Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fresh links

I blog here at Covers about my Business Times stories as soon as they are published, but it can take up to three weeks before non-subscribers can actually visit the story links. (Sometimes the stories are offered for free sooner, usually when they are picked up in the nationwide "vertical journal" for restaurants and hotels published by my newspaper's parent company.)

Below are FREE links to stories I blogged about in the past, which non-subscribers can now read. These have also been added back to the original blog posts for which the story is relevant, so they no longer say "subscriber-only."

Growing appetite for S.F.: Restaurants setting new tables in the city (Dec. 15)
This is my story about the new restaurant from the Frisson team and the new places from the Bacchus guys.

Hotels run up tab to boost restaurants: Today's special: Hot chefs (Dec. 8)
This story has the scoop on the Nick Stellino concept at the Argent, an update on the restaurant concept for the forthcoming InterContinental and the new Eno concept at St. Francis.

Crowne Plaza, Palomar hotels hit sales block: 'The market is coming back' (Dec. 1)
S.F.'s Parc 55, Oakland Marriott sold: Larry Chan makes trio of hotel deals fetching $250 million (Oct. 27)
Both on how capital continues to chase SF hotels.

French cafe Left Bank to grow throughout West (Nov. 10)
On chef Roland Passot going to Las Vegas, beyond.

Tourist map gets redrawn: New campaign rallies around Ferry Building (Oct. 27)
The effort to brand the Central Embarcadero neighborhood, led by Hyatt Regency and Equity Office Properties

N.Y. chef to expand swanky sandwich shop beyond Westfield mall (Oct. 13)
Tom Colicchio's 'wichcraft in SF

New Westfield food is too much to swallow at once (Talk of the Town) (Oct. 13)

S.F. restaurants eye opening Oakland outposts (Oct. 13)

Gary Danko plans ritzy private dining facility (Oct. 6)

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Personal: New year's resolutions

This post is not about restaurants or hotels.

A personal blog is a perfect place for New Year's resolutions, though, so here are mine:
  • Swim at least 3x/week at the Y
  • Master flip-turns
  • Complete my fourth Alcatraz Sharkfest swim
  • Start going to yoga class regularly
  • Stay relaxed about the wedding by staying focused on what we want, not what I think others expect
  • Complete at least two enterprise stories in the Business Times that would be of interest to Covers readers
  • Complete my GTD weekly review every Thursday morning
  • Process email and mail into GTD completely every day
Last year my resolution was to swim 3x a week at the Y, spin 3x a week at the Y and lift weights 3x a week at the Y. I do spin 3x a week, but I do weights only 2x a week usually and swimming 1-2x.


Friday, December 22, 2006

I'll have what he's wearing

A short article in the front of January's SF Magazine lists all the restaurants who are keeping their waiters looking smart in custom designer suits:
  • Gary Danko outfits staff in suits from Josef Duran of San Leandro
  • Bong Su buys silk tuxedo jackets and Vietnamese ao dai from Calvin Tran of New York
  • Quince recently bought his- and her- russet-brown suits from R. Scott French of New York
  • Lark Creek Steak buys black-and-gray striped dress shirts from Berkeley's Erica Tanov
... and Michael Mina outfits "nearly all" staff in Dean Hutchinson outfits, according to this newspaper article.

At first I thought this was an effort to treat the staff well and have them embody the food -- clothes that are attractive, local and custom.

Then I took a look at the menu for Lark Creek Steak (PDF) and found they are actually selling the uniforms on page one of the menu, under a little clothes-hanger icon:

our uniforms, by award-winning designer
erica tanov, are available for purchase.
$69 blouses - $79 shirts

Just don't accidentally wear the uniform the next time you dine at Lark Creek Steak. Awk-ward.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Outsourcing trend: meat on the bones

Inside Scoop reports that Incanto's owner and chef bought a sausage factory in Oakland they plan to use to launch a line of their own cured meats.

