A Year In The City

A year ago on January 2, Katie and I drove a U-Haul filled with our things from San Diego to a rented room in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Next week on January 2, movers will be driving a truck filled with our things from San Francisco’s Outer Sunset to our new home in the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland.

That’ll wrap it up at exactly a year in the City: three hundred and sixty-five days that were interesting, enlightening, joyful, and challenging, in more ways than I can count.

It’s easy to see why people fall in love with San Francisco. The city’s beauty alone is staggering. But more than that, San Francisco in the last decade has become one of the major imperial centers of the contemporary world, drawing in not just the best and brightest meritocrats but people from all countries and all walks of life, in search of opportunity. The city is a bubbling cauldron of humanity in good and bad fortune, with all the tragedy and elation and, most notably, change, that brings.

For me personally, I find the quality of life in San Francisco amazing compared to where we came from. I don’t really need to drive a car, which is a great boon. True, the MUNI public transit system is desperately overloaded and needs a massive expansion in order to keep up — but at least it’s a complete system that serves the whole city, something that few American cities can offer.

The city’s bike infrastructure, meanwhile, is awesome and getting better. I haven’t been to Portland in nearly a decade so I can’t compare the two cities directly, but getting around by bike in San Francisco is better than anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in the country. And as certain San Francisco streets are shown to be unsafe for non-motorized users, the city makes safety improvements. This is striking to me, compared to the nearly criminal inaction I grew used to in San Diego, in such cases as the Fairmount and Montezuma area, and the Balboa and Clairemont Mesa bike lanes over 805.

That said, 17 pedestrians and a handful of cyclists were killed by drivers on San Francisco streets this year; when winter’s cold came, homeless people died on the street from hypothermia. Life is cheap in the imperial center, and we’re often reminded of that.

The most strikingly unusual thing about living in San Francisco, I would say, is the food. It’s just so damn good, unlike anything I could have imagined. I mean, I knew food would be better here than in San Diego; I didn’t understand it would be orders of magnitude better.

Bi-Rite Market might be the single highest-quality grocery store in the world, and living within range of it has been a life-changing experience. Beyond Bi-Rite there exist dozens of similarly-inspired markets, practically one in each neighborhood of the city. I have two within a short walk of my front door. It’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to groceries here.

And, San Francisco is of course a city of a million billion restaurants. Among them are plenty of bullshit places, but the city also boasts a really staggering number of world-class places to eat. Our friend Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen said on Twitter, perhaps jokingly, that San Francisco was overrated as a food city because most places are nothing special and there’s only about 25 great restaurants in the city. He might be right — but we’d need to stipulate there may not be another city on Earth with 25 truly great restaurants. My personal 25 include State Bird Provisions (really as good as all the hype says it is), Heirloom Cafe (which I don’t understand why it doesn’t get that much hype, too, it’s superb), Outerlands (our local for the last 9 months, not by happenstance), the aforementioned Hapa Ramen (currently a pop-up, soon to be a brick-and-mortar), and Tosca. And that’s just the restaurants — before we start talking about coffee places and wineries and bars and wine bars and so on.

While all this has made for an amazing experience for us this year, I have to temper it all by saying that, to my eyes, it’s hard to see San Francisco proper continuing to be the region’s wellspring of new and exciting culture going forward. The city’s mojo is being constricted by some very unusual economic circumstances, the effects of which many people are watching intently. It’s a complex and emotionally charged topic — it relates to the Google Buses and gentrification and more — and one which is big enough for its own blog post, that I’ll provide before too long. I know a fair number of my friends from outside the area have been curious about these issues, so I hope to help out with an explanation.

Maybe You Need To Make More Mistakes

If I had to point to the most significant thing I’ve learned in the last dozen or so years I’ve spent working as a manager, it would be acquiring a better understanding of mistakes and what they mean.

As a young software engineer managing technical groups, I buried myself in the latest thinking and writing about high-performance teams, and I was pretty confident that my approach to errors by my group was a sophisticated one. We were measuring the dimensions of our performance that mattered most to us, including error rate, and that alone helped improve our performance in those areas. If we saw an uptick of important mistakes, we talked to the people involved and investigated possible fixes to our systems. Generally speaking, we always called a mistake to the attention of the person who made it, and asked him to fix it. But we went out of our way to keep things neutral and not be accusatory. We grokked that mistakes were part of doing business and we didn’t sweat them.

