Another great night for foodies at the Commonwealth Club tonight. An illustrious panel discussed a wide range of topics, moderated by the inimitable Joyce Goldstein. When I first arrived in San Francisco and had lunch at her restaurant, Square One, it was an epiphany. Though I grew up in New York City, Square One's simple, fresh, authentic food was like nothing I'd had before (or since, for that matter). Joyce is now a restaurant consultant, cookbook author and SF Chronicle columnist.
The panel included:
Michael Dellar, Co-founder and co-proprietor, Lark Creek Restaurant Group
Craig Stoll, Chef/Proprietor, Delfina
Staffan Terje, Chef/Partner, Perbacco
Charles Phan, Executive Chef/Proprietor, The Slanted Door and Out the Door
Pete Sittnick, Director of Project Development, Pat Kuleto Restaurant Development and Management Co.
We were off to a good start with Dellar noting that in San Francisco we have the highest number of restaurants per capita in the U.S. We have people who love to eat out, and our restaurants outshine those in other cities due to our location's access to resources and the value we deliver for the dollar. However, Joyce popped that bubble by asking the panel about how they're dealing with rising costs of labor and produce.
Terje: "We'll do anything not to raise prices." (He even said he'll go to Costco on his day off to buy paper to save a dollar.)
Dellar: "We'll do our best to keep the quality up, but it'll be a challenge." Prices may go up and they may also have to cut jobs.
The panel did their best to put a good face on things, but I got the sense that the squeeze is on, and we're going to feel it in service levels and ingredient quality.
Will the higher costs lead to a casualization of restaurants?
Stoll: Everyone's looking for things that are less labor-intensive so they can employ fewer people.
How's the San Francisco labor pool?
Dellar: San Francisco has the most sophisticated and best-educated labor pool in the Bay Area. (Customers too.)
Terje: It's hard to work here due to the high cost of living. People have to make the tough choice between being paid less to pursue their passion in great restaurant, or being paid more to microwave vegetables in a hotel that's doing weddings for 350 twice a week.
The general consensus on cooking school was to skip it. Better to learn by doing.
Terje: You come out of cooking school $100K in debt, only to be paid $10-13/hour in a restaurant. "Even though it says 'Chef' on your diploma, you're not a chef...It's not brain surgery to cook; you just have to be passionate about it."
Phan: Somewhat coming to the schools' defense, he said they're good for people who lack the discipline to learn on their own. But for everyone else, "you should just take the money and go eat at good restaurants." so that you know what you're shooting for, and when you've made it, you'll know.
Tips on training floor staff:
Terje: You want to avoid customers asking "How's the halibut?" and the staff responding with "It's good." (The humor of Terje's delivery is diminished in this translation but hopefully you get it. Who hasn't had that experience at least once, right?) Have your staff taste the food, and then describe it as if it were wine (flavors, how it makes you feel by consuming it). "If you want your staff to sell a Ferrari, you have to let them drive it."
Dellar: His restaurants have a 9-day certification program culminating in practical and written tests. Each employee must be re-certified every year.
Phan: Watch for burnout. Catch them before they really blow up and take it out on customers. Rotate them to a different role or have them take a break.
Thoughts on San Francisco customers:
Stoll: Part of his business plan was never to underestimate the sophistication of the San Francisco customer. "This is a city in which a bike messenger can name the three greens in his mezclun salad."
Phan: Back when the Slanted Door was in the Mission, they might get 4 orders of whole fish a night -- and three of them would be sent back by guests that wanted the head removed. Now, they get about 25-28 orders a night, and not a single one has come back in two years.
Terje: "Customers keep us challenged...People are connecting more with food...they're less afraid of trying new things."
On noise levels in restaurants: All were in agreement that a certain level of noise is good - you want everyone to feel the excitement of being in a place with a lively atmosphere (though, admittedly, it's a fine line between lively and way too loud).
Dellar: Provided full disclosure of his involvement with the company (board member, I think?). Loves it as a restaurateur ("It's changed the way restaurants manage the front of the house.") and as a customer (he can make reservations at 4 a.m. and not suffer the rejection of a live person if a table isn't available).
Phan: Has it as a value-add for his customers, though he still has to maintain the same amount of live phone staff.
Stoll: The only panelist that doesn't use the service, much to the chagrin, it seemed, of the entire audience, Joyce included. While he said it was because Delfina prefers "the human touch," and they're "lucky to be pretty full" most nights, he acknowledged that they're currently looking into O.T. and other similar options (though I personally can't think of anything better!)
In looking back through my notes, I realized I didn't capture much of anything from Pete Sittnick. What I do remember is his denouncement of blogs. (He gave the impression that he could barely turn his computer on, let alone find all the blogs on which he's being written about. So I guess I'm safe.) Rather than writing about a bad experience on a blog that he'll never read, you should tell him about it so he can address it. Well, to NS' point in response to my Chef's Story: Thomas Keller post, how likely is that Sittnick will be around when you've got a gripe (or even a compliment for that matter). I say, let the chips fall where they may, Pete. Cream always rises to the top.