The View from the Kitchen

Last week, I attended an event sponsored by the New York Times here in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center. Kim Severson, who recently won a Pultizer for her reporting on sexual harassment and the restaurant industry along with a team of writers, interviewed a panel of Bay Area based women chefs about the state of the restaurant industry in California. Reem Assil,  Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland are three well respected restaurateurs/chefs who currently own and operate businesses here in the Bay Area.

Several themes emerged from the conversation. Of course, sexual harassment was central to the conversation. But something else came up which made a light bulb go off for me.  Tanya mentioned how difficult it is for her to find investors. Even with all her experience and visibility, her commitment to her community, she has struggled with this.

What is this about? Prior to this moment, why is that men have managed to attract investment despite their track records with settling out of court for sexual harassment claims, while women have so much struggle with this? And does being a woman of color play into this? Or the community that she serves?

Two things come to mind here for me.

One, the investors who bankroll the Mario Batalis of the world are not interested in the kind of business that Tanya is committed to. They want a ROI and they need to understand the attraction of the business. Dominique had had less trouble raising capital because she has a fine dining establishment. Rich folks get that. They want the kind of visibility that being an investor in her restaurants bring. Tanya’s food is for all of us, not just a group of people who can afford $400/person dinner. So it takes a certain kind of investor to see it’s value for themselves.

Two, I believe to raise capital for her businesses, and businesses like hers, it may require  restaurant owners like Tanya to think of different ponds to fish in. Just like Dominique Crenn can go to investors who can afford to eat at her restaurants, maybe we can create a pond of people who invest in restaurants like Tanya’s. Not for the profit they are looking to make, but the communities they are trying to build. Like a capital fund for community based businesses. Like a BIG capital fund.

Real estate developers, are you listening? Let’s dig a pond…

 

 

What’s the purpose..

This is the very first blogpost I did when I started my blog, but I wanted to post it again. To represence why I am doing this and what I believe is important…

 

A little over a year ago, I was taking a little nap when my phone rang. The area code was Upstate New York, which only mildly concerned me, as my daughter goes to college up there, so I decided to answer it even though I had no idea who was on the other end.

“Hello, B?” the woman’s voice, kind of high pitched New York accent reminded me of Estelle Harris, the actress who played George Constanza’s mother on Seinfeld.

“Yes?”

“This is Nadine, DJ’s sister in New York. I’ve been trying to reach you through facebook, but I wasn’t getting anywhere so I thought I’d call. How are you, B? and how’s your husband?”

“We’re ok.” I said,” How are you, Nadine?  It’s been a long time.”

“I wanted to let  you know that Davy passed away a few months ago. You and your husband were so good to him. Thank you so much for taking such good care of him.”

It had been nearly five years since my husband and I closed our rotisserie restaurant in a successful food center in San Francisco, five extremely hard years from which we only recently began to fully recover. N’s brother, he liked to be called DJ, had been a regular customer of ours, and when I say “regular”, I mean every single day.

I remember DJ’s first visit to our shop. We must have been open just a few weeks and we served kind of expensive roasted meats and side dishes. The food was sold by weight, so I put some items on plate for him and weighed it out. I could see the struggle on his face as he asked me to put some food back…From that day on, whatever DJ ordered was $5. A plate full of food and maybe some chicken soup. We called it the “DJ special” and every single day we fed him, and sat with him at our tables outside, while he told us about his most recent ailment, or ordeal at the VA. He must have been in his 70s then. He would show up with his baggy flak jacket, his sweat pants and bright green hightops, floppy hat and sunglasses because whatever medication he was taking made his eyes sensitive to light. Every day we were open, DJ came for lunch. If we were going to be closed for any reason, we’d pack up a bag full of food for for him to have the next day (very rarely did we close…holidays like Christmas mostly.) Like me, DJ was a member of the Tribe and we’d talk holiday food together…Whenever he wasn’t feeling good, I would tell him I’d say a healing prayer for him at synagogue. He pulled me aside one day to tell me how much that meant to him.

Hearing Nadine’s news, I was heartbroken. The day we closed the restaurant for good, a December day in 2008, was the last time I’d seen DJ. I had always thought we’d see him again, maybe if we’d opened another place. But I had lost my stomach for risk, and 2009 was a terrible time to try to raise money. News of DJ’s passing made me feel like I had failed all over again.

About six months later after N’s call, I was talking to someone who lives in Bernal Heights about my client who opened a restaurant down the street from her. I had begun doing bookkeeping and restaurant consulting on a freelance basis after I closed my place, and I loved working with chef/owners like Tony and Jonathan. “They are a great addition to the neighborhood,” she said. Like a family that had just moved in next door.

While I was still doing some client work, I met a woman who needed help with her operations. She couldn’t keep going the way she was…something had to change and she didn’t even know where to start. One thing was certain for her, she had come to feel that she owed it to the community around her to stay open, and the only way to do that was for her to be successful.

Of all the reasons people open restaurants, to be unsuccessful is NOT one of them. Everyone wants to succeed, but if you’ve spent your career learning your craft and developing your passion, you may have missed the part about running the business. In fact, maybe you’ve hired someone to do that part but you need to understand it yourself.

Red Truck is the place to find that information. In this space, I’ll cover in simple terms, what are financials, why you need a POS and which one to choose, how to be an employer. Mostly I want to hear from you about the challenges that face you as a restaurant owner. I’ve faced just about every single one, and if I haven’t, I know someone who has and I’ll be inviting them to guest blog here too. I’ve worked with start-ups, pop-ups, well-established businesses. While buying the services of a consultant can be expensive, I have designed my blog to be an inexpensive way to get crucial information to establish a strong foundation. You owe it to the community that you serve to be a success.

St. Helena, Ca – July 8, 2018

My husband and I came into the cool of the restaurant from the heat of a Napa Valley afternoon, searching for a cool cocktail and a little snack to tide us over. I hadn’t been in this particular space since it’s new incarnation as The Charter Oak Restaurant but it was unmistakably the same space with a new vibe. This is to me, the quintessential Napa Valley restaurant with outdoor seating on the patio outside, grape vines everywhere, a brick structure with high high ceilings and a long wide bar that faced out to the patio. I used to sit and nurse my daughter on that patio while sipping a glass of beer.

I never miss an opportunity to talk with servers and bartenders. This was no exception. We usually identify ourselves as long-time restaurant folks, as my husband is still a chef and I love to write about restaurant finance and human resources.

This restaurant tacks on a service charge instead of requesting a discretionary tip. I think I’ve written about this in the past, and I have yet to hear from anyone on the finance side about how it is effecting the bottom line, or labor costs, or employee turn over. That is my next step.

But listening to Zach, I asked if this policy deterred him from taking the position there. After all it occurred to me that there are lots of other restaurants in the Valley that don’t have this policy and he could be making money in tips. “No,” he replied, “I knew I wanted to work here because of their bar program.” A professional restaurant staff…that builds retention. A well-treated staff, everyone believing that they are making a contribution and they see the results.

I had another conversation with a restaurateur this week. And her concern was how, with rising costs all around, particularly real estate and labor, could she still provide her customers with a great value at the prices she was charging. Would she have to raise her prices, or provide less service? What are the trade-offs that are  being discussed – reduced service models, or higher prices?

It almost feels like the income inequality that we are seeing in our economy is playing out in the way restaurants are redefining themselves…