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A young man in a Chain jacket stands at an old video game consol next to a Tron video game, with other attendees.

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Chains Gone Glam

How a bunch of well-connected Hollywood types linked up to make the ultimate Chain

In 2018, the actor B.J. Novak went on a podcast called Air Jordan, which is hosted by the food journalist Jordan Okun. On it, the two chat for a while about Instagram and pizza — Novak says he’s partial to Papa Johns — before Okun says, “You had an interesting idea you were telling me about, for a restaurant.”

“It’s a restaurant called Chain,” Novak replies. “It’s a chain-themed restaurant... the red leather booths, the onion blossom, the sports bar TVs, a big laminated menu. But it’s done really well, and there’s only one of them.” Novak goes on to say how, because this restaurant would have a single location, you could put it in a hip neighborhood, the kind of neighborhood that specifically does not welcome a Chili’s or TGI Friday’s. But, of course, a spot like this, with all that comfort, all the nostalgia, all that familiar food but done better, would kill. “What we really need,” Novak concluded, “we need our chef.”

A photo booth at Chain the pop-up.
A photo booth at Chain.
A man sitting on a Grimace-shaped chair at the Chain pop-up.
McDonald’s-themed furniture.

There was a difference, one Novak knew well, between floating an idea and the slow and often grueling process of bringing it to life. “For an idea to become reality,” he told me recently, “there needs to be so much passion and it doesn’t necessarily need to be from you.”

So he brought others in, like Ruth De Jong, a production designer who worked on Nope and Oppenheimer, and who would eventually help design Chain’s interiors; and John “Your Body Is a Wonderland” Mayer, who mocked up one of Chain’s first logos. One co-founder, Nicholas Kraft, who everyone calls Nicky, works as VP of development at Novak’s production company. There was also Jack Davis, who Novak described as “one of my key business partners on this,” and who is the son of John Davis, a prolific producer of dozens of films including Garfield, Norbit, and Alien vs. Predator; John also has a successful side career as an early investor in restaurant chains, including Wetzel’s Pretzels, Blaze Pizza, and Dave’s Hot Chicken. (Marvin Davis — John’s father, Jack’s grandfather — was an oil tycoon and owned 20th Century Fox for a brief period in the early 1980s until he sold it to Rupert Murdoch.)

There was also Tim Hollingsworth, chef at downtown LA’s Otium, who came to Novak via Phil Rosenthal, host of the Netflix food travel show Somebody Feed Phil and creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. At Otium, Hollingsworth serves dishes like a vibrant king salmon tartare with Tamaki rice, shiso, and ginger, but he was a blue-collar kid who had grown up in Placerville, a suburb of Sacramento. Placerville is about a two-hour drive and an entire world away from Yountville, the ritzy little town in the heart of the Napa Valley where the French Laundry — where Hollingsworth trained — is located. For the first 10 years that he worked in the Michelin-starred restaurant, his parents never visited, because — as he told Novak and Kraft over lunch at Otium — they felt too intimidated. But the Chain idea, Hollingsworth said, “could be a restaurant that my family has gone to so many times. This is the food that they would understand.” Novak knew then that he had found his chef.

In March 2021, Chain launched as a pop-up event in a West Hollywood parking lot. Hollingsworth crafted his version of the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion (the “Bustin’ Onion”), and people came, and people stayed. That was surprising. “We designed these takeout boxes, thinking people were going to take out,” Kraft says. “But no one left.”

In the early days, items riffing on the McDonald’s McRib were created without the chains’ knowledge or permission. But they kept doing pop-up events, a few dozen, with foods from other chain restaurants, now as part of sanctioned collabs — Chili’s southwest egg rolls but with smoked chicken, Pizza Hut’s panned pizzas but with truffle ricotta. People kept hanging out, and after a year or so, they rented a house in West Hollywood for the events; celebrities like Mindy Kaling and Chrissy Teigen showed up, and folks stayed even longer. The list of people who wanted to get texts about these Chain pop-ups, which have been called, by the New York Times, no less, “one of the city’s hardest tables to land,” grew and grew until it is now some 25,000 strong, which is also why they moved into a warehouse-turned-event-space in Virgil Village, an LA neighborhood just west of Silver Lake.

Two women holding drinks at the Chain restaurant pop-up.
Cheers to Chain.

Davis told me that Chain’s primary business now is to “create amazing live experiences.” In addition to its own pop-ups, it’s created dishes for events around movie premieres like the newest Scream and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. This is marketing work, essentially. But the biggest and best example of this is their weekend-long event called Chainfest, where, last year, Chain partnered with Jack in the Box, Red Robin, Sonic, Chili’s, Pepsi, Dunkin’, Pizza Hut, Panda Express, Postmates, and Diageo. “We had all those brands,” Davis explained, and they all paid Chain money just to be part of the fest. Plus, “we also made a lot of money on tickets and merch at the festival.” (Chain also recently inked a deal with the Roku Channel on a special about the festival; the hourlong show, executive produced by Davis and Kraft, will air later this year.)

