The State of SF: New Rules and New Ways to Lead

By Richie Nakano | Illustration by Tom Chalkley

By

Richie Nakano
Illustration by Tom Chalkley
Richie Nakano parses a rapidly changing city and the future of the Bay Area restaurant industry.
Richie Nakano parses a rapidly changing city and the future of the Bay Area restaurant industry.

A million words have been written about the changing landscape of San Francisco. A tectonic shift of new money, new people, and new values has send us onto our collective heels. And the following tsunami of rising labor costs, astronomic rents, and city-mandated health care costs have shaken the foundation of what we understood the San Francisco hospitality industry to be.

For every minimum wage increase or increase in rent that we saw coming, there have been a dozen others that seemingly came out of nowhere. While new restaurants are a given year after year, no one could have predicted the sudden boom of high-profile (high-cost, high-stakes) openings. Once those places opened their doors, how could they have known that their projected clientele would instead opt to eat at their lushy appointed (and free) office cafeteria? And when you add that to the rising culture of Netflix/Caviar/Postmates and chill, you have a lot of very stressed chefs with too many unfilled seats.

Still, it begs the question: How can the city be so flush with money and yet restaurants are still running so lean? How did we come to a place where, finally, there's a market for $24 burgers (that won't land you a one star review on Yelp), and somehow we can't seem to get them to come eat? Why aren't more places killing it?

Here's where it gets messy: We gladly whored ourselves out to our wealthy new overlords. We took their money and created an unsustainable amount of new, high-concept restaurants amidst a sea of classics. When the challenges that are currently burying much of teh industry started to show their teeth, many of us puffed our cheses out and laughed. (Myself included.)

The painful lesson we learned is that we can't operate on virtue. It's not enough for San Francisco to have the best produce anymore, or to be the birthplace of California cuisine. No one cares about our high concentration of Michelin restaurants, at least not the way they used to. Those who have found a way to adjust to, and ultimately capitalize on both the changing landscape and newfound wealth, are surviving—and in some cases thriving. Those who resisted change are crippled, or gone. If the past three years had a motto, it would be: Adapt or die.

It's not ever going to be the way it used to be. We need to stop lamenting the lack of cooks, the lack of skill. We really need to just stop complaining, in general. This is the way it is now, and the only way to dig ourselves out is to do better. We must work harder, train better, find new ways to lead, and new ways to make money. We need to stop reminiscing about the old days and look forward. There's no more feeling sorry for ourselves, lest we risk being left behind. If i see one more "SF I love you, but you're bringing me down" tweet, I'm going to lose it.

Ultimately, the game is the same, but the rules are very different. We aren't just in a race to be better than New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Today we have to measure ourselves against Pittsburgh, Houston, Denver, and Portland. Too long we have followed the status quo, and that has left us mired in this mess. Luckily, in true Bay Area fashion, there are those that have taken a risk on being different and are soaring: State Bird, The Progress, Lazy Bear, the Daniel Patterson Group, and new jewels like Mister Jiu's.

Despite all of the challenges, and all of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we remain. We still get up every day and go cook, and we love it. There's a unifying quality in all of us that keeps us here, and makes the idea of leaving feel terrible and impossible. And somehow, despite the fact that every day there is some new, outside force threatening to blow our doors shut, we bravely push back, and say, "Fuck it, I've been through 10 years of Michael Bauer. This doesn't scare me one bit." And really, can you think of a better-equipped group to charge head first through this perfect storm?

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