Full Days at The Half Orange

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I’m happy to announce that, starting today, The Half Orange is open until 8pm every weekday. Our full hours are 11:30am to 8pm, Monday through Friday.

We’re still waiting on our beer and wine license, and we’ll probably hold off on weekend hours until that comes through. But in the meantime we’re really happy with how the food is coming out, and we’d love for you to come enjoy it.

We’re Open!

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It’s a been almost a year since we’ve gotten to do what we love most — making and serving food to our neighbors. But we’re back at it again today at The Half Orange, in the heart of Fruitvale.

For now, we’re open M-F lunch only (11:30am-2:00pm), with dinner and weekend service coming soon. You can see our menu here.

Thanks for all your support in years past, and in the times to come.

Fruitvale 1878

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We were at Alameda Flea yesterday searching for the perfect host stand (which we found, thank you very much vendor at stall Q21) and we stumbled up this map of downtown Fruitvale from 1878. Right in the center (block 111 of the Levy Tract, in the green polygon) is the current location of The Half Orange, our restaurant which opens tomorrow, 136 years after this map was drawn up.

Fruitvale’s a bit different now: The Oakland, Fruit Vale & Mills Seminary Railroad is long gone, but we do have BART and we’re getting a Bus Rapid Transit line, too. We also have one of the strongest concentrations of delicious restaurants of any community in the Bay Area, which sets a high standard for The Half Orange as we do our thing. We hope to contribute something personal and authentic.

We’ll have the map framed and on the wall somewhere, too, if you’d like to check it out.

Back at the Grind!

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Oh hey, guess what? We’re opening a restaurant in Fruitvale. This is different than the restaurant we’re opening in North Oakland. We’re doing both. Because restaurants are fun and delicious.

Since we moved to the Bay Area, Katie and I had talked about how, after we get Salsipuedes going, we’d like to then work on a casual place featuring handmade sausages, grass-fed burgers, and craft beer, like a streamlined version of the Linkery. For whatever reason, we felt that this, alongside the local-seafood-and-wine-driven Salsipuedes, completed our offerings.

It turns out that we got the order of operations backward — the sausage and beer place will almost certainly open first — but we’re excited to get the chance to do both.

We live in Fruitvale and we love it. Fruitvale is an East Oakland neighborhood, originally an independent city, with a lively, walkable downtown district. Fruitvale has historically been connected by rail to downtown Oakland (about 4 miles away) and other Bay Area cities.

Here in Fruitvale we have a lot of really good restaurants, and Katie and I patronize them a lot. Restaurants here tend to specialize in Mexican food, often specifically from Jalisco, Durango, Michoacan and/or Sinaloa. Those are all areas with amazing cuisine, but it seemed to us there was probably room in the neighborhood for a burgers & brats place, too. And when we would dine at Taco Grill in the Fruitvale Village BART plaza, we’d often think about how that was the sort of venue that would be perfect for said sausage and beer restaurant.

Well, we weren’t the only folks dining at Taco Grill — that restaurant has been so successful they moved last month to a bigger location in the same plaza (they also changed their name to Obelisco). So when that space became available, Katie and I only had to talk for about thirty seconds before we agreed we wanted to do this.

The name of the new joint is The Half Orange, which is kind of a play on the old Linkery logo. It also plays on the history of the neighborhood as being a place filled with fruit trees (thus the name, Fruitvale). And the phrase “half orange”, in Spanish media naranja, translates as a person’s “better half” or “other half” — the person who completes them. Our idea is that what we’ll do here, along with what we’ll do at Salsipuedes, completes what we have to offer you.

We hope you like it.

The Small Business Owner’s Case for a Higher Minimum Wage

UPDATE: I re-wrote the below post for Slate, it’s posted here. As working professionally with an editor tends to make writing better, I recommend that piece over this one.

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but around these parts there’s a strong movement forming to raise the minimum wage. Most of the municipal proposals are in the $10-13/hour range, but the zeitgeist seems to be heralding a $15/hour minimum wage.

