For Jame Enoteca’s Melissa Saka, Nurturing and Strong Leadership Go Hand in Hand
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Melissa Saka, the co-owner of El Segundo’s Jame Enoteca and Ospi in Venice, loves being able to turn a customer’s day around. Saka has been in the hospitality industry since college, working as a host at The Cheesecake Factory while pursuing pre-med studies at UCLA. “Strangely, there are a lot of parallels between medicine and hospitality,” she says. “At the end of the day, it really is about taking care of people.” Nurturing by nature, Saka knew she loved making people feel heard and cared for, but volunteering at Mattel Children’s Hospital often brought her to tears. After a brief stint in nutrition, Saka started working full time at Hillstone Restaurant Group, learning the ropes of management and meeting Jackson Kalb, her business partner, fiancé, and the head chef of both Jame Enoteca and Ospi.
“He proposed last January, but we’re honestly just more worried about the restaurant,” she says, waving off more detailed discussion of planning a post-COVID wedding. She and Kalb have been busy enough for the past year - not only keeping Jame going, but also opening Ospi in Venice last fall. “I can’t say for sure, but Jame has largely been successful because it’s so regular-heavy,” Saka says, estimating that 65 percent of her customer base are repeat customers from the neighborhood.
In her day to day at both restaurants, Saka keeps the people she serves top of mind, making note of regular patrons’ preferences, food allergies, and life circumstances – all while managing the nuts and bolts of keeping the lights on, employees paid and treated well, and continuing to woo investors. “I don’t think we took a day off for the first year at Jame,” she says. ”It’s pretty gnarly. My iPhone honestly thinks my home is the restaurant.” For Saka, however, it’s worth it to be able to be her own boss.
That does mean she’s constantly switching between making sure customers have everything they need and the high pressures of running a business. “It is hard and I still struggle with it. People see how I work,” she says, remarking on the way she’s managed to earn both the respect of her employees and the love of the El Segundo community. “I am hustling. I am packing dirty plates. I am in the trenches with everybody.”
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