After 75 Years, It Took A Pandemic For L.A.'s Iconic Apple Pan To Make A Few Changes

The burger shop is embracing a few modern touches

For 74 years, customers have sidled up to the U-shaped bar in a tiny diner to order smoky hickory burgers and wobbly cream-topped pies at The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles. For 74 years, the restaurant kept the menu virtually unchanged, accepted only cash, and hasn't bothered with social media. And for 74 years, it's worked: The Apple Pan remains a beloved institution, so much so that when the longtime Sherman family owners sold it to the Azoff Group in 2019, the latter had to promise not to change anything before the deal was finalized. 

The pandemic changed all that.

"This has been the most turbulent year of Apple Pan's existence, without a doubt," said Arthur Sherman, head of restaurants at Azoff Group (no relation to the family owners). Like restaurants across the country, the diner was forced to pivot repeatedly and without warning several times, no small feat for a place that prides itself on remaining unchanged.

The first pivot, in mid-March: learning to take credit cards. "In the very beginning, people didn't want to handle cash, because we thought you could transfer the virus via surfaces," explains Sherman. The restaurant introduced Square initially, then moved to Aloha, a switch Sherman describes as "revelatory—we're no longer manually writing orders on paper and paying with cash." 

Around the same time, the restaurant linked up with Postmates to offer delivery for the first time in its existence. That experiment was short-lived, due to the third-party platform's high fees, and safety issues connected to unmasked drivers and a lack of social distancing. "We were lucky enough because of our history and local support that we didn't need to turn to that," Sherman says. Instead, The Apple Pan switched their onetime pie room (adjacent to the main dining room) into a pickup area for to-go orders. In October, they opened an outdoor seating area in the parking lot behind the restaurant, with picnic tables and umbrellas. 

The restaurant was fortunate in terms of staffing — they were forced to furlough a few waiters early on, but brought them back after about two weeks to execute the "all-hands-on-deck" takeout setup. Two employees tested positive for the virus in January, leading to the first and only closure in the restaurant's history, for 10 days (they have since recovered). And since the Sherman family still owns the property, they were understanding landlords in terms of rent.

There have been effects on the menu, as well: The restaurant temporarily increased the price of burgers due to supply chain issues that increased the cost of beef. Gone are in the drinks made in-house, like iced tea. But they have managed to add a few new items: an Impossible Beef option for vegetarians, and two new pies: banana chocolate, and chocolate coconut, both mashups of existing flavors. "We did some low-key advertising for them on social media, and the response was immediate; sales were terrific," says Sherman. 

Speaking of, before the Azoff Group took over, The Apple Pan didn't even have a website (although a devoted fan had created one on the restaurant's behalf), let alone social media. "There's a delicate balance with Apple Pan in honoring the history and simplicity of the experience while recognizing that we're in modern times, and we need to reach an audience that's newer and younger, and that's online," Sherman says. In 2019, they launched an Instagram account that now has over 14,000 followers, with daily updates and handsome burger shots that have been instrumental to keeping the business afloat over the past year. 

Looking forward, the restaurant does hope to implement a more sustainable model for online ordering and delivery. They're considering investing in new equipment that would allow them to cook more burgers at once, and new, more takeout-friendly packaging. "Our sales are down like everyone else, but we're trying to figure it out thoughtfully, without forcing anything," says Sherman. 

Despite the many changes the last year has brought, the diner is committed to keeping things as much the same as possible. "We can't be everything for everyone and we're not trying to be. We're prioritizing our limits and our capacity, and subsequently figuring out what models we can turn on and off," says Sherman. "But the most important thing is to have people be able to come back and enjoy Apple Pan for another 75 years."