Unless, of course, our company ended up shipping something with a major bug that cost a lot of money to fix. In that case, directors lost their shit, and people sometimes got fired. But whatever, we didn’t ship too many major mistakes. And we could usually fix them quickly and cheaply if we did.

When I carried this culture into the restaurant world, I learned its limitations. In the restaurant, you “ship” your work not once a month, but hundreds of times per night. And a significant error can cost not just a customer, but everyone the customer tells about her experience. With that in mind, in the cauldron of managing a busy restaurant, I reacted to errors the same way those company directors used to, when we shipped a faulty product.

I freaked out.

I should have known better. Back in the cube farms of the tech world, with my team of engineers, I was closer to the right idea. Identify, fix, tabulate, move on. But even then, I was still blind to the key question to ask about mistakes.

The money question to ask about mistakes is: how many mistakes do we want to make?

Most people in any organization, if you ask them this question, will tell you, of course we want zero mistakes.

Those people, sadly, are totally, completely, tragically wrong.

Indulge me in a quick thought experiment: suppose your organization ships a product with a significant mistake once per week.

Well, if your organization is in the business of launching billion-dollar rockets into space, that’s probably way too many mistakes. You will have to completely re-engineer your organization, and load up on people and processes to make sure you stop releasing faulty products. Or else you will not be in business.

On the other hand, if you’re running a bustling, casual neighborhood restaurant, making one significant mistake per week is also going to put you out of business — because it’s way too few mistakes. Making only one error in, say, five thousand dishes — an error rate of .0002 — is incredibly expensive and time-consuming. It means you’re staffed up several times more than you need to be, and spending a ton of money on labor, training, and quality control. You can’t do this and make your financials, at prices that anyone is going to be willing to spend.

Fortunately, in a restaurant, you don’t have to have an error rate of one in five thousand. Think about the math this way: if you patronize a casual restaurant fifty times, and order a hundred dishes, and 99 of the dishes are super delicious and one dish is incorrectly prepared, you’re going to think this is an awesome restaurant — as long as the restaurant handles its one error gracefully and fixes the situation. An error rate of one in a hundred, combined with great hospitality, is probably much closer to the ideal target for a restaurant like this.

Similarly, if you’re in the business of releasing online games that generate revenue, in which errors can be fixed in a matter of minutes or hours, one error per hundred releases might be too low. Because all those testing and QA processes are keeping revenue-generating features from hitting the market, and every day those new features wait for release costs you a lot more money than a bug fix does.

With that in mind, let’s return to the question: how many mistakes do we want to make?

To which we can add its underlying question: What is the cost of us making and fixing a mistake, versus the cost of us preventing mistakes?

Once you answer those two questions, everything else is easy. Just measure your mistakes, and change your systems if you are making too many — or if you are making too few.

What We Have Here Is Enough

In my last post, I talked about how we’re baking into Salsipuedes the idea that it will provide a context for us to do our best work.

What such a context looks like, of course, is itself a line of inquiry — an inquiry that we felt we had to pursue before starting this new restaurant. We wanted to get this straightened out now because we’re committed to not repeating any mistakes from our last restaurants — we intend instead to make all-new mistakes, or else what’s the point?

I started by defining a statement of our purpose. I adapted it from something I read (I can’t find the specific post now) by James Altucher, whose blog I heartily recommend.

My purpose is to emotionally connect with people — friends, neighbors, guests, and co-workers — I love and enjoy.

Pretty simple, no? At the core, that’s why I want to come to work, and why I love the hospitality industry.

With that as a base, Katie and I had many conversations to define a clear vision of how we want to approach both our work, and our lives in general, which envelop that work. We came to embrace the following credo for both ourselves and for Salispuedes, which we discovered in Peter Block and John McKnight’s book, The Abundant Community (ours is adapted slightly from the original):

What we have here is enough.

We ourselves can provide all we need in the face of the human condition.

We choose to live in a context of abundance, cooperation and satisfaction.

We are responsible for each other.

We can all provide unique gifts to our community.

We live with the reality of the human condition; life is not a problem to be solved.