This extends the outsourcing trend I wrote about here previously, with Paul Bertoli also selling cured meats and Palio d'Asti trying to sell its pastries to other restaurants.

In addition to Incanto, Bertoli and Palio, Beach Chalet is getting into the game. I reported earlier this month (subscriber-only link until the new year) that Lara and Gar Truppelli are considering spinning off their own microbrewery.


Restaurant investors 'check their brains at the door'

An anonymous restaurant employee tells

On 12/7, several investors actually had a fruit fight and were throwing glasses at each other! One of the investors stood on their imported Italian bar and proceeded to ask the guys as loudly as he could, "Where are we going now? To find some c--ts? ...

They ignore doomsday signs (an average of 5 covers for lunch and oftentimes not much better for dinner) and keep emptying their wallet into what is such an obvious failure to the rest of the world.

I asked Tim Stannard about investor relations last week, since he ends up with lots of small investors for each of his restaurants as a matter of strategy, like say around 30. He explained they very carefully screen investors with an application touching not only on finances but also how they plan to patronize the restaurant, what times they like to eat out, will they bring their spouse, will they do business events.

In at least two cases, investors had to live in the neighborhood around the restaurant. This is partly because they can then serve as more frequent customers and are in a better position to market the place to friends.

"We asked a lot of questions early on and got a sense of what their character was," Stannard said.


Monday, December 18, 2006

Everyone's a critic. No, really.

Two remarkable blog posts today reveal how quickly word of bad service can travel.

The most horrid example is New York magazine's Underground Gourmet, who waited 45 minutes for roast chicken at a West Village place, only to see it delivered to TV dude Charlie Rose less than five minutes after the VIP walks in the door. A waitress then lies, saying the chicken was "accidentally" misdirected and offering free pasta while another chicken is roasted.

SFist, meanwhile, recounts being ignored, seated late and seated quite poorly at a table that sounds like it should not exist in the first place at Harry Denton's.

In the old days, the only recourse was to tell your friends and threaten the manager. These days, anyone with time and a legitimate example of poor service can find a ready audience online.

Which is hardly news -- to anyone, it seems, but several platoons of clueless chefs and managers, who don't seem to realize that the price of stealing from the status-poor to give to Charlie Rose is higher than it has ever been.

More bloviating on the topic in the Gawker comments.

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Hoteliers question growth assumptions

Hoteliers weren't quite drinking the Kool Aid at the Hotel Council's holiday lunch Friday. Tom Callahan of PKF Consulting unveiled a forecast that room rate will grow $15 per room per night to $182 in 2007, with occupancy nudging up one percentage point to 79 percent.

He fielded some pointed questions from the audience on how that's possible given the 100,000 fewer convention visitors expected next year. Tom said tourists and business travelers will make up -- "backfill" was the term he used in the heat of the moment -- for the lost conventioneers.

Pressed on exactly who these new corporate travelers will be, Tom did not put forth specifics. Biotech? Banking? Digital entertainment? Tech? I guess it remains to be seen.

The Hotel Council lunch, held at the Nikko, also saw the Convention and Visitors Bureau's 6-month-old CEO Joe D'Alessandro really come out swinging for more marketing bucks and solutions to the homeless problems, signalling perhaps that his listening tour of City Hall is wrapping up.

State Sen. Mark Leno weighed in with a plan to bolster statewide tourism spending with a fee on rental cars -- but only after cutting general fund monies, a detail that raised a pointed question from a hotelier in the audience.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

No Town Hall in Oakland

The discussions between the Town Hall guys and Signature Properties, which would have brought the restaurateurs to the Oakland's Uptown district, have fallen through.

The impression I got was that Doug Washington and Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal, the Town Hall partners, had their hands full with Salt House, a new concept two blocks from the original Town Hall in SF's SoMA district. Without heavy financial incentives from Signature, they probably weren't going to come to Oakland.

And what condo developers is going to sink a lot of money into incentives amid a tumultuous market and falling prices?

