We at OpenTable are thrilled to be a sponsor of the third annual Golden Gate Restaurant Association Industry Conference next week, which brings together Bay Area restaurant owners and operators for two days of dynamic conversations and valuable insights. Chris Seidell, our Director of Analysis & Growth, will be moderating a discussion with some of San Francisco’s top restaurateurs about reviews and ratings and how they can impact a business at every stage of the lifecycle.
Among the panelists is Jay Bordeleau, owner of Maven and Mr. Tipple’s in San Francisco, who has had an incredibly active year. He opened both Mr. Tipple’s and another restaurant, Cadence, which closed after six months — demonstrating all of the many challenges of opening a restaurant in the city today. In anticipation of the conference, we asked Jay to share his take on the state of the industry: where it’s been, where it’s going, and all the lessons learned along the way.
Has San Francisco reached peak restaurant saturation?
Jay opened Maven in 2011, and plenty has changed between then and now. “When we opened up Maven, it was just before the peak of restaurant food culture, right before the food truck craze happened,” he says. “Eater was just coming out, and you could sell rabbit turds out of a food truck in some unknown warehouse and everyone would flock.”
Opening Cadence and Mr. Tipple’s, Jay says he both generated much more press and “got so little traction.” Essentially, there were so many hot new openings that hot and new just wasn’t enough — the public got burned out.
On shifting demographics and neighborhood trends
Maven is located in the Lower Haight neighborhood, which Jay says is “a total blessing and curse.” On one hand, it’s the best clientele he’s ever worked with, mature and lively and accessible. It’s the definition of a neighborhood gem. On the flip side, the limitation is that Maven hasn’t seen exposure to the city at large.
His experience with Mr. Tipple’s and Cadence couldn’t have been more distinct. Both of the concepts opened in mid-Market, an up-and-coming area that recently became home to a new population of young San Francisans, thanks to new high-rise constructions and nearby tech offices.
“We expected a more youthful, vibrant, innovative, and engaged clientele at Cadence and Tipple’s, but trying to capture that new demographic that just arrived in San Francisco has been very challenging. The buildings are full; the rents are still high. Usually you combine an underserved neighborhood with a restaurant run by a high-quality team, with a demographic with a proven income and boom, success. We hit all that, and we still don’t know what they want.”
The quest for labor
It’s been difficult to hire for the back of the house for as long as a decade now, but Jay says now even finding qualified people for the front of the house is a challenge. “We are paying more for labor than we ever and still struggling to hire and hire competently — it’s the availability and the cost.”
When he opened Maven, there were plenty of 22-year-old artists knocking on the door, not knowing quite what they wanted to do with their lives but ready to dive in and experiment. Now, Jay says, those kids are gone — mostly because San Francisco is no longer an accessible place for young people to move.
The plus side of that is that the restaurant industry in the Bay Area is mature, and it’s finally taking care of its people. “Respect for employees has never been higher. Valuing of people and product and farmers has never been higher. That’s really beautiful.”
Creating unique experiences to stand out
Jay never set out to open Mr. Tipple’s, a cocktail bar with live jazz music every night. It came about because the Cadence space was way too large for the restaurant. Craft cocktails were pretty straightforward, but to make it more interesting, Jay went back to music, his first love. (He began his career in music before moving into restaurants.)
“Music was the last thing we added on to the concept, it would have been riskiest thing and most inexperienced we’ve done as a collective team, and it was what saved Tipple’s,” he says. The music helped fill the bar every night, and it’s been fulfilling for the team, too. “I knew selling liquor and cocktails to young kids is an easy business, but to be able to do that and pay local musicians to make everybody’s lives more interesting, that’s the part that’s actually really rewarding.”
The takeaway: find an angle and create an experience that no one else can.
Looking ahead and advice for success
We asked Jay what advice he would share for aspiring restaurateurs, and he emphasized the economics of the business. Understanding the rent you’re paying for each seat every minute, and how that relates to the revenue you bring in, will help you build a successful model.
Beyond that, it’s all about discovery and exploration and being open to new ideas. “Travel and listen and be humble,” he says. “See more.”