That’s the mental state we want to embrace in our life and work. And then, finally, we get to the brand question — what, specifically, do we want our restaurant to stand for? What do we want Salsipuedes to mean to you and everyone who encounters it? We talked about that most of all. What we’ve come to, is a commitment to embrace:

Food and drink that reflects our physical and cultural landscape

Small scale production at every step of the chain

Neighborly hospitality

Attention to our craft and a commitment to doing our best work

Playfulness and fun, music and dance, love and joy

The power of gathering, which amplifies everything

Curiosity as to the nature of people, food, community, and life.

These are the goals we have for ourselves and our business. We know we aren’t perfect, and we won’t be able to live these goals every minute of every day. But, at least we know what we’re aiming for, and we can work to build that into every part of the business, from the ground up. That’s the best opportunity we could ask for.

One’s Best Work

“I just want us to be able to do our best work.”

This became kind of a mantra for me, and for my partners at the Linkery and at El Take It Easy, at the beginning of 2013. We knew, emotionally, we were losing our enthusiasm when it came to operating the restaurants. And we were trying to articulate what it was that we wanted, and what it was that we had lost.

The shape of our enterprise had morphed many times in response to both our changing interests and changes in our market. What had started as a 50-seat restaurant, open for dinner 5 nights a week, had evolved — not always with clear foresight — into two restaurants comprising 230 seats.  We operated from morning till late nite, seven days a week. Our initial staff of 8 had grown to 50. Our culinary vision, once narrow and clear, had expanded to encompass everything from french fries and tacos to sashimi and brunch.

Running through all of our operations was a pervading clarity that this was not, could not be, our best work.

As a manager, I had long seen it as my job to create a context for the team members, in which they could do their best work. I know most people start a job, and start their day, excited about bringing their whole selves to their work and making a difference. The magic of a successful organization in every industry is to avoid de-motivating its people through managerial meddling or, most commonly, creating a structure that makes it harder than necessary to do good work.  The truly spectacular organizations go a step further, and are continuously reshaping their context to allow their people to get even better.

But what of us, the company principals? In our quest to grow the financial stability of the enterprise, we had expanded to a point where our interests and passions could no longer connect with our market. We were serving food that, while honest and well-crafted, didn’t reflect our whole spirit. And that made it really hard for our key people to feel good about the 80 hour weeks and middling pay, the extra price we were paying for the opportunity to do this.

In the end, it became obvious that I had to blow it all up and start again.  This time, we’d build into the very bones of the new enterprise the idea that it would be a place where we could all do our best work, as long as we were coming to work. That is the process I’m in now, as we build out the physical and conceptual details of Salsipuedes, and it’s something I’ll be writing more about over the next few weeks and months.

Looking At Local In San Diego

Yesterday I spent a few minutes on KPBS’ Midday Edition (a public radio show in San Diego) with Matt Gordon and Catt White, discussing the prospects of “sustainable” food in San Diego restaurants. You can listen to the segment here. (Ignore the written transcript, it seems to be partly computer-generated gibberish.)

The segment was prompted by Sea Rocket Bistro’s decision to close, a few months after we sold The Linkery and El Take It Easy/Hubcap. Those three restaurants closing in 2013 made a drastic reduction in the number of San Diego restaurant kitchens driven by local ingredients — I can think of only two that remain, and they both operate within the larger context of a bar or tavern.

Which, in a way, is kind of what I had to say about the question: on one hand, a certain kind of localist restaurant that thrives in some other markets may not seem at this point to have much of a future in San Diego; on the other hand, local ingredients and localist cooking do continue to exist in other contexts — including in bars, beer gardens and brewpubs, counter-service restaurants, food trucks, and more. And there continues to be a culture in some mainstream San Diego restaurants to explore and embrace local ingredients, even if it’s in a measured way.

An interesting thing that I think Matt and I have in common, that came out from the segment: neither of us put sustainability as the focus of our restaurants, although it figures into our mindset. In the segment, Matt indicates that his approach is to first think operationally in terms of what will make the restaurant work in the market, and then looks for opportunities within that model to extend sustainability as much as possible.

For our end, the primary purpose of the Linkery and El Take It Easy was to explore a place-based cuisine in San Diego, to create a dining experience that was unique to the physical and cultural landscape of the place we lived. While that of course meant buying as much as we could locally, more importantly it meant buying from independent producers who invest the time and expense required to raise delicious ingredients that reflect both that care and their terroir. And in our kitchen, it meant eschewing pre-processed ingredients — from bacon and bread even down to condiments and cooking fats — in favor of making our own. Because how could commodity bacon or Heinz ketchup inform us about life at (+32°44′, -117°7′)?