In early May, Chain announced it was partnering with events production company Medium Rare to “expand the fest into a broader entertainment festival with live music and events,” according to Deadline. Davis says that Chainfest brought in the majority of Chain’s revenue last year: “We were very profitable, delivering an amazing experience to our brand partners, giving them insane earned media. We had billions of organic impressions.”

Earned media is how marketing professionals describe something that works quite a lot like an advertisement, but isn’t exactly, because the person creating that thing that works like an ad isn’t getting paid for it. Los Angeles is chockablock with events — usually some sort of party, an opening, a launch, a premiere — meant to produce earned media. The key indicator of events like these is that the environment must be one in which the attendees so badly want to capture the fact of their being there, that they are compelled to make content about it — to post — and, in doing so, deliver that precious earned media to brand partners. What might compel someone to post? The event has to feel exclusive, has to have elements that photograph well; maybe it is offering something one cannot get anywhere else; maybe, also — and this is an especially LA quality — there is the possibility of being near a famous person.

Memorabilia at the Chain restaurant pop-up.
Ninja Turtle memorabilia.
W red striped wall holds many framed advertisements around a white logo that says “Chain.”
Framed vintage fast-food advertisements on the wall at Chain.

Chain’s warehouse space is wood paneled and retro-kitschy chic. Inside, the foyer houses a merch stand where, during events, Chain sells exclusive Chain gear: a “Coexist” T-shirt ($35) with the letters replaced with the logos of various chain restaurants, a Pizza Hut “Hut Hat” ($40) that appeared on the heads of several celebrities, an “I got sauced” bomber jacket with a winking Jack of Jack in the Box ($100). There was also, dominating the room, a very large, very red Chain-branded takeout box that was in fact the gateway to the rest of the space. Through the box was a line of arcade games (The Simpsons, Paperboy, Mortal Kombat), red velvet couches where a TV with Nintendo 64 Mario Kart gets set up during events, a bar above which was hung stained-glass lamps from Pizza Hut and Applebee’s, some high topped tables, a Ronald McDonald, a Bob’s Big Boy, this sort of thing.

I sat down at a vintage McDonald’s table, on a seat shaped like Grimace. This table, Kraft said when he came to greet me, had come from his childhood home. His dad, a talent agent, collects McDonald’s and Disney memorabilia, and unloaded practically a whole storage unit worth for Chain’s decor. “He was so proud,” Kraft beamed.

The entire space felt like someone’s idea of the past. My idea of the past? I wasn’t sure. I tried to articulate this generalized nostalgia to Kraft and Davis and Hollingsworth, along with my own weird mistrust of nostalgia as an emotional lever to pull. After all, I rambled, nostalgia began as a way of describing a then-unnamed ailment: the pain and heartbreak felt by soldiers pulled far away from their homes. “I will be stealing that,” Kraft said.

What Chain was tapping into, Kraft continued, was “a multigenerational nostalgia, because you have these brands that have been around for 60, 70, 80, even 100 years, with more or less the same brand identity.” They saw this at every event: People walked in and said that it felt like the ’70s, or the ’80s, or the ’90s, or even the 2000s — “What we found is people usually give the time period that they were probably happiest in,” Davis said.

a plastic table holds seats with famous fast food characters.
The outdoor seating at Chain.
Grimace with a Surge soda at the Chain restaurant pop-up.
Grimace posing for a photo.

It was the same for the food, Hollingsworth said. “It has to apply to everybody’s memory; everybody has to have that relationship.” The way he went about crafting the food wasn’t so much as a re-creation, but a remembrance. “It’s just trying to play off that memory, but do it in the best way.”

Take the McRib: It’s “not that many ingredients, right?,” he said, walking me through it. “You’re trying to smoke some beautiful ribs and overcook them a little bit so you can pull the bone out. And then, you get the best barbecue sauce that you can. Some nice onions and pickles and that’s literally it. If you can make that, that’s guaranteed going to be better than the one that you’re buying from McDonald’s. But it’s still a McRib.”

Minutes later, Chain’s vice president of culinary operations, chef Philip Hall, approached us with some food to try. It was for their next event. “We’re doing a meal box of discontinued items,” Kraft explained. This was their version of the Bell Beefer — essentially all the familiar components of a Taco Bell taco, but on a sandwich bun — which was discontinued in the mid-’90s. We all took a bite.

A Bell Beefer and fries at the Chain restaurant pop-up.
A Bell Beefer and fries.

