Opening A Restaurant in San Francisco. {Part One}

| August 27, 2007 | 6 Comments
  • 6 Comments

Opening a restaurant in San Francisco is not easy, especially right now, but not for the reasons why it was so difficult in the 90′s or five years ago. It can be said, opening a restaurant at all, in any city, is difficult. But because I have cooked professionally in other American cities, have seen a number of my colleagues open restaurants, and have recently begun working for a soon-to-open San Francisco restaurant, I can say that opening a restaurant here is a difficult proposition, even if you have a lot of factors on your side.

Labor: In SF Magazine last month, food editor Jan Newberry spoke to new local labor laws San Francisco is imposing, in an inciting article titled, Is San Francisco Killing Its Restaurants? Although the new labor laws sounds fantastic on paper, they have the capacity to hurt many restaurant employees, mainly back of house employees. For full transparency I will state here that I am, and have maintained, a pro-union status for most of my adult life. The issues are confusing, in part because restaurants are not a necessary establishment the way, let’s say, hospitals are. And because I worked for minimum wage for much of my career, I do agree that it should be a living wage.

Culture: It could be said that although restaurants are a luxury business, they do play a major part in distinguishing the landscape of one city from another. As a person who loves to eat out, I can easily name five restaurants in each city I love and they make visiting there far more appealing.


A16 Restaurant. The Line.

Risks: The restaurant business, and the business of opening a restaurant is only for the crazy and the passionate. Who else would open an establishment considered to have the highest risk factor by banks? Who else would pour their life savings into a business that may or may not be liked by the public, or be sunk by one review in the local newspaper? Who else would open a business even if the glass ceiling on profits is less that 7% yearly? {The margins are extremely slim in the restaurant business.}

It can be said that a restaurant owner is a rebel with a cause; opening a business against all odds. Attempting the impossible, confident in the face of harsh realities. A dreamer, in short. Like many other gambles, a restaurant’s statistics change city to city, and after New York City, San Francisco has the highest fail-rate in the shortest span of time, than any other city in the United States. What makes a restaurant stick is as much about the fickle public, concerned with hipness above all else, as it is about the actual food being served and by whom, or what neighborhood it’s located in and what month of the year it swung open its doors.

Press: In July I spoke on a panel of food bloggers in Chicago as part of BlogHer 07. As the sole professional cook-blogger I had the difficult honor of answering a question from the audience concerning Mario Batali’s latest vitrolic comments concerning food bloggers. The funny thing was that, as yet, I had not read his comments on our kind. As Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic has recently pointed out in her site Grub Report, food bloggers are made out to be the villians by my profession.

What, or who, Mario Batali is railing against, is those writing for the Internet with no concern for the business they are admiring or panning. Many food bloggers want to have their slice of the famous pie without taking responsibility for the power of their words– or taking the first slice. And, something many web-savvy people know, their power to have their words found first is all to often used to threaten and destroy restaurants, chefs and owners. Google is an interesting animal indeed, and being a blogger means catching a ride on its gigantic sweeping monster tail, if even for 15 minutes of fame.

In Chicago I asked everyone to please know and remember that their words were far more powerful than many food and restaurant bloggers have been willing to take responsibility for until recently. I reminded the audience that there are few professions skewered by non-colleague critics publicly.

Chefs and chef-owners pour everything they have into new businesses. They know dozens, if not hundreds, of people’s lives are being supported, or not, based on the thousands of decisions they make about opening a restaurant. So when a food blogger, whose credentials they know nothing of, representing an individually promoted news source, like a single-authored blog (as opposed to a newspaper or magazine), comes in on the very first night, or within the first few weeks (a time period we know that newspaper critics are going to, yes, visit, but not base their official review on that sole meal) and reports on the experience, good or awful, the restaurant owner is cornered. She/he knows that, (or maybe they don’t because few restaurant people are Internet-smart), those blogger’s words are going to be the ones their other prospective diners are going to find first.

