Rising Stars Interview with Restaurateur Shelley Lindgren of A16 and SPQR – San Francisco, CA
Francoise Villeneuve: When did you begin your culinary career?
Shelley Lindgren: Really young, almost 23 years ago; I started at 16. I’m the only person in my family who was in the restaurant business.
FV: What did you study in school? Did you go to culinary school?
SL: I did. I went to cooking school, Tante Marie, after college in 2001 and I’ve been teaching there ever since. I still do weekend wine education classes. I studied English Writing at USF with a minor in Biology.
FV: Who are you mentors?
SL: I have so many. Originally I would say Hubert Keller and Maurice Rouas of Fleur de Lys. I worked for them for almost all of my twenties, all the way through college when I was at the University of San Francisco; if I wasn’t at school, I was at Fleur de Lys.
FV: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?
SL: Really my husband is a bar owner. He co-owns three bars in San Francisco that he co-built from scratch and we wanted to do something together. It started off very simple, a pizza and wine concept, and then I met my business partner and she mentioned there was no Neapolitan pizza in San Francisco. I asked her what Neapolitan pizza was and one thing led to another. We knew we weren’t going to be the chefs and then we met [Chef] Christophe [Hille]. We all went to Naples to research the pizza and wine traditions. It ended up evolving into a pizza restaurant but we offer more than pizza now, and we focus on Campania.
FV: What was the deal? How’d you get the money?
SL: We were managing partners and basically most of our main investors were family and friends and very spread out—we really believe in spreading the risk. We were able to pay back our investors very quickly, which was a huge relief for us and was always one of our main goals. We didn’t pay ourselves any profit distributions before our investors were paid back.
FV: Are you chef driven? How much creative control is your own and/or the chef’s?
SL: Liza [Shaw] was one of the first to begin cooking at A16 and always been an integral part of the menu. She has been running the menu for years and, outside of offering feedback and getting excited about what the season's offerings are, she also has complete control of the menu. We have our shared philosophies of keeping true to the concept as well as a respectful, balanced, friendly and professional standard as our overall goal in general at A16 and SPQR.
When we were able to bring in a chef of Matthew Accarrino’s quality and professionalism [to SPQR], we basically weren’t going to confine his creativity. He was able to put his interpretations on dishes and we gave him complete creative control of the menu. It’s been an incredibly wonderful positive experience for all of us. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to get into the kitchen and cook; he’s just one of those people that brings that out in you.
FV: What is your customer service philosophy?
SL: For me one of the most rewarding and pleasurable parts of being in the restaurant business is these incredible customers; meeting these interesting, wonderful people day in and day out. [To be able to] carefully select the wines and foods and have a great team of people that can offer great quality service, especially for the prices that we offer. We get to see a lot of return customers and we try to offer a lot to our guests, but we have also been very fortunate; people have been incredibly supportive of us.
FV: Is service as important as cuisine?
SL: Service is on equal footing with the wine and food, it’s not one thing more than the other. We’ve always been that way in our thinking. I don’t expect everyone to say the same thing I say verbatim; everyone has their own style and we’re able to have our servers have their own style, but the standards of service are really high. We want it to be a fun place to be and to work, but we also expect some knowledge [from the servers] and [we expect to] be able to be efficient so customers can come in and be taken care of. When you go out it’s a pleasure and you want to be taken care of. Over time our customers feel they trust our team, but they also really get to know everybody. It’s a very family-style place, which I love.
FV: How did you develop an interest in wine?
SL: This generation we’re seeing the development of sommeliers as a bigger part of the restaurant experience than it was when I was starting out. Wine is such an important part of the dining experience. Having a sommelier present really enhances the whole experience and it’s better for the business side of the restaurant I believe. I grew up in the North Bay here and we didn’t think of it as being wine country. Today, it is so much of our identity along with the artisan products and organic farmers.
FV: How did you develop your knowledge base?
SL: A lot of wine education is self discipline. I studied four hours a day and wrote note cards. I got my wine certification when I was still a student at USF, and I was very intimidated to take my first level exam. I was very over-prepared, but it really builds your foundation for knowledge and confidence to learn the language of wine. Being an Italian sommelier I joke that we have to think backwards as most of the world is built in French wines and here in San Francisco we have to be able to offer a comparative wine. I just did wine pairings for a book, My Calabria, coming out in the fall by Janet Fletcher and Rosetta Costantino. It’s a great book but because there are several Italian wines Janet asked me to do alternative wine pairings in case people can’t find them in the store.
FV: What is the style of your wine service?
SL: I try to spend a lot more time listening to a guest than talking; all the while thinking about the wines I think will match with the customer’s desires. I’d much rather bring the wine to the guest and then talk about it while they can sip, so it is a discussion rather than me geeking out. By the time I finish talking about a wine, the wine could be on the table and you could be drinking it. You could talk about it later if they want to know more, but usually it’s better to comprehend a little bit of what they’re asking for.
FV: How do you compile the wine list? What is your philosophy on wine and food?
SL: We have an extensive by the glass selection. At A16 we have 40 wines by the glass and at SPQR [we have] about 20 wines. The by the glass program has been really fun and something we take seriously. A customer can come in and grab a glass of wine and a pizza, or have a five-course meal with half or full glass pours if they like. The half bottle carafes can be for individuals or to do a variety of tastings with a few customers or offers that touch more wine without a whole other bottle. Anyway, we have a lot of fun with the variety.
FV: What are your top three tips for running successful restaurants?
SL: I would say I always think of myself as the customer. What would you like when you're out, how would you like to be treated? I also think I would say having an environment where everybody is invested emotionally and physically and it’s almost like an athletic game where you have to get your team together. It’s a team effort on all levels and when you walk into the restaurant door you have to be present and ready and if you don’t have everybody there, that’s where things start falling through the cracks. You have to be supportive of other peoples’ growth and expect that from other people. I noticed that especially in the wine business customers are smarter than people think. One of our things is we don’t cut corners—we’re in this because we love food, we love wine, and service and being a part of this community, putting in what you think is the best quality. It raises the integrity of what you offer.
FV: What new projects are you working on?
SL: We’re currently researching for an upcoming book for SPQR. What we did with the wine list was categorize the regions by a few of the important Roman Roads and we follow them by name. It’s a small restaurant and it was creative fun to take an ancient name like SPQR and tie in all the wine traditions with our modern representation that we do now; it’s homage.
FV: What’s your five year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?
SL: There is growth within our restaurant team in the next couple of years. Hopefully we’ll have another restaurant open. We have some people that are ready to grow so the five year plan is to reinvest into what we have and [make it] better than ever. This year it was an important year to do that; instead of opening a new restaurant, it seemed better to wait until the economy’s a little more stable. And we have some exciting things coming up, so we’re hopeful for the future.