Interview with Nopa's Jeff Hanak

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Jeff Hanak. Photo courtesy of Yanni Kehagiaras.
Jeff Hanak. Photo courtesy of Yanni Kehagiaras.

Since it opened in 2006, Nopa restaurant has received stellar reviews for food, service, cocktails and late night hours—a rarity in San Francisco. The restaurant is run and owned by Jeff Hanak, Allyson Jossel and chef Laurence Jossel. They met while working for the Chow Restaurant group, which is known for affordable food that satisfies both gourmet and comfort leanings. This piece came about because scores of hospitality professionals have told me something along the lines of “Nopa get’s it right” in the interviews I’ve done for Bay Area Bites. I asked Jeff Hanak to share with Bay Area Bites the way Nopa works, as well as his holiday and Bay Area food and cocktail favorites. Hanak’s answers have been edited for clarity and content.

Bay Area Bites: What are you favorite holiday foods and how do you celebrate the holidays?
Hanak: My three favorite holiday things are Champagne, latkes and Dungeness crab. The latkes are for the Jewish side of my family. I just made latkes the other night and used parsnips. They were pretty tasty. We go to Perbacco every Christmas Eve for dinner.

Bay Area Bites: Industry folks often name Nopa as the restaurant that is the best in all categories: food, service and drinks. How do you set and maintain standards?
Hanak: I don’t know if there’s a secret to our success. We always try to hire people who want to be there. We don’t always hire on experience; I hire when I sit and have a conversation with the person. If they can talk to me, they can also do that at the table. If they need training on service, I can teach them that. If they have passion, then the job to train them is a lot easier.

We rarely hire servers; we usually hire runners and hosts and see how that works. Then it’s, let’s see if they want to bartend, manage, serve, or cook. We ask, “What’s next?” if they do a great job. That’s how we build the restaurant.

We treat people respectfully and don’t scream a lot. Were hiring adults and professionals. I tend to set expectations. If they make the best of it, the rest is up to them.


Bay Area Bites: What are you most passionate about food-wise?
Hanak: Right now, I’m definitely excited about Dungeness crab. What we’re doing at brunch is exciting – because you see all aspects of egg cookery and pastries. I just got back from Spain and we ate so much great fish. That was kind of fun to celebrate from a technique standpoint. At Nopa, we’re doing a lot of smoking on the grill – fish like trout. That’s fun. Laurence is doing a lot of whole food butchery, things like a couple lambs and pig a week. We’ve been doing that for awhile.

Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Hanak: Stan Bromley was the VP of Four Seasons and I worked there as an intern when I was going to City College. It was amazing the impact he had on the hotel industry here. I look at Laurence and Allyson and the way we’ve placed an importance on how to put more balance into work and life. We work well off of each other. Angel Stoyanof had a major impact on my life and how I look at life and business and opportunities. He was very straight to the point, he told you what he was thinking. Being at Park Chow also had a big influence on me.

Bay Area Bites: What are the best and worst things about being in restaurant business?
Hanak: I can contrast being in restaurants my whole life to then being in the financial industry for nine months. There’s no other feeling of the buzz of being in restaurants and providing hospitality to customers. You’re building an amazing team of individuals. In order to serve 330 brunches and 500 dinners like we do at Nopa, you have to have everyone on the same wave length. So, it's bringing together different age groups, cultures, and education to provide an amazing experience for people. I didn’t find that feeling in the financial world. Back in the restaurant, you have to provide the consistency of service and food and you have to be in it together.

As for the worst parts of the business, sometimes you don’t have people who are 100 percent into what you’re doing. They take a job for a financial opportunity and they’re not always excited about the end goal. It’s tough sometimes to convince them how to get out of it.

Bay Area Bites: What are the lessons you’ve learned on the way?
Hanak: The biggest lesson is to follow something that you love. If you do, it will most of the time be good for you personally and financially. You need a strong team of partners who look out for each other and who are honest.

When I am managing, I try to set goals and expectations and communicate without fear and threats and screaming. I learned a lot that I want to bring people on and educate them because I didn’t always have someone I could reach out to as a whole when I was starting out. I try to reach out to managers and staff and lead them in a direction that is hospitality or not hospitality. I opened Nopa with Laurence and Allyson because we knew and respect each other.

Bay Area Bites: Do you have any favorite Bay Area food & drink spots?
Hanak: Say Cheese in Cole Valley, because they have a great domestic cheese selection. For meat or chicken, I really love going to Fatted Calf or Bi-Rite market.

I live right by New May Wah market, so I’m in there often, buying shrimp, fish, clams and crab.
State Bird Provisions is on my list. Stuart’s a good friend of mine.

I don’t go out to eat so much (laughs) but do eat at Delfina Pizzeria with my kids a lot. Out the Door is also an easy “go-to” restaurant.
I don’t get to Perbacco often but when I do, I love it -- Staffan’s a great chef. I also love eating at Cotogna.

To drink beer, I go to Toronado. I had a great sherry cocktail at AQ that was fun.


Bar Agricole does some of the best cocktails in restaurants.