People getting paid more for their work is a heartwarming notion, so it can be pretty easy to get behind these proposals on an emotional level. Economically, one sees macroeconomic cases made both for and against a higher minimum wage. I haven’t found the arguments in either direction particularly compelling. At the small business owners’ level, I hear from people both in favor and against raising the minimum wage.

But who are we kidding – most people are going to give or withhold their support for this initiative based largely on their perceived self-interest. So here’s my self-interest — as a small business owner, I selfishly think a higher minimum wage is great for me. Make it $15 an hour. Make it $20. The higher, the better. Make it high enough that dishwashers get paid as well as office workers.

The reason is this: the biggest downward force on the profits of our independent businesses is price “competition” from large, well, capitalized corporations. Prices at the local superstore, supermarket and chain restaurant anchor our customers’ understanding of what things cost. In other words, the reason it’s hard to sell a $15 artisanal burger in most markets is not because the product isn’t worth $15 (it can be), and it’s not because making the burger doesn’t cost the business that much (it can cost that or more) — it’s because a burger costs half that or less in many corporate retail environments.

The way these big companies are able to generate profits while selling things so cheaply is by externalizing certain costs that we small businesses can’t externalize. These companies, alone or in aggregate, have the resources to produce goods in areas with lax environmental regulations, externalizing some of their production costs onto the environment. They can transport the goods from these remote places over subsidized roads using subsidized fuel, externalizing those costs as well to the taxpayer while undercutting the local production of goods within communities.

Subtly, a nonlivable minimum wage — and minimum wages under $15 are basically unlivable wages — is also a kind of externalization of costs. These employees work a full-time job, but are unable to afford health care, education, quality food or a healthy routine. The difference between what they make and what they need is paid, one way or another, by the community in which they live and by taxpayers.

Simply put, when Global Megastore Inc pays its employees less than they can live a decent life on, the difference is very clearly paid by the rest of us.

Now, if the minimum wage rises and the cost of human resources has to be borne in full by the employer, then the price that large companies charge for their products will have to move closer to their true cost. That means that we small businesses — who generally have to charge nearer the true cost of things, because we lack the ability to externalize many costs — will be competing on a more level playing field with the big guys.

And, in this environment where fewer costs are borne by the community and where things are therefore priced higher to the purchaser, the purchaser is likely to be more thoughtful about her choices. Which is where we independent businesses have our advantage. With our small size, we can be nimble in our offerings; with our personal involvement in our communities, we can develop a kind of trust with our clients that can’t be matched by mere brands. And when everybody in the market has cash to spend, and every burger costs at least $15, you can sell a burger based primarily on its quality.

I saw a little of this in action some years back when I spent some time in Australia, where the minimum wage has typically been higher than in the US (it’s currently hovering around US$16/hour). While there were plenty of big companies and the costs of opening even a small business were higher than in the US, the biggest differences that stood out to me was the higher quality of most everything for sale, and the care with which people made purchasing decisions. I’m sure there are other factors at work, too, but I think the higher minimum wage helped create a context for quality to thrive.

TL;DR: a higher minimum wage helps create an environment in which thoughtful, high-quality independent businesses can thrive by outfoxing our well-capitalized competitors.

NB: Relatedly, but not exactly part of this argument, I enjoyed this factoid from Inequality.org:

At the top 1 percent of the American income distribution, average incomes rose 194 percent between 1974 and 2011. Had U.S. minimum wages risen at the same pace as U.S. maximum wages, the minimum wage would now be $26.96 an hour.

Today, $15 — tomorrow, $27!

San Diego Exit Interview, Part 2

In December I sat down with Jed Sundwall to do the 3rd in our series of interviews that goes back to 2008. It’s funny, for whatever reason I’ve felt like my move from San Diego wasn’t complete until the last part of the interview was published. Well, now it has been, on Jed’s blog.