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Frisson guys to open second restaurant

Frisson managing partner Andrew McCormack and his backers are opening a second restaurant, a much cheaper affair than Frisson that aims to be much more profitable. I report this in a story in Friday's Business Times (FREE link).

Frisson was rumored to cost as much as $7 million when it opened two years ago, and only started turning a profit on an operating basis six months ago. This time around, McCormack is opening a much smaller place, holding less than a third as many people in perhaps 1/10th the space.

The new concept is a Spanish restaurant and bar -- not tapas -- called Laiola. It is slated to go into the former Pizza My Heart's space on Chestnut in the Marina, about 1,500 square feet seating 60. The acquisition of Pizza My Heart and its lease has not closed yet, however.

McCormack and his partner in the venture, Frisson GM Joe Hargrave, told me they could see opening close to half a dozen of these little neighborhood places over the next several years.

To keep Laiola profitable, McCormack has made its bar roughly twice as large as normal, holding 20 of the 60 seats. That should help grow alcohol sales and turn seats more quickly.

Also, by positioning the restaurant as casual rather than aspiring to four stars, as at Frisson, he dispenses with positions like reservationist, hostess, runner, sous chef and pastry chef. He figures he can run the place with around 10 people at a time: bartender, barkeep, two servers, busser, chef, three cooks, perhaps one more.

This means he can keep total headcount under 20 and avoid the city's approx. $1.50-per-hour health care fee for uninsured workers.

FREE link: Growing appetite for S.F.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

How not to publish a restaurant cookbook

The anonymous Northern California chef over at Knife's Edge is terrified of publishing a cookbook like the one Valerie Nehez of Cafe Pongo in New York state published recently:

"The book is amateurish, the writing poor and the dishes if not boring, are more what I would turn to the Joy of Cooking for... The book has nothing to say other than 'Hey, I've got a quaint restaurant in the Hudson Valley.' And that's exactly what I wouldn't want a book with my name on it to say."

But Knifes, how do you really feel?

Nehez is not the only target, of course; the whole genre is experiencing something of a backlash, and not just from Knife's Edge. In naming another book the best of 2006 food writer Michael Ruhlman dropped aside this:
This is a “chef” cookbook, a category I’m usually very skeptical about. Too often these books are vanity projects that add nothing new to the world of the kitchen or to our understanding of cooking; they’re yet another collection of recipes, which we need about as much as we need a case of shingles. (I wish we could call a moratorium on new recipes and spend the next decade working on the ones we have.)
The chef cookbook? Is nothing sacred?

Next thing you know, they'll be coming for Food TV or something... (Cough)


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

MGM Grand to San Francisco? Maybe. Someday.

Using money from the United Arab Emirates, MGM Mirage is looking to develop hotels without casinos, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Right now the company is looking at Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas and the UK. In June it opened the first of three towers that make up a condo-hotel project in Las Vegas, known as The Signature at MGM Grand but not directly connected to any casino properties.

It is not inconceivable the hotel firm could end up in San Francisco, particularly if it abandons the tight focus on casino properties. After all, San Francisco is a key global travel destination, in the top 5 of U.S. cities easily. And there are historic properties like the Palace, Mark Hopkins and Crowne Plaza that could be bought up and re-launched, and opportunity sites in the TransBay Terminal redevelopment area that are either intended for hotels or strong candidates.

Hunting for space now in San Francisco is Starwood Capital Group -- not to be confused with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which was started by Starwood Capital Group but is now unaffiliated. Starwood Capital CEO Barry Sternlicht has a new green hotel concept called "1" Hotel and Residences, and has named San Francisco as a potential expansion city, as I reported in October.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Italian boss says 'no chains' at Jack London Square

The new food hall at Jack London Square in Oakland will all but ban national chains, I write in the Business Times Wednesday.

