The Indelible Power of the Neighborhood Restaurant

By Jonathan Sutton and Tony Ferrari with Kate Duffy and Sean Kenniff | Megan Swann and Will Blunt

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Jonathan Sutton and Tony Ferrari with Kate Duffy and Sean Kenniff
Megan Swann and Will Blunt
The exterior of Hillside Supper Club
The exterior of Hillside Supper Club

By all accounts, Jonathan Sutton and Tony Ferrari had nailed it. In 2011, when most chefs were still pining for their chef-counter concept, they went all in on the neighborhood restaurant—well ahead of the curve. But by April 2018, they were facing a hard truth and an even harder decision. The proprietors of Hillside Supper Club in Bernal Heights held their breath and pressed send.

[Originally published in Bernalwood, a neighborhood magazine and blog.]


To our community, neighbors, and friends:

We want to be open and honest with you all, and always 100 percent transparent. The last five years has been nothing but a great experience—creating relationships, nourishing our community, giving back if and when possible. And the best thing of all: cooking fair, honest, clean food with a purpose for all of you. Every year learning more, giving opportunity, adapting to change and suggestions, and doing our very best every day.

This year, however, things have felt a bit different. We’ve noticed a huge decrease in business, rising costs and living expenses, and the neighborhood becoming more transient for better or for worse. We feel we have tried everything we can with menu changes, pricing, marketing avenues, delivery apps, and community involvement, and we’re still left with too many seats empty at our tables and so much effort put into welcoming you.

The reality of it is, if things stay this way, we are looking at a matter of weeks until we have to close and sell our gathering place, give ourselves a pat on the back for how far we have come, and end this chapter in our lives, hoping our legacy will continue and the next establishment embraces the community and does it better than we. The entire Hillside team would humbly like to ask all of you who are able to come share a meal with us to come in for a visit sooner than later. The staff, food, and space are incomplete without your enjoyment.

It’s an interesting time for the restaurant industry, as things are changing ever-so rapidly. Not to mention trying to stay afloat on sixteen bucks an hour in our amazing city.

We know we are not alone in this struggle, and hope we can all come together to figure out a common solution that benefits everyone. Money comes and money goes, but it’ll always be there for the people that work hard for it. Nothing ever grows without a seed, and nothing ever changes without a dream.

We hope to see you all soon. Thanks, Your Neighborhood Restaurant.


A year after that “terrifying” click, and comfortably in the black, Sutton and Ferrari of Hillside Supper Club are addressing their community again, right here, with some advice for other chefs and restaurant owners.


To our community, neighbors, and friends:

The last year has proven the value of community, to us, to our employees, to the farms we work with, and to the many guests, new and familiar, who have given their time and money so generously to show support for our vision. Hillside Supper Club is a testament to the incredible loyalty of the people of Bernal Heights, and to the indelible power of the neighborhood restaurant.

It was incredibly difficult for us to make our situation public. To be honest about where the restaurant stood was painful. But it was the greatest choice we could have made. That moment of weakness brought about an incredible demonstration of strength. The love and support we have received from you all over the past year has not only rescued the business we’ve worked so hard to establish. It’s given us the opportunity to grow as chefs and as people.

In January 2019, we signed a new 6-year lease. Hillside Supper Club will continue to serve its purpose; to nourish the people of Bernal Heights, support local purveyors, and provide compassionate and genuine hospitality for years to come.

To all restaurant owners who find themselves in the kind of distress we felt a year ago, we would like to offer some advice. Forego the fancy PR agency. Ditch the expensive reservation platform. Ignore the impulse to pander to the Instagram-virility of gimmick dishes. These tactics will only result in a temporary relief. The solution to long-term success is establishing your restaurant as a contributing, vital, and respected member of the community. We claim our position in Bernal Heights with the utmost respect for what it represents.

As citizens of Bernal Heights, we pledge to always put our neighbors first. We will continue to play an active role in this community. We offer you a second home and an extended family. A safe and comforting place to gather, to celebrate, and to enjoy the company of new and old friends. We owe you that.

With love,
Jonathan Sutton & Tony Ferrari


As of the publication of this letter, Sutton remains at HSC as executive chef and owner. Ferrari continues his ownership role from his hometown of Cincinnati, where he will soon open a coffee shop and California-inspired restaurant concept at the Contemporary Arts Center, in partnership with his brother Austin. He plans on regular trips to reunite with his HSC family.

 

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