Netflix's pop-up eatery serves up an alternate reality as Hollywood grinds to a halt
LOS ANGELES — The experience starts outside, with diners queued up behind the velvet rope as if they're headed into an exclusive movie premiere or a buzzy nightclub.
Instead, people like Justin Bernal are waiting to enter Netflix Bites, the streaming service's pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles' Mid-City neighborhood.
Bernal booked a table two months in advance for a date night with his wife, to see some of their favorite Netflix shows come to life. "We watch Iron Chef, a lot of these other shows, Nailed It — great shows," he said.
That's the idea behind Netflix Bites, to give fans a "screen-to-table" experience where they can try dishes and drinks crafted by chefs and mixologists featured on unscripted Netflix culinary shows.
But sometimes, it's reality that bites.
The splashy marketing expenditure behind Netflix Bites coincides with Hollywood's biggest labor fight in decades, and the timing and opulence of the promotional campaign couldn't be more surreal.
This month, after contract negotiations between the actors' union and major studios including Netflix collapsed, actors joined writers on strike, forcing a pause on production of most scripted films and TV series. That reality provides a jarring contrast to the escapism of the Netflix Bites experience.
It's not the company's first marketing event adapted from its streaming content. There's an annual Netflix Is A Joke comedy festival in Los Angeles and, previously, Stranger Things-themed pop-up stores in a handful of major U.S. cities.
But the thought of dining at a Netflix event while many of the company's own employees are fighting for better pay and protections has left fans like Bernal conflicted.
"I support the actors, I have a lot of friends that are in the unions, especially in SAG-AFTRA, and seeing what they're going through sucks," he said.
At the same time, he had already paid a $50 deposit for the reservation that he didn't think he could get back. That was before SAG-AFTRA, a union representing about 160,000 TV and film actors, joined the Writers Guild of America, who have been on strike since May.
"I feel terrible," he said. "It's just having money invested in something, when money is tight for me already — it's hard to make those choices."
Inside the flashy Netflix Bites bubble
Once inside, the immersiveness of the experience might make the contentious backdrop easy to forget for some. The temporary restaurant exists in its own bubble — outside of protests, password crackdowns and negative publicity.
The event space, which occupies the bar and courtyard of a hotel, looks like a theatrical set: Floor lamps flank dining booths; there's a barbeque pit and pizza oven; Netflix-branded pillows, walls and plates make for instant photo-ops.
The dinner menu includes dishes from a who's who of the celebrity chef firmament: Andrew Zimmern's grandmother's meatloaf, Ming Tsai's truffle and mushroom-stuffed "MingBings," and Rodney Scott's pulled whole hog.
On a recent visit, the restaurant's wait staff exuded the poise of actors (and in some cases, actually are — don't be surprised if you recognize a face or two); they were hired through Australian celebrity chef Curtis Stone's events company, which is running the operation.
As a diner, it's easy to feel like you are the star of this quasi-reality production, like food judges on a competitive cooking show.
That excitement ended for some once the food arrived. Ivan Kim had been looking forward to trying dishes from Michelin-starred French chef Dominique Crenn after seeing her on Chef's Table.
"Atmosphere is good, pretty fast service," he said. "But the quality is not good because the chef is not there."
Of the dishes he tried, Kim gave his highest rating to the kimchi-topped Lady Zaza pizza from Ann Kim. For dessert, Nadiya Hussain's light and layered honey cake was a hit, according to online reviewers on Yelp.
Since the restaurant launched at the end of June, many of the chefs featured on the menu have stopped in to tweak their recipes and greet fans. But Ann Klein, a general manager with Curtis Stone Events, says, "We're not trying to be a three-star Michelin restaurant."
"That's not what this is," she said. "You're doing a pop-up. It's a casual summer residence."
Netflix Bites may be casual, but it isn't cheap. With appetizers priced as high as $65 (Curtis Stone's crab legs in curry), there's a distinct feeling of exclusivity. As you dig into the almost-too-rich "Millionaire's Shortbread," you might wonder whether Netflix executives will see any profits from this culinary production.
Let them eat cake, while actors and writers seek better pay
The extravagant salaries paid to streaming service CEOs have been a central point of contention in the strikes, in which actors and writers are demanding better wages, increased residual payments and protections from the use of artificial intelligence.
A Netflix spokesperson told NPR that this pop-up, as with the others, is a marketing initiative that's not intended to turn a profit.
Netflix spent about 8% of its roughly $32 billion revenue on marketing events in 2022, a slight decrease in its marketing expenses from the previous year, according to data from Statista. That's a relatively small sum compared to traditional major studios.
Striking writers have been able to pierce the restaurant's bubble, if only temporarily. On Netflix Bites' opening night, striking WGA members gathered out front with a pop-up of their own, within feet of diners lined up to go in.
"Instead of negotiating with us, Netflix decided to open an overpriced restaurant," wrote Adam Conover, a comedy writer and TV host who helped organize the stunt at Netflix Bites, which is just a block away from the WGA building.
Actor Adam Lustick played a fictitious BBQ chef of "CEO Fridays," serving "exclusively billionaires and media CEOs," he quipped during the improvised parody. Unionized writers returned again in July to pass out leaflets.
Netflix and its temporary restaurant, meanwhile, aren't ruffled. Asked about the criticism it's received about the timing of the pop-up during the strikes, Netflix declined to comment. Klein, the restaurant manager, says the strike has not affected staff turnover.
After months of weathering inflation and a subscriber slump, Netflix reported steady growth in its most recent quarterly earnings. The pop-up, which runs into fall with no official end date, currently shows only a handful of open tables for the next 30 days. More reservations will open up on a rolling basis.
"We've been sold out, and have a waitlist anywhere from 300 to 500 every day," Klein said.
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