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COVID-19 and Restaurants

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Maxine, Marilyn, Keith and I have developed a dining ritual of sorts over the last 8 or 9 years: we go to Waterbar, the seafood restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, underneath the Bay Bridge, and have a couple dozen platters of the oysters du jour, with Champagne or Muscadet or some other suitable wine. The oysters during the lunch hour are only $1 each; with the spectacular views—the Bridge, sparkling San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island and, in the distance, the East Bay Hills and buildings of Oakland—it’s one of our favorite destinations, especially to celebrate a birthday.

This morning, I got an email from Waterbar. “We Miss You!” it said, advertising the restaurant’s “new Take-Home program,” starting June 4, and adding, “We will let you know as soon as we begin table service.” Well, my first thought was, I’m not going to go to Waterbar to buy oysters to take home. I can walk down the block and buy fresh oysters at Whole Foods—and they’ll even shuck them for me. The whole point of going to Waterbar is for the dine-in experience. But there’s hope! Waterbar is determined to re-open as soon as the local authorities—in their case, San Francisco’s Mayor and health officials—allow them to.

We don’t know when that will be. COVID-19 cases continue to rise in California, and there continue to be troubling “hot spots.” When restaurants are allowed to re-open, I think we all know the parameters they’ll be forced to adapt: masks (on servers and diners) and six-foot physical distancing, not to mention (probably) disposable knives and forks, paper napkins and salt and pepper packets instead of shakers. Of course, you can’t eat while wearing a mask, so how will that work out? And will we have to wear latex gloves? Will we still want to go to Waterbar under those less-than-glamorous circumstances? The view will be the same; the oysters and wine will be the same. But the experience will be less.

And there’s also the fear factor. Maxine, Marilyn, Keith and I all are senior citizens. Some of us have underlying health problems that increase our risk of getting COVID-19 and possibly dying of it. Will be feel comfortable in a public dining room, no matter how far apart the tables are? For that matter, would the four of us be able to sit at the little tables they have in the bar area (our favorite place), with so little distance between us? Part of the charm of Waterbar is bantering with the waitstaff. Will that feel comfortable?

It’s not just Waterbar. I’m going through the latest guidebook on San Francisco’s Top 100 Restaurants, from the S.F. Chronicle, and I have to admit I don’t see how some of these places will ever get back to normal. Take Atelier Crenn, the three-starred Michelin seafood-and-vegetable restaurant, where the tasting menu is $363 and, if you want wine, you’ll pay an additional $220. San Francisco is hemorrhaging jobs. It’s still a rich city (for the moment), but who’s going to be interested in paying close to $600 for dinner per person in our apocalyptic post-coronavirus environment? And the same considerations that apply to Waterbar apply to Atelier Crenn, with the masks and distancing and so on. Will people want to go there when it feels more like a hospital cafeteria?

Then there are steak houses, like the House of Prime Rib, a staple of carnivores for decades. The old-fashioned booths are spaced close together; the meat carvers pushing their tableside carts get right up close and personal to diners; and the conversation level is loud. It’s one thing to go to French Laundry and feel like you have to speak in a whisper or else the ghost of Escoffier will rise up and haunt you; but no one goes to a steak house to whisper. What will that experience be like, post-coronavirus?

And then there are communal-table places, like Lazy Bear. Two long tables sit 20 people each; bumping elbows and overhearing everyone’s conversations (and them overhearing yours) is part of the ambience. How does Lazy Bear crowd diners at communal tables post-COVID-19? Answer: They don’t.

Going through the Chronicle’s Top 100 restaurants is a sobering experience. How many will be forced to close forever? And it’s not only these top restaurants, it’s every place in town: dim sum palaces, sushi bars, burger joints, Afghan-style, Ethiopian food, fast food, kosher…no restaurant is safe. We’re already being told that such iconic institutions as public transit, the office-centered workplace and sports events are threatened, and will have to adapt to the new normal if they want to survive. The same applies to restaurants.

Well, there are more questions than answers, as usual. We’ll have to wait and see. But for a food-centered town like San Francisco, COVID-19 is a nightmare. How the City learns to adapt is completely unknown, but we do know one thing for sure: San Francisco will adapt. In one form or another, restaurants will survive. But to be honest, I don’t know about those multi-hundred dollar tasting menus. They might have met their match in COVID-19. That would be all right with me!