The team, which had already re-created the Taco Bell Crunchwrap in an earlier pop-up, has a strong understanding of the Taco Bell flavors. “It’s the beef,” said Hall, watching us chew. “It’s the normal Taco Bell beef, which I just removed some of the serrano and onion, added San Marzano Crushed tomato, and I made a fire-roasted salsa on the Traeger, cooked it down. Lime crema on the top. And then, I just got tomatoes yesterday from the market.”

“I’ve never even had [this dish],” Hollingsworth said. “So, I’m kind of thinking about, okay, what is their build?” As Hollingsworth pondered the build, I was stuck on nostalgia, and the trick of memory upon taste and experience. I, too, had never had a Bell Beefer, but I did eat quite a lot of Taco Bell’s ground beef when I was in high school, and it struck me that what I was currently chewing — which was bright and tangy and had the idea of spice without being very spicy at all — was closer to what I remembered than what I had more recently eaten at Taco Bell. That was the thing about nostalgia: It wasn’t a time machine, it was a product — an ailment, even — of our imperfect memories.

Hollingsworth began talking like he worked at Taco Bell: “We bring in a bun, and then we use all the products that we already have — kind of feels like a sloppy joe. I know it was our answer to a hamburger. Okay, so this would be a little bit different than the Crunchwrap, right?”

Hollingsworth’s version of the Chain Crunchwrap had been a real journey — some 80 different variations, and as research he, Novak, Kraft, and Hall had all visited the Taco Bell headquarters and food lab in Irvine. Rene Pisciotti, who has the title of Taco Whisperer at Taco Bell, had invited them down, after he attended a Chain event. Pisciotti works in the lab and helps figure out new dishes, which are often riffs on old dishes. He and his colleagues are always thinking, “Can we modernize a dish in some way so it doesn’t lose its essence? This is the inherent tension,” Pisciotti says. I asked him, if people cared so much about the old stuff, why even bother with anything new? “Well, that’s the fun part of the job, seeing how far you can push things.”

I was struck by Pisciotti’s use of fun as synonymous with innovation. Fun is a word Kraft and Novak use all the time when describing Chain, only not at all in the same sense as Pisciotti. “Chain has a little bit of that wink, but serious,” Novak had told me. “That’s a fun line.”

A bartender pours cocktails into plastic cups at a red bar.
The bar scene at Chain.

A few weeks after meeting in the space, I bought a $75 ticket and returned, this time on a Saturday evening, for Chain’s Comeback Combo event. Kraft was there, greeting folks as they came in through the giant red Chain box doorway, and we chatted as I waited for my Happy Meal-esque box of food. The previous evening they’d had an event, too, but it had been cold and rainy that night, so they’d limited the number of tickets released. This was yet another canny aspect of Chain’s business: by controlling the flow of customers through both the supply of tickets and timed entry, they could also control their staffing (which was nearly all temporary event staff), their food supply, their overhead. I was reminded of something Novak had told me when I asked him why he had abandoned what had seemed to me the sharpest, most interesting point about the initial idea: that single location, of a real restaurant, in a hip neighborhood that didn’t allow chains. He’d told me it had simply been too difficult, that he didn’t really want to be a restaurateur.

After wolfing down my Beefer and tallow fries, I took a few spins through the rest of the space and chatted with a few of my fellow attendees: all youngish, hip-ish folk who were delightedly snapping selfies on their phones or with Ronald and the Colonel and Grimace, or playing Tron the arcade game, or laughing over their mezcal Surge-inspired slushies. All had first encountered Chain on Instagram, where it has only 48.9K followers — but where famous attendees like Teigen (42.5M followers) and Kaling (6.3M) were photographed. I had to admit: It all felt a bit like a joke, and quite an ironic one, that this exclusive event space was drawing inspiration from extremely non-exclusive chain restaurants; that our nostalgia could be upsold to us via adult-size happy meals and all-you-can-drink alcoholic slushies. I found myself idly googling, just to see how many Chili’s were within 30 miles of me at that moment, places where a “3 for Me” deal could net you a soft drink, appetizer, and entree for $10.99. There were more than a dozen.

A few weeks later, I took my 5-year-old son to a Chili’s nearby. He, like me, loves a good diner; but I hadn’t been to a Chili’s in forever, and it was a bit different than I remembered — a little more slick, a little less well-worn. Still, we had a great time and our meal was, including tip, less than $35. Earlier, I had asked Novak: Is Chain a joke? “Like, yeah,” Novak replied. “It is a joke, on one level, that you would put this world-class chef and all of these resources and all this perfectionism into elevating chain food. But it’s also, like, fucking awesome.”

Ryan Bradley is a writer in Los Angeles, who last wrote for Eater about Din Tai Fung and malls, and before that, the Fresno chile pepper.
Wonho Frank Lee is a hospitality photographer based in Los Angeles.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Cynthia Puleo


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