This interview digs pretty far into the subject that Jed and I initially bonded over all those years ago — the question of what it means for a brick-and-mortar business to use the social media and internet marketing techniques popularized by the “Web 2.0″ movement in the mid-aughts.

In one part of the interview, I talk about how our adoption of those techniques propelled us into spaces that San Diego restaurants hadn’t been — and how the same techniques may also have ultimately undermined us:

I think that, as with a lot of these kinds of projects, we also discovered the limits of this approach. Which was, it became too easy to consume the Linkery without actually experiencing the Linkery…Our online presence became its own, free, content that we were delivering to people who then added their own content around it, and then they sold it one way or another, without anybody ever just fucking eating a hot dog.

I hope you find our discussion interesting and/or useful. As always, I’m grateful to Jed for taking the time and effort to tease out whatever I may have learned from my work. With this interview, I particularly enjoy that we talk a lot about the things that Jed is passionate about, and I appreciate examining the ways in which our experiences and beliefs don’t exactly match up. That’s where the real good stuff is.

San Diego Exit Interview, Part 1

In December I sat down with Jed Sundwall on the patio at Fathom Bistro, Bait and Tackle, for what we jokingly called my San Diego exit interview. You can read the first part here.

Jed and I now have a little history of these long-form interviews; this is the third one I’ve done with him in the last six years. A nice thing about this format is that Jed, being a blogger and not a professional journalist, can go as deep as he wants with the questioning, and can let the answers stand at their own length. So you can really get a feel for multiple layers of thought and emotion, that can’t be communicated within the typical format constraints of commercial food writing. Plus it helps that Jed is a talented interviewer. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this, and the forthcoming second part.

The G-Words

In my last post, I mentioned that I think that it’s unlikely that San Francisco will continue to be the cultural engine of the Bay Area, due to unusual economic factors and the “G-Words”. The G-Words are (1) “Google Bus” — a generic term for the luxury coaches that shuttle tech employees between San Francisco-area residences and South Bay tech workplaces — and (2) “Gentrification”.

These G-words are emblematic of an emerging economic force that is displacing a lot of people, in many cases tearing apart communities, and also, in my observation, suffocating the cultural fermentation that has historically made San Francisco one of the most interesting cities in the world. Because the “Google Buses” are such visible symbols of these changes — and also because, frankly, they’re kind of eerie, when they roll through the city streets — they’ve attracted a lot of attention including protests and vandalism. Several of my friends who live elsewhere have asked me why the buses are the subject of ire in a progressive city. After all, they’re a form of mass transit, and why would people protest that?

Of course, the protests, and what I see as the likely coming cultural enervation of the city, are not at their core about transit. Instead, these narratives come from an emerging awareness that San Francisco, which for a century and a half has functioned as an independent, exciting metropolis, is perhaps being co-opted for a new, and very dull, purpose.

The underlying force is this: the megacompanies of Silicon Valley — Facebook, Apple, Google, et al. — and their economic ecosystem seem to have grown into an enormous employment engine; analagous to the biggest urban concentrations of factories in the Industrial Age. However, these companies’ campuses are located in the leafy suburban municipalities of the Peninsula, a hour to two hours south of San Francisco.

These municipalities are tightly legislated low-rise, low-density burghs, with residential real estate values that have ascended into the stratosphere as Silicon Valley became more important over the decades. Now, people who’ve paid a million or two million for their 3-bedroom 1960′s tract home are not likely to embrace zoning changes that would allow more housing to be built, as that would greatly dilute the value of their property, as well as changing the kind of suburb they’ve paid so much money to live in.

As a result, these municipalities reap the benefits of having enormous employment centers, and those benefits are then divided among a small number of residents. But the companies themselves have no place to house their workers. Thus, they created the Google Buses, luxury coaches replete with wi-fi and other amenities, deployed to expand the radius in which a Silicon Valley tech worker can practically live.