That kind of restaurant — a restaurant that reflects, top to bottom, its place in geography and culture — is a thing that has succeeded and become essential in some markets. Notably on the West Coast of the US, you see it often in the Bay Area and in the Portland area, and to some extent in L.A., Seattle, and our various wine countries. Our mission at the Linkery and El Take It Easy was to provide something like that in my hometown, and while we had a lot of successes, we, like others before and after, never quite got the financial component to a satisfactory level.

The biggest reason for this, in my opinion, is simply the availability of dollars in the community. San Diego is a low density city, so there aren’t that many people near any restaurant to begin with. Plus, it’s a fairly small market — ranked 28th in size, comparable to Baltimore or Nashville (PDF link). On top of all that, San Diego doesn’t have a ton of high-paying jobs; the tech, biotech and academic industries that were driving the high end of our economy ten years ago seem to have greatly withered, at least from what I can tell talking to people who work in those fields.

Which makes for a tough sell when food is expensive. Here’s an example: a locally-raised, medium-sized pastured chicken, slaughtered on farm, typically costs a San Diego restaurant, at a minimum, around 20 bucks. (Anything less than that and the farmer herself is not sustainable). To meet standard margins for a San Diego table-service restaurant, that means a half-chicken entree would have a menu price of about $40.

Before the KPBS segment, I asked Matt what he thought the most he could get for a half-chicken entree, at the highest quality. His off-the-cuff answer: “Around $23.”

Between the $23 top end that a San Diego localist restaurant can charge for that dish, and the $40 it needs to charge, lies real financial sustainability: profit, market-rate salaries for management, two days off a week, the resources on hand to fix a broken refrigerator on a Sunday and still not sweat making payroll. For years, we lived somewhere between that $23 and that $40, and while we probably could have kept going like that as long as we wanted to, at some point we didn’t want to any more.

Recently, the folks who own the Spotted Pig in New York bought Tosca, a 100+ year old neighborhood bar in North Beach in San Francisco; think red upholstered booths, concrete floor, and no reservations. They reopened its kitchen, which had been shuttered for 60 years, and added a casual, delicious gastropub-style menu. We had a great night there recently, feasting and boozing. Like a lot of parties around us, we ordered and savored, among other dishes, their signature half chicken. Its price: $42.

This example doesn’t say anything about the relative merits of San Diego versus the Bay, or about the sophistication of the clientele (plenty of expensive San Francisco restaurants cater to well-heeled ignoramuses). It simply says that the bar of what people can and will pay for restaurant dishes in the Bay Area is high enough that localist restaurants can fit under it.

Two added thoughts come to mind.

One: It seems that a meme developed in certain quarters since we closed the Linkery, that I had at some point(s) attributed the restaurant’s closing to a lack of sophistication or taste of San Diego diners. Even the host of the KPBS segment tried to put those words in my mouth, and went I wouldn’t bite, she suggested I had said it nonetheless. I’ve been pretty sure that I never made this assertion — because it’s not what I think — and I even went back through my old posts to make sure there wasn’t anything like that in there (there wasn’t). The bummer about this isn’t that I’m somehow falsely charged, but that the creation of this particular meme from thin air means that some number of people really wanted me to say and think this — these folks feel the need to defend San Diego, and thus themselves, against a charge of being rubes, that must arise in their own heads. This is a shame and not necessary: there are oodles of sophisticated people in San Diego, and plenty of great, thoughtful and appreciative diners. While a certain kind of localist restaurant — the kind we and others worked on — has yet to financially thrive in San Diego, that isn’t an indictment of the city’s taste; it’s more than anything a function of external forces including the economics of the region, its built environment, and its cultural foci.

Two: San Diego does have the good fortune to be part of Tijuana, where the economics of local food are slightly different and there is a wealth of talent that knows how to work with it. We returned this weekend to Verde y Crema, and I’d say that if you’re looking for the kind of restaurant we sought to create at the Linkery — a restaurant that deeply reflects the physical and cultural landscape of the region, in a fun and delicious way — this is a place for you. And it’s only about 25 minutes from downtown San Diego. If I lived in San Diego still, I’d be enjoying the scene in TJ, all the time.