San Francisco just had its driest February ever

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Feb. 29 isn’t until Saturday, but it can reliably be predicted now that no rain will fall before then in Northern California, making February, 2020 the first time since the 1860s that San Francisco and the Bay Area have had zero rainfall during the month. February typically accounts for about 20% of the average annual rainfall in San Francisco.

We had our infamous Drought in the years between 2011 and 2019, when the State officially declared an end to 376 weeks of below-normal rainfall. San Francisco actually ended up with pretty good rain in the 2018-2019 rainy season, which made people relieved that, finally, we could flush our toilets after #1 and not have to ration our garden-watering or time our showers. In December, 2019, at the start of the new (2019-2020) rainy season, things got off to a great start: nearly 5 inches of rain, well above normal, about 1/4 of our seasonal average. The Tahoe ski resorts exulted, and so did state water officials. January, 2020 also was pretty good for rain, but then came February, and Bam! Nothing. Not a drop, from wine country in the north through the Bay Area and San Jose down to Monterey.

It hasn’t just been dry. For human critters, February has been crazy warm. In the 43 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen such glorious weather in the middle of winter. Day after day of sunny, blue skies, super-clean air quality, and daytime temperatures in the high-60s to mid-70s (and 80 or higher in wine country). Keep in mind, San Francisco’s average high temperature in February is just 60 degrees, so we’ve been running 8-15 degrees above. Just to put it in context, it’s as if New York City this February saw a solid month of highs near 60 degrees. That would turn a few heads.

The reason for the aberrant weather is a large, persistent ridge of high pressure parked over the Eastern Pacific. It is effectively blocking storms from reaching Northern California; instead, the jet stream carries them up to Seattle or Southern Alaska or, in a few cases, they meander down to Los Angeles and Arizona. This is precisely the same weather pattern that gave us our last drought.

Meteorologists say it’s too early to predict whether February is just a one-off, or the beginning of a new drought. Supposedly, a little rain is forecast to possibly hit San Francisco this Sunday, but that would be March 1, thus preserving Feb. 2020 in the history books for no rainfall. Despite the dry month, our reservoirs are in good shape after the winter of 2018-2019, so nobody’s panicking yet, although the ski resorts are getting a little antsy.

The backdrop of every low rainfall year in California is, of course, the coming wildfire season. After the infernos of the last four years, nobody in the state is in a mood for another bad burn year. There’s a political dimension to this: Northern California’s biggest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has been found guilty of (and has admitted to) inadvertently starting most of the big fires of recent years due to faulty equipment and poor maintenance. The company has had to declare bankruptcy, been fined billions of dollars to repay people who lost their homes, and is facing widespread calls to be taken over by the public—a move that is strongly resisted by PG&E’s worker unions.

Water or the lack of it, climate change, wildfires, mudslides, floods—it’s always something in California, and that doesn’t even take into account the earthquakes. The Big One is seriously overdue; everybody knows it; few are ready. I live on the Hayward Fault, which, while less known than the San Andreas Fault, actually poses a much greater risk, since it hasn’t snapped for 152 years. The Hayward runs down from San Pablo Bay (opposite the Carneros wine country) southeast through the densely-populated East Bay: Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland (my home town), Hayward, Milpitas and Fremont, and includes eastern Silicon Valley and north San Jose. On or alongside the Hayward Fault are scores of hospitals, schools, tunnels, dams, nursing homes, freeways, bridges and industrial parks, as well as millions of people packed closely together into cities and teeming suburbs. It’s literally unimaginable what a 7.2 magnitude on the Hayward would do. When—not if—it happens, it will make drought seem like a pesky inconvenience.


On the road in “everybody’s favorite city,” San Francisco

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Spent a delightful and as always an educational day yesterday accompanying some of our Sales people to a couple San Francisco restaurants. I always look forward to these trips, because they are sheer adventure. You never know what you’re going to get.

We went first to a small eastern Mediterranean place in the Mission District, Tawla, which has been getting huge press lately. It’s on Valencia at Duboce, a neighborhood that’s been undergoing a lot of pressure lately due to gentrification. But you know what? I was hanging out there 35 years ago, and it hasn’t changed that much! Still gritty, with (let us say) an interesting local street population. The somm was a guy who’s worked at a lot of Michelin restaurants but, he explained, wanted something smaller, where he could have a more creative, curated wine list.

Then it was on to Perbacco, a great place I’ve always enjoyed. We had lunch there (amazing pasta) with the somm from Flatiron, the new wine shop in the Palace Hotel. Then onto Scoma’s.