Issues: Why is this relevant and/or important to why opening a restaurant in San Francisco is so difficult? Because blogging and the Internet’s speed, as an opinion gatherer and reporter, has leveled and expanded a press playing-field, giving chefs and owners one more thing to reckon with in an already seemingly futile battle of pushing a boulder uphill.

I realize I straddle a fence now, and my perspective as a chef and also a blogger has been inexorably altered by having five toes in each grassy knoll. I have made, as I’ve dubbed it, my Sinead O’Connor mistakes concerning words and quotes and media, self made and not. I know that now I am an easier target for both good and awful press as a pastry chef, becuase I am a presence on the web.

I, like many people before me, am learning the hard way how to open a restaurant in San Francisco, and I am far from being the owner. This piece, as well as the series I’m doing on Eggbeater, is an attempt at reporting the process from the inside. The issues are multi-faceted, dichotomous and oftentimes confusing. While writing I am attempting to sort some of them out, and also speak from and to a perspective rarely found in major press sources.

And, as this is a blog, where comments are welcome and part of creating a place for discussion and public opinion, what are your thoughts on these matters?

————————

Other pertinent links speaking to these political and personal issues on the subject of opening and operating restaurants in San Francisco:

Brett Emerson, local chef and food blogger, whose site is the much loved In Praise of Sardines, has been extremely candid in reporting the process of opening his own restaurant, Ollalie.

Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for the SF Chronicle, on his blog, Between Meals, reported on the cost of doing business in San Francisco called, Is San Francisco Killing Restaurants?
{And Brett’s commentary on this important article.}

At the end of the year in, “Is The Public Ready For A Transparent Restaurant Industry?” here on Bay Area Bites, I asked difficult questions after a horrific accident took the life of a young waiter and put the sous chef of Bar Crudo in the hospital.

Last November SF Business Times reported on an enigmatic lawsuit the Golden Gate Restaurant Association filed against San Francisco about the newly imposed labor laws.

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Category: bay area, chefs, restaurants, bars, cafes, san francisco

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • Marc

    Another restaurant discussion is the Commonwealth Club’s “Second Annual State of San Francisco Restaurants” with Michael Dellar, Craig Stoll, Staffan Terje, Charles Phan, Pete Sittnick, and Joyce Goldstein. It can be heard as a Real Audio stream here.

  • Aaron

    I don’t think it is fair to put all the responsibility and ultimately the blame on food bloggers. If an individual is going to be swayed by reading one crucifying report by a food blogger with no professional training and no industry experience than I think it is largely the reader that should be held responsible. Just as a scholar wouldn’t use disreputable sources and Wikipedia for a major piece of scholarship in academia, so to should the reader of blogs and restaurant reviews equally monitor the credibility of his or her sources. It is true that bloggers have a powerful voice, but maybe as readers we are all giving too much power.
    It is great that media has been democratized as it has (to steal a Shuna-ism), but with democracy comes responsibility. People can say what they want, but we have to decide who we’re going to listen to and how much we are going to question what is said.

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    I agree with Aaron completely. I read movie reviews but I still go to movies in order to pass my own judgment. After all, who better to judge what I like but myself? The same can be said about scurrilous or untrue political mud slinging, those who believe it, perpetuate it, and then take those misguided beliefs to the voting booth.

    “What, or who, Mario Batali is railing against, is those writing for the Internet with no concern for the business they are admiring or panning. “

    The problem is, Batali tars all food bloggers with the same brush. One, he doesn’t even recognize the difference between food blogging in general and restaurant blogging specifically.

    Two, he doesn’t give voice to the fact that there are restaurant bloggers who have the interest, background, or knowledge to support their opinions.

    Three, he makes a distinction between blogging and “truly responsible journalism.” (Whose definition is that, anyway? How many journalists now blog? How many of us blog who were trained as journalists? How many of us didn’t train as journalists but still know what we’re talking about, are entitled to our opinions, have standards by which we judge things and how we dispense opinions?) And I find that incendiary and belittling.

