Laurie Wheeler, as president of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, has her finger on the pulse of the local business community.
When I asked her to name a business that has evolved in order to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, she pointed to the Lost Parrot, at 1929 Huntington Drive, as a prime example.
It turns out that this is also a story about a local boy making good.
Justin Prietto went to Arroyo Vista Elementary School and South Pasadena Middle School and was a class of 2000 graduate of South Pasadena High School. From 2002-07, he worked in what once was the Cook Shack — the space he now owns — starting by washing dishes and loading trucks. By 2007, he had his own business — Huntington Catering, located in Pasadena.
When he went looking for a place to expand his catering business, he found it at the location where he used to work. In addition to moving his catering business there in 2017, he also started a cafe named after the parrots that flock every day to South Pasadena.
Then, while his cafe was in the “toddler” stage, according to Prietto, it was knocked off its feet — like most businesses — in March by the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
”It was pretty wild. Everything just stopped,” he said. “No one had ever seen anything like this before. I had to sit down and try to figure out how we were going to proceed.”
Prietto started by offering meals to go and took advantage of his liquor license to sell wines and spirits when he was able to do so. He also started with breakfast and brunch, and then added a dinner menu.
“We started small and grew from there,” he said.
Prietto was also helped by having a large patio-like area in front of the restaurant, where he has now added lights for extra ambience and room for about 30 customers now that al fresco dining is permitted, within guidelines.
“Fast forward to now,” Wheeler said. “Justin and his team continue to make the necessary adjustments to stay in business with outdoor dining and other creative ideas that are being developed.”
She noted that the Lost Parrot, like several other places she named, is “pulling out all the stops to provide the services that their customers want/need, keep their staff employed and the doors open.”
Prietto, who lives in Pasadena, said it is the neighborhood residents who have noticed his efforts and helped save his business.
“The locals are supporting us,” he said. “Places like this are important for people to congregate and to catch up — especially after they have been cooped up for so long.
“There are still customers we haven’t seen come back yet,” he added. “They are playing it safe and I don’t blame them, but some people are happy to have a place to stretch their legs.”
While I was there, I ran into Jordan Cooper and Lauren Romero — two employees at the cafe who were having brunch with Romero’s mom.
The pandemic “really hit us hard,” said Romero, who works in catering for Prietto and is currently on temporary furlough. “We didn’t have people celebrating Easter like in past years, and I can’t imagine business picking up very much for the holidays.”
Cooper, who works weekends at the cafe as a waiter, said that the day he and his fellow workers found out about the shutdown was “devastating for everyone, since it’s like a family here.”
“Every weekend, we had a big clientele and a large staff,” he added.
Prietto said he started small with breakfast and built from there. Now the restaurant has added dinner from 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, including a taco night on Tuesdays. The cafe opens at 8 a.m. every day but closes at 5 p.m. on Sunday and Monday.
It features specialty lattes made by its barista, and its comfort food is done with a Latin/Pacific fusion twist.
The cafe has drawn good reviews on various websites, but it’s the opinion of his local customers that especially matters to Prietto.
”I have a lot of friends that I know from high school, and they spread the word,” he said.
Editor’s note: For information about the Lost Parrot, visit lostparrotcafe.com or call (323) 886-0703.