Opening A Restaurant in San Francisco. {Part One}

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.}

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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?

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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.

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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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