    “I reminded the audience that there are few professions skewered by non-colleague critics publicly.”

    I agree, and I’ll give you some more professions who get skewered by non-colleague critics publicly: politics, the media (books, radio, print, music, TV, gaming), and the world of Hollywood/celebrity.

    In the end, I don’t think a food blogger needs to have “credentials” to have an opinion about food or restaurants and make that opinion known. I think they need to have a sense of integrity and the desire to write the truth, not obscure it, or outright distort it. However, that can be hoped for anyone who makes or writes public statements, opinions, etc. Even the “truly responsible” journalists have a problem with those sorts of goals.

    In fact, Mario seems to have a problems with just such a member of the journalistic community in the form of a NY Post writer he doesn’t like.

    What I hate most about turning “food blogger” into a dirty word is how it gives chefs and restaurants the comfortable feeling that they can slough off any and all comments that come from a food blogger because, after all, they’re just a food blogger.

  • FaustianBargain

    i read that san francisco article..but if you distill the entire piece, the restaurant industry is basically saying that they cannot afford to pay for their employee health insurance.

    put simply like that, it villifies them. not my intention. but i am just simplifying the import of that piece as read by me. there are so many complex issues involved, but at the end of the day, thats what it means. from my pov, i dont think not making enough of a profit is not a good enough argument for not allowing a line cook or dishwasher afford healthcare for him and his family.

    i am also peeved by the reluctance of the restaurants to add tips and service charge to the bill like in europe..and lately followed by thomas kellar in the states..and some others too, i dont remember the names. the whole tipping business is so silly and idiotic in this country. not to mention the lack of universal healthcare..but baby steps. in the meantime, these gaping holes in the system are part of the risky business called restaurant business. an entrepreneur has to ask himself certain hard questions before dipping into this endevour of opening a restaurant. like how much profit he is willing to forego if the child of a dishwasher can get his/her braces.

    i am sorry. i know how hard it is for restaurant owners. i know they are not millionaires and that they work very hard, but this is how i feel.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Marc,

    Thank you so much for that link. I was at that Commonwealth Club panel and I’m so glad I went. Joyce did not steer away from some very hard-hitting questions and it was great to hear people really speak to topics rarely covered in the glossies.

    Aaron,

    Thanks for weighing in. I have to agree, but the thing is that if you Google a restaurant name and the only thing a person can find is blogs or blogging sites like Yelp and so forth, a restaurant has to know these words are going to affect them.

    Stephanie,

    Your points are well taken, thanks for taking the time to write them here.

    I especially appreciate your questions in paragraph 5. i think the main difference is that a journalist has a company that can be held liable for slander, plagiarism and not-fact checking if they do these sorts of things. generally speaking I don’t know of any bloggers who HAVE TO follow journalistic standards. it’s great when we choose to, but those who do not, unfortunately do represent many of us if their blogs are more popular.

    FB,

    unfortunately the laws are written in SF so that giving portions of tips to the BOH is illegal. I agree that restaurants should make health care an option for ALL their employees, but the truth is that at an establishment where an owner is just barely breaking even, if that, there would be no restaurant at all if they also had to pay health insurance.

    I don’t think “fining” restaurants for America’s health care issues is the answer. I agree that restaurant owners need to look beyond, “I make a mean dinner party, I think I should open a restaurant!” but, in SF especially, the cost of running a restaurant is so high that the small places will just close if they are being forced into a corner where they make no profit.

    I know of many restaurants that do not make a profit, at all. Even though they are busy all the time. These places ARE a labor of love, and they stay afloat for passion, not reason.

    I hope this piece will fuel more discussion and thoughts!

  • FaustianBargain

    if san francisco laws doesnt allow splitting of tips, maybe san francisco restaurants will consider rotating BOH staff to do FOH duties. and just have one team on rotation.