It’s no secret that the rising operational costs of owning a restaurant have become quite the hurdle. In a time when restaurants are struggling to keep their heads above water and pay their ever-growing stack of bills, they’re turning to innovation and new business models to help cut costs.
Barzotto, a newly opened American pasta bar located in the Mission district of San Francisco, is operating under a “fine casual” model. We spoke to owner Marko Sotto, head chef Michelle Minori, and GM/Beverage Director Brian Hamman about their efficient restaurant style — and how it works.
Trim the front of the house to save money.
Sotto has a background working in full-service, fine-dining restaurants, but he understood that in order to have a sustainable business and keep it approachable for diners, you need to keep costs down.
“The conversation that a lot of restaurateurs, managers, and operators of restaurants in San Francisco are having right now are around the difficulties due to the increasing cost of operations like staffing, health ordinances, and increasing minimum wage,” he says. “Restaurants already have fine margins, so all of this is making it really difficult to thrive in the restaurant world.”
At Barzotto, diners order their meal at the counter and seat themselves. By not having to hire a hostess, server, bartender and other front-of-house staff, you’re able to transfer those savings onto the guest by offering high-quality dishes at a good value. But with a smaller front-of-house staff, how is hospitality affected?
Take care of your people.
With the the fine-casual model there are fewer guest touch points, and therefore fewer ways to experience that restaurant’s hospitality.
According to Sotto, “You have to change your idea of what hospitality is and find that connection with your guest in a much more genuine way. I think that’s something that a lot of full service restaurants are losing. There’s a system, and systems are important but what’s more important is the connection. We take care of people at Barzotto. We’ll do it by connecting, by smiling at our guest — it’s not necessarily hinged on how many times we refill your water, or how quickly we replace the dirty plate.”
Adds Michelle, “If you can make them forget that good hospitality and service is not just limited to the checklist and the minutiae of the service sequence that we’re all so accustomed to, we can show them that it’s more than that. Good service is a feeling.”
The same philosophy extends to the team. When Sotto and Hamman started interviewing staff for Barzotto, they decided to hire almost entirely based on how that person made them feel during the interview. “That was a big thing and a big risk we took, but it’s something that we feel strongly about,” he says.
Not only are you able to pass savings onto your guests, you’re able to pay your staff a little more than minimum wage. With a happier staff, you’ll have less turnover. “We really want to take care of our people,” says Michelle. “Having worked in kitchens where I’m happy and the staff is happy, it conveys itself a lot more to the diner. If we have happy people working in our restaurants, we’ll have happy guests.”
Find the intersection of quality and affordability.
“If we can get the holy trinity right of quality, value, and atmosphere, then I think we’ll be able to survive in a really difficult time,” says Sotto.
When looking at the current steep prices for a beautiful plate of pasta in San Francisco, it’s hard to believe that pasta used to be something that only peasants would eat. Chef Michelle wants to bring pasta to the masses with comforting classics like Cacio e Pepe and Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, plus three seasonal pasta that will change to reflect local ingredient availability. Along with the pastas, Barzotto will offer a focused selection of salads, sides, and roasted meats, as well as an approachable wine list inspired by Italy and California. They use imported Italian cheese and local produce — because they’ve reduced staffing costs, they don’t have to sacrifice on product.
The wine list is comprised of offerings that are $10 by the glass and $40 by the bottle. “We want to put some really good wines on the table that are at a price that fits with what we’re doing with the rest of the program,” says Brian. In addition, Barzotto has a retail section where guests can purchase a high-quality bottle of wine for $70 or $80 and pay a small corkage fee to enjoy it in the restaurant. Typically, these bottles would be listed at a big mark-up, but offering them at retail prices allows diners to enjoy a “really killer bottle of wine that any one of us would be stoked to drink.”
“The world is changing, diners are changing, and expectation is changing along with it,” says Michelle. “The costs of operating a restaurant are only going up, so you want to give people what they want. You’ve got to make sure you’re saving where you can. The fine casual model has allowed us to do that.”