I spoke with slow food leader and Jack London Square resident Renato Sardo, who has been hired as a consultant by developers to lord over the leasing of the food hall. His advisory committee includes representatives from green investing funds and plenty of Slow Food International vets, including PR queen Eleanor Bertino.

The committee's guidelines, due out within a few weeks, will emphasize
  • local producers
  • quality producers
  • environmental sustainability
  • small producers
The committee would also like to see a farmer's market at the food hall, known as Harvest Hall and set to span 185,000 square feet, including 18-22 restaurants and a grocery store. The developers are counting on the size of the hall and its diversity of restaurants, plus the grocery store, to distinguish it from places like Ferry Plaza Marketplace, Market Hall in Rockridge or Epicurious Garden in Berkeley.

Sardo said:
We are not looking for national chains ... if there is a particular chain we regard as high quality or arrives with a particular concept, we may consider that. But probably we won't have big chains there.

Renato's initial consulting contract runs out in nine months.

Story link, free starting Jan. 2: No link to Oakland project for big chains

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Friday, December 08, 2006

TV chef to helm Argent restaurant. Probably.

I report in today's Business Times that Nick Stellino of PBS fame is considered "likely" to helm a new restaurant project underway at the Argent hotel.

The hotel is set to convert to a Westin next summer, at which point a new restaurant concept of some sort will go in, complete with a large outdoor seating component, even if the contracts being draw up for Stellino fall through. Puccini Group is designing the restaurant.

Meanwhile, the St. Francis will get a chocolate, cheese and wine bar called Eno this spring. The concept was conceived by Strategic Hotels and Resorts CEO Laurence Geller, who is also putting Eno's in his hotels in two other cities. Puccini is designing this one too.

Finally, the new InterContinental gave a few more details on the 24-hour restaurant it will have when the hotel opens next to Moscone West in Feb. 2008. It will be an upscale Italian concept with "showcase kitchen" and a bar called "Grappas." InterContinental is looking for a chef.

This was all part of a front-page feature story on the surge in worthwhile hotel restaurants, a topic I blogged about previously. This time around, I remembered to credit Bill Kimpton for starting the first wave in this trend 20 years ago, and pointed out that it has spread to more established and larger hotels.

This issue of the Business Times also has my update on what Renato Sardo is up to at Jack London Square in Oakland, which I will blog about later, and a profile on the team behind Beach Chalet and Park Chalet.

FREE LINK to Business Times story

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Raise the price, sell more wine

Cooking with Amy has an interesting post on wine markups in restaurants, including this story from Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake:
Elizabeth Falkner mentioned that lower priced wines don't always sell. She recalled a terrific wine she priced at $5 per glass that no one would order, that is until she raised the price.
This fits with the conventional wisdom that smart diners order from the bottom or the upper half of the prices on the wine list, but never in between. The idea is that restaurateurs know diners don't want to appear cheap by ordering the cheapest wine or two, and go for the third- or fourth-cheapest, so the restaurant owners allegedly simply put an extra markup on some wines to get them into those positions.

It also reminds me of a story an old friend of mine told me. Her family ran a high-end grocery store in the Bay Area and claimed that managers at another high-end Bay local grocery chain said they when they wanted to clear a particular product out, they would just hike the price and put in on the endcap.

The Chronicle has been more aggressive in their coverage of wine markups than the local magazines, alt weeklies or even bloggers. I think there's room to take it even further, after all this is the kind of work bloggers could do at home in their pajamas with a calculator and some Google searches, accumulating a large database.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More like LINE Out the Door

How busy is Charles Phan's team at Out the Door in the San Francisco Centre mall?

Serving 1,200 patrons in one day busy.

If everyone had eaten in that would have been about 10 turns, since the joint only serves 138 (yes you can stay Inside-the-Door, and are even provided with table service at that). But of course the whole point of the place is that you can take your food to go, so 10 turns is unlikely.

Phan's publicist tells me he is giving staff extra time to unwind, though whether this is just individual time off or whether he closed the restaurant for a day (which was the impression I got) isn't clear. At least not to, um, me.

