serve indoors. And if people are coming in and eating unmasked, part of interacting with us is to hear us, see us, hear music, have an experience. I don’t know the answer to the next level of safety and security. The government mandates have never been on time, they always come too late. There are no balls behind it. It’s just that everyone is playing this dance, not mandating the right thing. It’s a difficult time. We’re trying to enjoy what we have now. It’s a huge accomplishment that we have the restaurant again.
How are you dealing with new mask mandates or vaccine mandates?
It’s definitely on my purview. We’ve talked about it, but it’s not a clear path yet. Primarily because, our staff and us, we’re exhausted from policing people. It’s such a confrontational subject. The staff is vaccinated, and I feel security in that. We’re only doing outside seating, and making sure people wear masks to use the restroom.
It’s such a difficult topic to engage guests in. It’s a scary time to be in business right now. I wish there was a higher elevation playbook for this, that it doesn’t fall on small proprietors to figure it all out on their own. If you think about smoking, you can’t smoke 10 feet from a restaurant. Why should we tell guests to show us that they’re vaccinated? If you don’t want to get vaccinated, I don’t want to deal with that conversation, but it’s not fair to put others’ health into consideration. I don’t have to argue with someone about smoking a cigarette. It’s the law.
You, like just about every restaurant everywhere, have posted on social media about hiring. What would you like all the would-be restaurant workers of the world to know?
I think there are great jobs, and a lot of not-great jobs. Historically the restaurant industry has had a bad track record of work/life balance, work safety, culture and pay, equal opportunity, and the list goes on and on. I do think there are jobs for passionate people looking for something great. When you find anyone passionate about hospitality, service, align with them. There’s money to be made.
Restaurants are being pushed to pay, and are paying, better. The workforce is evolving, too. As a proprietor, we’re seeing a different demographic being attracted to cooking and the industry in general. I think the glamour of working in a restaurant, pre-pandemic, was celebrity chefs, cooking shows — people may have been attracted to that aspect. This last year and a half has done a lot of stripping away the glamour. It’s whittled down to the essence of what it’s always meant to be, at least for those of us who’ve always wanted to be in this business. It’s stripped down to the basic human principles. Doing something tactile, like cooking with your hands.
I’m hopeful for people who are looking for something different than what they were doing. We have some new hires who’ve never cooked in a restaurant before, and I’m blown away by what they’re doing. It’s a hard business to groom someone, but we’re seeing a lot of promise in that way. That’s reassuring. I feel like we’re building this new generation of restaurant workers who are passionate about the same things. There’s a shift of people who are entering for the same reasons that people left it. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t healthy for a lot of reasons. It’s reconciling that from within and people are doing a better job.
One last question: You oversee the wine list at All Time. What are you drinking right now? What goes well with the tail end of another pandemic summer?
Whatever you’ve got in the fridge! Drink what makes you happy and what you love. Keeping an open mind is how I approach drinking and sharing wine; there’s more opportunity for people to do their own research to find what they’re excited about. What I have squirreled away, and there’s a lot, is like the scrapbook of experience from the last 20 years to the last few weeks. So I’m looking forward to sipping some fun memories.
I’m really just happy to be back in the saddle and seeing people drinking wine in person tableside. If you love to tell the story in person, everyone’s excited. That’s the most rewarding part.
Lesley Balla has written regularly about restaurants, travel, and wine for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Angeleno, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Seattle Times. In a previous life she was the L.A. editor for Zagat and Eater. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.