These private bus routes are concentrated most heavily in the Mission District of San Francisco, a highly dense neighborhood which historically has housed large numbers of working-class people and families, first Italian and Irish and more recently largely Latino. For various reasons related to cost, density and geography — and because Mission residents are less politically powerful than those of other neighborhoods — this district provided a perfect place for tech companies to house their $100K+/year knowledge workers.

This innovative housing system has mostly worked, at least for the tech companies, and it has expanded to other neighborhoods, methodically. What happens to these neighborhoods when the buses arrive is staggering: renting a modest one-bedroom apartment in the Mission is now a $4,000/month proposition. And, because San Francisco is a rent-controlled city, an identical apartment next door might be rented to a longtime resident for $500/month.

This situation of course leads to plenty of human tragedy. With such a stark profit motive, the forces of capital find ways — often through liberal application of the Ellis Act — to evict longtime residents and attract high-paying newbies. Families on fixed incomes, 95-year-old pensioners, disabled people are torn from their communities and support networks, and left to fend for themselves in a market where a median apartment rental requires at least a $60/hour job. It’s a sorry state of affairs that has no business existing in any community.

Because the human cost of this situation is so visible and painful, a second dynamic goes far less examined. Which is that we are witnessing what seems to be the first occurrence of a thriving, world-class city being converted into a wealthy bedroom community. Quote-unquote San Franciscans — people who, to a large degree, live, work, and connect within the city itself — are being replaced en masse with ultra-high-income commuters who use the urban infrastructure only for sleeping and some amount of nighttime entertainment.

And here’s the thing about wealthy bedroom communities: they are the dullest places in America. Kids who grow up in them, if they manage to avoid crashing their cars or developing hard drug problems out of sheer boredom, move to places like San Francisco when they grow up, just to experience something that doesn’t suck.

There exist economic reasons that wealthy bedroom communities are so uninteresting. Commercial rents are sky-high because they provide access to so many rich people; in order to pay these high rents businesses have to cater to the largest number of residents as possible, eschewing risks or innovations for the security of mass appeal. That high-earning populations might tend to have more conservative tastes only accelerates the race to the middle of the road.

This is the direction that San Francisco, through no fault of its own, appears to be headed. New businesses, paying through the nose for square footage surrounded by highly compensated meritocrats, have to snare as many of those meritocrats’ dollars as possible. The typical new restaurant, for instance, no matter how edgy its name or hip its decor, is operating in a context most akin to a TGI Friday’s in a suburban mall. That context will tend to make the experience of going to that restaurant akin to going to Friday’s, as well.

I’m not saying these challenges can’t or won’t be overcome by talented individuals who are committed to contributing cultural value to the city. Those people exist, and they’ll do it. But, in aggregate, it looks like the engine that has been driving San Francisco’s dynamic culture, is being more and more starved of fuel.

One more thing about all these forces: they cause a chain reaction that affects every community in the Bay Area. People who seek a life independent from automobile culture but make less than the $150K/year per household it takes to live in San Francisco if you don’t have a rent-controlled apartment already, fan out around the commuter train stations in the area. The communities surrounding these stations, such as West Oakland, or Fruitvale where Katie and I have chosen to live, have long been places where working people could afford to stay in the neighborhood where they grew up, and where immigrants could find housing next to others from their culture. And, these are neighborhoods where, due to the low cost of entry, innovative artists and businesses have found footholds and contributed to the culture of the city. Now these communities are in turn threatened by the displaced masses from San Francisco — many of whom earn enough that they would be considered rich in most of the country, but who in the Bay Area can’t afford to live anywhere near their jobs.

In my opinion, there are villains here, even if those villains aren’t on the big white buses. Instead, the primary culprits are the municipalities who are hosting tens of thousands of workers and their companies, but who use zoning rules to prevent the possibility that those employees be housed in their cities. As a result, all this will continue until the state or region steps in, and forces suburban districts, if not to actually build housing, to at least allow adequate housing to be built to accommodate the workers they host.