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UCLA

An Appetite for Excellence

Jill Bigelow is a sterling example of a new generation of Bruins carving out successful careers as entrepreneurs — in Bigelow's case, by literally putting food on the table. Provecho, the newly opened restaurant she created and runs with her husband, executive chef Gabriel Morales, is garnering kudos and customers by providing a modern, fine-dining Mexican experience in Los Angeles' downtown financial district.

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By Jill Bigelow, Photos by Lisa Thompson

Published Jul 1, 2009 10:00 AM


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UCLA grad Jill Bigelow, manager of the new restaurant Provecho, with her husband, Gabriel Morales, the executive chef of their downtown L.A. eatery.

The entrepreneur's challenge — by age.

A young entrepreneur most likely has less to lose, more of a "can't fail" attitude — in part from naïveté, in part from having the energy to tackle everything yourself. A middle-aged professional launching a second career may have financial stability to back up his or her enterprise, whereas young entrepreneurs usually "need" the rewards more and will push harder because they don't have the cushion. They are probably used to getting a paycheck every two weeks, and that does not happen when you are starting a business. Regardless of age or experience, though, being a risk taker is a key characteristic of any entrepreneur.

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What comes first, the idea or the opportunity?

For me, it has always been a combination of both. I am always looking to create opportunities and expand ones that present themselves.

Funding in an economy teetering on the brink of a deep recession.

Money is always the hard part. Angel money or personal funds have always been the way that I have started a project/business. But more recent ventures like the restaurant, lounge and our real estate developments require bank financing because of their size. In either situation, having a strong and realistic business plan with multiple outcomes/variables modeled is critical. You must show your investors, whether bank or individual, that you have not only thought through the upside, but the "What could go wrong?" and "How do we come out in that case?" Small business administration loans are a great, inexpensive way of obtaining capital, and the current administration has made some policies that should free up funds in the coming months for entrepreneurs.

The role of digital technology.

I personally spend 95 percent of my day in front of some sort of computer, point-of-sale system or P.D.A. Honestly, I don't know how we did anything without e-mail, online banking, accounting/inventory management software, etc. The hospitality business is no different in that regard than any other industry. We could never accurately track the thousands of sales that we make monthly without our point-of-sale system. It ties into our payroll, accounting and online banking and allows me to view sales, print reports and input data anywhere in the world. It's not like I have time to go anywhere but work and home these days, but one day I look forward to checking in from a white, sandy beach.

Why a restaurant?

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My husband is a chef. His passion is culinary arts, wine and hospitality. I started and operated a restaurant for four years after just graduating from UCLA — not really for any other reason than I had the opportunity and thought it would be an excellent, real-life business school. I then went to get my M.B.A. at "that other school in Los Angeles." We opened Provecho Restaurant and Remedy Lounge because we felt it was time for my husband to go out on his own. He has been the chef at some of Los Angeles' top hotels and restaurants and was ready to roll all that experience into his own vision.

Why a bar and a restaurant?

While working on my M.B.A., I interned at The Ratkovich Company, which owned the building at 800 Wilshire [the address that now houses Provecho and Remedy]. At that time they were writing the application for the building's conditional use permit (CUP), and I advised them to write both ground floor suites into one CUP so they could share bathrooms and a kitchen as well as the expensive licensing that it takes to have a bar/restaurant. I had no idea that three years later, we'd be the business using that CUP!

Restaurant perception versus reality.

The most surprising thing is that people have a negative perception of restaurant owners and the restaurant business. But like any industry, it requires hard work and can be very profitable. Every business has its good operators and its not-so-good operators. To me, business is business. No matter what you are selling, it is all about customer service, relationships and running a tight ship.

The secret ingredients to restaurant success.

I don't know if it is a secret, but having a high level of consistent customer service and high quality at a fair price equals value. And great atmosphere. People have lots of choices about where to eat. It has to be an escape for them, a place that makes them feel valued and welcomed.

Your husband's the chef. You're the manager. Who wins the arguments?

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Me, of course! Just kidding. We have been together one way or another for more than 15 years and know each other's strengths and weaknesses. We are pretty good at respecting who knows best in what area and we share core values about business and life in general.

The Bruin recipe for success.

UCLA gave me the confidence, via my rigorous academic experiences there, that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I already had some of this confidence from my family and private schooling as a child, but UCLA reaffirmed that in me as a young adult. I also would not have gone abroad for extended periods without college, which made me a better person and inspired me to see more of the world. Travel keeps life in perspective, inspires ideas and rejuvenates me to work even harder at my businesses.

Is a sit-down campus restaurant for students in the cards?

I spent two summers abroad while getting my degree at UCLA; one in Italy and the other in Spain. It exposed me to a lot of great food, wine and culture. In Europe, even the food in the train station is good. So when I went back to UCLA, I thought, why can't we have sit-down service on campus? I spent over 100 hours writing a business plan in the Anderson library and presented it to the director of capital programs. He liked it, but told me to get some experience first or get a partner; I chose experience. I still haven't made it back to campus with my original idea, but maybe after we prove ourselves downtown, I'll knock on their door again.

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