The following interview has been edited for length and cohesion
It isn’t out of place to see music industry veterans crossing over into the food service industry, investing in already well-established fast food chains. Many of us are quite familiar with musicians like Rick Ross and Chris Brown owning a couple Wingstop and Burger King franchises. But it isn’t often you see someone in the music industry opening and overwhelmingly succeeding at being a restaurateur with their own concept.
Enter Terry Heller: the renowned hip-hop music video director who has gone from working with the likes of Eazy-E, Bone Thugs & Harmony, and Lil Wayne, to serving up some of the best casual gourmet food at his Los Angeles restaurant chain, Plan Check.
I had a chance to chat with Terry about music and food; two things he and I are both passionate about. We spoke at length about his transition into the food industry, Plan Check’s unique innovations, and which rapper he would love to work with on his next food collaboration. It was 11am, a Friday morning.. I was sitting by my dining room table at home, ready to listen intently at every word he said. After initial introductions, Heller was quick to ask about the tone of our interview, briefly concerned after a quick scroll through Foodbeast’s recent headlines brought him to a particular article, “Watching This Clam Dig Through Sand Is Quite Disturbing.” He just wanted to make sure that he would be taken seriously.
I laughed, diffusing any tension built up from both Heller’s concerns and my own apprehension from interviewing someone as accomplished as him, and reassured that this wasn’t going to be some fluff piece. I could have geeked out about hip-hop and fried chicken with the man for hours on end, but I knew he was busy, and I had a gym session to destroy.
Curious to learn how one of my favorite casual neighborhood restaurants in Los Angeles came to be, I asked Heller about Plan Check’s origins and his vision into creating the restaurant.
My fascination with food and restaurants started at an early age… and starting Plan Check was a long time coming. Plan Check comes from my fascination with architecture, I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid, and because the restaurant’s first location was adjacent to the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department headquarters; so the concept just made a lot of sense.
Going from being a prolific storyteller in hip-hop, to a distinguished restaurateur, Terry wanted to get behind something super familiar without sacrificing a single slice of authenticity. Switching industries isn’t easy for most people, but for him, it was almost seamless.
Was it a difficult transition to go from hip-hop to restaurants? And did you do anything notably different?
No, it wasn’t particularly difficult for me. It was both the same: I had a vision, I didn’t give a fuck, I went for what I wanted. I stayed true to myself, I wanted to be authentic, and really just keep telling stories. Nothing has changed.
In an industry that continues to push boundaries of taste and concepts, with many well-known celebrities trying to make their mark in the food industry, it can become increasingly difficult to stand out. Having a marquee name behind the restaurant just doesn’t cut it anymore, and customers expect more from the places they eat. As a result, there have been quite a few music industry veterans that never quite cut it in the food scene by just banking on their name alone. Britney Spears’ NYLA restaurant closed within a year, and rapper Flava-Flav, and producers Doug-E-Fresh and Jermaine Dupri’s respective spots didn’t last long either.
To you, what is it that really makes Plan Check stand out the way it does?
People just connect with the food. Simple as that.
It was a simple answer, but it makes perfect sense. They make delicious food without the fluff. The truths in their authenticity translate to packed houses at each of their four LA locations every weekend. Their ingenuity has caught worldwide attention, especially with the development of Ketchup Leather.
How did the Ketchup Leather concept come about? What was your involvement in the process?
Well I’m not a chef so I didn’t do any of the cooking,but I was there in the kitchen everyday, hands-on with the whole process. I knew what I wanted out of the concept, and I wanted to create a tight framework for the restaurant. But overall, I wanted to create something delicious,something I wanted to eat.
If you’re not familiar, Ketchup Leather is Plan Check’s housemade ketchup dehydrated by baking it for four hours, creating a leathery consistency that eliminates the problem of having soggy burger buns before your order even gets to your table. Not only is this an innovative achievement, but is also an unexpected way to have a familiar taste.
Pioneering new ways to enjoy the ketchup in your burger isn’t the only way Terry and Plan Check are killing the game right now. Over the last five years, the restaurant has collaborated with other entities like Stussy, Sanrio, and most recently, Linkin Park, to create special pre-fixe menus that get your mouth watering.
You just dropped a dope limited time meal pack menu with fellow musicians and foodies, Linkin Park, celebrating their latest album release. How did that conversation start, and how long did it take to create that menu?
This collaborative effort with the band took a while. Mike (Shinoda) and I were heavily involved in the process. The three-course menu we developed was inspired by the band’s diversity and love for food. I was there to taste everything, and was involved in every aspect. Logo, t-shirts, the experience you’d get at the restaurant, we worked on the price, marketing, everything.
Is this a sign that more food collabs with other musicians are on the way?
You know what, I don’t know yet. This last one took a while to create and we just launched it. We’ll see, but yeah, I’d like to.
Then who is one musician you’d really like to collaborate with on the next menu?
Wow, you know, there are so many musicians that I’d enjoy working with, but definitely Kanye. I’m a big fan. I met him briefly on set of his Slow Jams video back in the day and the way he directed his vision... I knew that he would be huge. His energy, and his drive, I feel like he would really push you to create something great.
As a fan of Kanye and his music, I would absolutely welcome that collaboration. Who knows what kind of impact he could have on the food industry. If this collab menu were to ever happen, one thing is for sure, expect a packed house and lines out the door because everything Ye touches turns into solid gold.
But that’s something both Terry Heller and Kanye West have in common: People keep buying into their vision. Kanye makes visual and sonic masterpieces, and Terry masterminds mouthwatering food. They get people asking for and wanting more.
What do you think it is about your restaurant that really translates to people and gets them coming back?
Well the food is amazing, there’s that — but I get these emails sent to me everyday about our latest Yelp reviews, and it makes me happy to get good reviews, but I really focus on the bad reviews because I want to genuinely make the experience better. II don’t care about the restaurant being cool, I want to make it right. I want to have a welcoming environment. I care that you had a good time. And if you didn’t, I want to know why because I want to fix it to prevent it from happening in the future to you or other customers. Our business model is “to have a mutual respect.” We’re not out here trying to be pretentious. I think we have a great team at every location, and we just want to deliver great food and great service.
For the years that Plan Check has been around, I’ve remained a fan because of everything they’ve stood for. Like Terry said, they don’t care about looking or trying to be cool. They just want to be the best restaurant for the people as they can be. I recalled celebrating my birthday at their Wilshire location one year and told him how pleased I was when his staff did everything they could to hold me down on a section of the restaurant even when my friends showed up later than I told them to (Filipino time, am I right?). Not only did they deliver on the service, but they also did not disappoint on the food.
Can we talk about the fried chicken for a second...because hands down, that’s my favorite item on the menu. Top 10, probably top 5 fried chicken dishes I’ve ever had.
(Laughs) Yeah, we tried to use a high quality bird — the Jidori chicken. We prefer to use the thigh because it’s much juicier and retains the flavor.
Like visual storytelling through music, finding the recipe to success in LA’s cutthroat, fickle restaurant scene is difficult to do. There’s a lot of planning, research and trials involved, but most of all, it takes a vision and dedication. With Plan Check, Terry Heller has found a recipe that works: a perfect union of gourmet food without gimmicks, a warm, intimate ambiance, and a welcoming, attentive staff. The dedication to promoting a culture that respects its guests and providing a vibe that people can rock with is one of the many redeeming qualities Plan Check has to offer.