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And you thought the hotel strikes were over

Far from it.

I reported online Tuesday on a strike vote at the W Hotel.

As usually happens in these situations, the workers voted overwhelmingly to authorize union leaders to call a strike if negotiations break down. The union, Local 2 of UNITE HERE, said the margin was 84 percent in favor and blasted the hotel manager, Starwood, for having not "learned" from the recent faceoff between the union and 14 large city hotels, including two run by Starwood.

That confrontation ended in a fairly generous contract for workers, see link above for details. The SF Marriott a few weeks ago signed a deal with the same terms. The union is pushing for the same at the W.

The W San Francisco is actually owned by Starwood, whereas its hotels party to the 14-hotel contract are owned by others -- Strategic Hotels and Resorts in the case of the St. Francis (previously Blackstone), and the Kyoya Corp. in the case of the Palace (which as I reported almost a full year ago has been trying to sell the hotel in part on the value of an entitled condo tower).

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Monday, December 04, 2006

'I am also deeply sorry they picked this picture of me.'

If you are not following BeyondChron's coverage of how a Kenyan UC Irvine professor was racially profiled at Hotel Vitale, you really should check it out, if only because this is an issue that people are going to be talking about for a long time.

Capsule summary: The Professor is in town promoting his Random House-published book at an African American studies convention. Employee at Hotel Vitale, where he is staying, orders him off a Vitale patio where he is reading his paper, and allegedly persists in doing so after the professor informs the employee he is a guest. Professor complains to hotel manager, who doesn't seem to care much, and switches over to the St. Francis hotel.

Story picked up in Kenyan press, U.S. ambassador personally apologizes, local community radio station KPOO runs with the item, which is picked up on BeyondChron.

Anyway, Chip Conley, CEO of the SF boutique hotel chain that runs and partly owns the Vitale, apologizes in a letter sent to BeyondChron. It's a pretty unequivocal apology, admitting that profiling occurred, noting the employee is "ashamed" and has been put on leave and adding that three apology letters gave been issued to the professor.

The letter also gets into how the company already has diversity training but will add more, states that Conley went to an inner city high school and has an African American partner and a part-African-American foster son. Read it here.

What picture runs in BeyondChron next to Conley's "I am deeply sorry" letter? This one:

Great shot for promoting a company called Joie de Vivre, but not the best art to go next to a letter expressing serious regrets.


Hotel holiday sale, prices higher than ever

As predicted, a second wave of hotel sales is in full swing, reprising the mass trading of last winter.

Now up for sale:
  • Crowne Plaza (400 rooms, $100-120 million, FelCor)
  • Hyatt Regency Embarcadero (805 rooms, $200 million - $320 million, Strategic Hotel Capital, retail strip)
  • Hotel Palomar (200 rooms, Kimpton, Fifth Floor restaurant)
  • Cypress in Cupertino (225 rooms, Kimpton)
  • Maxwell (153 rooms, Joie de Vivre)
  • Villa Florence (182 rooms, Kimpton)
  • Prescott (140 rooms, Kimpton, Postrio restaurant)
Sold or in the process:
  • Renaisance Parc 55 (1,010 rooms), Oakland Marriott (484 rooms), Oakland Courtyard (157 rooms) (Larry Chan to Rockpoint, Highgate and a Hong Kong group, Highgate did not go in on Oakland properties) ($250 million) (still in process)
  • Commodore (110 rooms) (Joie de Vivre to anonymous buyer converting to residential)
  • Monticello Inn (91 rooms) (Dern Greinetz to Larkspur Hospitality) (Kimpton managed)
I detail the most recent deals in the Friday Business Times.

The only sale so far, the Renaissance Parc 55, does not bode well for pricing, so people are watching to see how the other deals play out. But there seems to be plenty of capital still in the market, and plenty of confidence business will continue to improve in San Francisco.

Issues of panhandling and cable car fares aside.

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