They seem like an unlikely duo: the strapping, bearded chef from Connecticut, and the buttoned-down historic preservationist architect from China. Yet together, Christian Page and Jingbo Lou revived one of the most beloved American diners in Los Angeles, and are aggressively expanding their restaurant empire, having recently opened satellite restaurants in Downtown LA and at LAX.
“We have a good, complementary relationship,” Page says. “It’s like the Yin and the Yang. We fight a lot, but in a good way.”
When you step into the flagship Cassell’s Hamburgers in Koreatown, it feels like stepping back in time to the 1950s, when the legendary lunch counter thrived and served up burgers and patty melts to hungry Angelenos. To preserve the feel of yesteryear, the original chairs, tables, signage, and major appliances from the original restaurant were restored for the revamped Cassell’s.
“It is a labor of love,” Lou says. “We want people to feel, when they come into this place, to feel familiar, there’s memory, and feel encouraged.”
The original menus also hang on the wall, and while the menu has expanded and there is a full bar now, the concept of making everything by hand remains.
“We still grind in-house every day from whole muscles, so we use chucks and brisket. We seam-butcher it and grind it, patty it with the original patty press and cook it on the original crossfire broiler,” Page says.
And none of this would have happened if Lou hadn’t risked everything to take on something he had never done before.
As a Chinese exchange student, Lou came to the U.S. to study at the University of Southern California and decided to stay for good. “As an immigrant to this country, my very big task is to learn the culture,” Lou says. “I really fell in love with the history.”
Architectural restoration was at the core of his immersion in American culture. He established a respected architectural firm, J Lou Architects, that restored historic homes and structures. Then, as fate would have it, he happened upon Hotel Normandie, a crumbling 1920s inn that had fallen far from its glory days, reeking of sewage, with decrepit wallpaper peeling from the walls, and rooms used as drug dens. Lou, however, saw that beneath all the rubble was a hidden gem.
“I was never an owner of a restaurant, nor an owner of hotels,” Lou says.
And yet that’s exactly what he proceeded to become. Within two weeks, he bid on the property and borrowed money from his brother for the down payment. Still, he had more than $4 million to raise to buy the property, and then there were renovations, which would cost even more—a lot more than he expected.
Lou went into fundraising overdrive, wooing investors and squeezing relatives for additional funds. He acted as architect, developer, general contractor and financier. His friends begged him not to continue with this risky venture. If he didn’t succeed, everything would be lost. His answer to them was to work even harder, 15 hours a day.
“It’s really challenging,” Lou says. “We did that classic crowdfunding approach to borrow money from all our families, our friends and get refinanced through SBA loans.”
Over the years, Lou worked with East West Bank to fund many of his projects. He talks about the importance of finding the right financial partner here:
When he saw that nearby Cassell’s Hamburgers was up for sale, he didn’t hesitate. The iconic hotel needed a classic American restaurant as an anchor, and Cassell’s fit the bill perfectly. By then, the restaurant was on its last legs, and the owners, a Korean couple, were struggling to stay in business.
After he bought the restaurant, Lou began looking for chefs to partner with. He met Page through a mutual friend and pitched the idea. At the time, though, the chef was working on other high-profile ventures and helming the kitchen at Short Order. Then, one day, Page contacted Lou.
“I really loved the idea of reinventing a classic. As far back as I can remember, if you’d asked me, I would always tell you my favorite food was a cheeseburger—so what better pursuit than making the best cheeseburger?” Page asks.
Lou describes Page as “a gift,” saying he was instrumental for the venture to take off and succeed. While the two men couldn’t come from more different worlds, their willingness to embrace their differences turned out to be a strength.
“We really work well in terms of our strengths and our weakness,” Lou says. “We complement each other. I’m good at planning. Christian is good at food, and promoting the concept so we worked out perfectly.”
“Honestly, for me, one of the most important things in life is really being able to get along with everyone, trying to see other people’s viewpoints and understand other people’s opinions,” Page says.
Since the restaurant reopened in late 2014, Cassell’s has topped many “best of” lists, and Majordomo Chef David Chang even voted for it on the “World’s 50 Best” restaurant list. 2018 was a big year, as they opened both the Downtown LA location with an expanded sandwich menu and a new location in LAX’s revamped Terminal 1. And if all goes well, Page says, they may open even more satellite locations in the future.
“Always try to get better at what you do,” Page says. “Always push to maintain consistency, and that’s an everyday struggle in the restaurant business…you have to always keep your guard up.”
“It was truly a life experience,” Lou says. “My advice? Put your heart into it, take risks—but calculated risk.”