SCOMA

Now, if you don’t know Scoma’s, it’s one of the mainstays of Fisherman’s Wharf. As I told the wine guy, who’s been there for 20 years, he’s probably served several generations of my family over the decades.

Each of these places and people was totally different. But each is part of the mosaic that makes up San Francisco. Although I’ve lived in Oakland for close to 30 years, I lived in San Francisco for a decade prior to that, and I still love going there. It’s only 3 subway stops away from my place, so it’s easy; driving and parking in S.F. is a total nightmare. Everybody gripes about housing prices in the City, but when I moved there, in 1979, everybody was griping then about the same thing! As I suppose they were in the 1940s. So the more things change… I think San Francisco is fundamentally unalterable, and I mean that in a good way. You can bend it, stretch it, but you can’t break it. It’s the old Barbary Coast: a little bit nice, a little bit naughty, and heart-achingly beautiful.

You know, some people have asked me if it’s not odd for me to have gone from being a wine critic to working for a wine company. My answer is always the same: not at all. I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast (if that’s not already obvious) and I still am. I didn’t fit into a neat, tidy little package as a wine critic, and I don’t fit into a neat, tidy package working for Jackson Family Wines. The most important thing to me, in the intellectual sense, is honesty. I don’t lie well, I don’t spin well, it’s hard for me to hide my feelings (as my Facebook friends and Twitter followers no doubt are aware). When I meet people at restaurants and wine stores on these sales trips, I act exactly the same as I would at a cocktail party: put on a smile, try to engage, find things in common to talk about. If the people want to talk about the wines, I’m down with that, and the Jackson sales people I’m with often know more about the technical details than I do; together, we can answer any question (almost).

But from these trips I’ve learned something I really didn’t understand when I was a wine critic, and that’s the value of relationships. Wine critics don’t need to establish relationships in the industry. They can, of course (and we all do), but the essence of being a wine critic is that you’re a loner. I was a bit of a loner as a critic. You have to be; you have to keep your emotional distance from people whose wines you might have to trash. In sales, it’s different, and I truly enjoy making these connections. People are fabulous treasure troves to dig through, to discover who they are, where they’re coming from, what makes them smile. Which makes me look forward to next week, when I’ll be in Texas, from which I hope to be able to blog every day.


Connectedness: the Holy Grail of winery marketing

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Last week, while Americans were watching developments concerning the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, which eventually (and thankfully) collapsed, another more successful merger went almost unnoticed. That was the marriage between Blue Bottle Coffee and Tartine Bakery, a far happier union that consumers could celebrate, instead of worrying about.

Blue Bottle was founded in my hometown of Oakland and now has cafés throughout the Bay Area, L.A., New York City and Japan. It’s become what Starbucks used to be: the hippest java joint around, one of the high-end coffee industry’s most respected roasters,” according to Fast Company, an appraisal shared by Bloomberg Business, which described Blue Bottle as “the next wave of artisanal coffee shops” and reported on enthusiastic investments in the company by Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google, WordPress and Twitter.

Tartine Bakery sprang from the famous San Francisco restaurant, Bar Tartine, a Mission District hotspot that helped make the Valencia Corridor one of the city’s most visited dining destinations. Tartine’s bread makers earned the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. As wildly popular as the bakery is, Tartine has not been able to figure out how to expand to other locations. Blue Bottle has. The San Francisco Chronicle predicts the merger will “provide mutual benefits to both,” as consumers continue to seek out “well-crafted quality, locally sourced and planet-sensitive foods.”

There are lessons for the wine industry, particularly for family-owned wineries that want a more personal connection with consumers. Consumers do want “planet-friendly” things to buy. They do want quality that’s apparent, and preferably locally-sourced. But, maybe more than anything, they want a connection with the people who sell them products and services. Never in the history of American industry has that personal connection been more important. People—in their loneliness, idealism and confusion—desire to feel something human. Not the appearance of something human. Not something crafted in some P.R. shop that seems human. Something that is human.

Tartine and Blue Bottle (I’ve been to both) provide that connection to human-ness. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how, or to describe it, unless you’ve been there; the blogger Kevin Lindsay has called it a “visceral reaction” that can create lifelong connections with the shoppers who can and will become compelling brand evangelists.” This is, of course, the Holy Grail for all companies, including wineries: to “create lifelong connections.” A lifelong consumer does not have to be marketed to with the same ferocity (and costs) as a new, unaffiliated consumer. This is the magic of branding: it’s why I met so many fans of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve wines on my trip last week. It’s why the About Money website says branding is not about getting your target market to choose you over the competition, but it is about getting your prospects to see you as the only one that provides a solution to their problem.”

