Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Restaurateur Jason Halverson of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group

by Sean Kenniff
June 2016

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Jason Halverson:
I was a server at a retirement home, and made pizza at Pizza Hut in Wichita. I bought a 1990 Honda Accord and left both of those jobs to work as a telemarketer. I was really good at it. I was really into cars, and ran an auto salon when I was 20, but I always liked cooking. I took care of one of my friends houses in Kansas, and would cook, and relax, and drink. That’s what triggered my culinary yearning. So I moved to San Francisco in 2004, worked at La Folie and eventually for Michael Mina at his flagship before moving on to help at Bourbon Steak and RN74.

SK: Who’s your mentor?
I’ve learned from everybody. Michael Mina, Chris L’Hommedieu, Roland Passot.

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
 Stones Throw hosts a monthly event, Eat Like a Chef, Drink Like a Somm. The charitable dinner series partners with some of the biggest and best culinary names in the city—restaurants, chefs & sommeliers—and each year the program benefits a different organization. Last year the team raised $36,000 for All Stars Helping Kids, a youth organization by NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. The 2015 events generated a 57% increase from 2014’s donation to the SF-Marin Food Bank (still an impressive $23,000). For 2016, Stones Throw is donating proceeds from every Eat Like a Chef, Drink Like a Somm dinner to Old Skool Café, a youth-run, jazz-themed supper club that serves as an intensive real-world vocational training ground, employment incubator, supportive cohort, income generator, and connection point with a larger community that champions their success.

SK: Most important kitchen rule?
Treat it like it’s yours and one day it will be (this encompasses a lot of rules).

SK: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurants?
I’m just one of the five owners, and we’re all a part of a budget that fits into each restaurant. We’re working on building a culture for the business. We look at other industries to see how they grow their staff, their benefits. Two years ago the common question was ‘how do we find more staff?’, the city is expensive and the minimum wage is rising. We realized it wasn’t the food or the design or décor that mattered, it was how to keep staff and make sure they’re happy. We invest in our staff.

SK: What advice would you give your younger self?:\
 (1) Try to lose 30 pounds. (2) Ask more questions. (3) Don’t stress over the things you can’t control, and work hard on the things you can control.

SK: Advice for aspiring restaurateurs? 
Stay true to who you are, invest in your staff, work on making something better every day, and SMILE.

SK: So what’s the five year plan?
We’re still growing and defining who we are. We have another two concepts in mind, so that’s at least five years.