What a concept! So doable, and yet so rarely done. This is precisely the challenge wineries must confront, and solve, in the coming years, if they are to remain viable, in the face not only of domestic competition but international, as trade agreements erode traditional national boundaries and the entire planet becomes a single marketplace.

How is this to be done? Now that the clamorous exaggerations for social media have begun to calm, we can see that merely having a robust online presence isn’t nearly enough. Social media is simply a tool: put a chisel in the hands of Michaelangelo and you end up with David. In the hands of a child, a chisel is merely something to thump and bang with, and possibly do damage. To really connect with the consumer, you have to think like the consumer. You have to have empathy. You have to get out of your box and into the mind and heart of the consumer you hope to reach. That may sound New Agey, but, as Mark Benioff explains in this interview about his late friend and mentor, Steve Jobs, Jobs’ spirituality (inspired by yogic meditation practices and The Beatles) made the Apple co-founder “a prophet” who knew what consumers wanted even before they themselves did. Steve Jobs not only gave them what they sought, which was a way to increase their connectedness to the world, he made them—and the world—a better place.


San Francisco and Oakland: Not-so kissing cousins

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I’ve spent a good part of the last three days in San Francisco on winetasting missions, a lot even for me, although I live just 3 subway stops away from Embarcadero Station and Ferry Plaza.

I’ve been in Oakland now for 28 years: nearly ten years before that in San Francisco. So you’ll have to forgive me for making comparisons.

When I lived in S.F., in the Eighties, Oakland was a Herb Caen joke. It was Brooklyn to Manhattan—and this was before Brooklyn’s current hipster revival: old, blue collar, conservative Brooklyn, New York’s version of the boring ‘burbs.

The only thing Oakland had going for it was way better weather, which is why the Oakland Tribune used to publish its logo in orange: A reminder that, on any given summer day, while San Francisco was cold and foggy, Oakland was sunny and warm.

Other than that, San Franciscans felt icky about Oakland. Crime, violence, racial politics. That’s how they viewed the city on the eastern side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

As for Oakland’s perception of San Francisco, it was a weird combination of “Who cares?” and envy. Oakland prided itself on being different: grittier, more real: the Raiders versus the effete Forty-Niners. But on Saturday night, everybody went to San Francisco because it was, well, San Francisco. There was a scene there that Oakland just didn’t have.

Now here we are today. Oakland is enjoying its greatest renaissance in decades, on every level: culinary, cultural, artistic, tech, home value, income, diversity. We Oaklanders are enormously proud of this: it’s a great leap forward following our low point, the post-1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, from which downtown never recovered.

But I still don’t think San Franciscans give a thought about Oakland. They may have heard about some “boom” thing happening here, but whatever it is, it pales alongside what they see and experience every day throughout San Francisco. The building development! The incomes! The stores! The excitement! The sense of being someplace Important at an Important Time. And the beauty of the people, so young, healthy and in-shape. Oh, all that disposable income! Call them what you will: yuppies, techies, hipsters—they know they live in frigging San Francisco, the most magical and romantic of American cities. They know they’re only young once: If San Francisco had an official slogan, it would be Carpe Diem. Many of them won’t know what that means, of course, so let me translate: How lucky we are!

But I celebrate these differences. It would be easy for the Bay Area to homogenize into one bland soup, but each part of it—of us—maintains its identity throughout our periodic crises: earthquakes, economic shakeups, demographic revolutions, wildfires, crime sprees. Neighborhoods change color, ethnicity and culture with alacrity, yet somehow maintain their fundamental identities. I guess you could call this our terroir: the terroir of Noe Valley or Adams Point, of the Sunset or Kensington, of Crockett or Cupertino.

As for alcoholic beverages, well, both sides of the Bay like their quotient of booze. The currant rage right now is, of course, the mixed drink. Beer is huge; wine, perhaps less so—at least it doesn’t feel like it has that frisson of excitement compared to its sister boozes. Oaklanders probably drink more beer per capita because we’re poorer and more working class, but that doesn’t mean we drink bad beer. The local micro-breweries do good business here. San Francisco is no doubt way ahead of us in wine, both per capita consumption and price. Oaklanders still hesitate to drop much on a bottle: They’re not into the snob thing. They want something good, with a good story; but they’re not slaves to somebody else’s score or review.

* * *

Have a good weekend!


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