Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Charles Phan only now realizing he opened his new restaurant in the MALL FOOD COURT. Ahem.

Apparently people are minting money at the year-old expansion of Westfield SF Centre mall, but not poor Charles Phan of Slanted Door, who has a restaurant in the basement food court called Out The Door.

Bloomingdale's made a year's worth of money in nine months at the mall, but Phan is all, :-(

As he told my colleague Sarah Duxbury last week:

... his Out the Door concept is only doing OK.

"People are not embracing the mall in the evening as much as I'd like to see," he said, adding that his 150-seat, 5,000-square-foot restaurant gets only one dinner seating and is not meeting his projections.

See? No turns at dinner!

Imagine that. People not wanting to eat dinner in the mall food court. Hmmmm.

Phan's expectations may be just slightly inflated by his experience at the Ferry Building, where since opening in 2003 he has made close to $12 million per year. There, he does two or even three turns each night at dinner.

Besides Westfield, Phan now has spinoffs in the works in Pacific Heights, mid-Market and at the California Academy of Sciences.

Business Times: Westfield dazzles (free link)

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bruni joins Thomas Keller pile-on

New York Times food critic Frank Bruni today questions whether Thomas Keller has stretched himself too far, lending a sympathetic ear to the Bloomberg story published yesterday.

In a blog post, Bruni reminds us that Keller has a line of "silver-plated holloware sold by Christofle," along with the frozen food, expansion restaurants and other sorts of "diversification and division of interests that arguably contradict Mr. Keller’s words and posture in the past."

He adds:
... Mr. Keller has stretched and continues to stretch...

I read the Bloomberg and Eater reports on Keller an hour after having a cup of coffee at Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center, where I met an out-of-town friend for a quick breakfast. I didn’t eat, but I made a fairly thorough visual survey of the muffins, croissants and cookies — there it was! my beloved Nutter Butter! — and I could see several kitchen hands, in advance of lunchtime, making a vast quantity of sandwiches in an assembly-line fashion.

Bruni: Thomas Keller, Inc.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Thomas Keller 'not going to be able to keep the quality' while selling frozen food, Ruth Reichl says

Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on FlickrBloomberg this morning published a Thomas Keller feature on its financial news wire, exploring whether diversions like a 20-room hotel, catering operation and frozen food line will impact quality at Keller's flagship French Laundry.

Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl tells Bloomberg's James Temple, " You have to expect that with your attention that diverted, you're not going to be able to keep the quality ... I just don't think that's possible.''

The story notes that Keller consulted on the Pixar movie Ratatouille, in which the main character becomes upset when a chef's image is used to sell frozen food on television. And yet Keller recently "designed and placed his name on two real- life frozen dishes for FiveLeaf, a unit of Cuisine Solutions Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia. The company will soon begin pitching one, Mac and Cheese Lobster with Orzo, to retail stores, said Lillian Liu, the company's marketing manager."

Michael Bauer says, "Once you get into frozen food and pizzas, your fine dining brand gets a little fuzzed out." He is refering to Wolfgang Puck, apparently, but the reader will probably draw a parallel to Keller.

Keller said he mitigates against the risks of growth by
  • growing slowly and carefully, as when he shut down French Laundry for nearly 5 months while working on Per Se,
  • plugging in the old staff at new ventures,which keeps quality high and keeps staff from leaving for bigger opportunities.

Bauer weighed in on this topic in August, saying he did not think the French Laundry has lost its edge and still operated on "a sublime level" above other restaurants. He added that a recent meal there "wasn't as remarkable" as one two years prior, his all time favorite meal.

In July, I summarized some French Laundry backlash from online food writers.

Bloomberg: French Laundry's Keller Takes Plunge With Frozen Foods, Burgers

(Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on Flickr via Creative Commons license. You may redistribute and "remix" this cropped version under the same license.)

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Google computer nerds to teach children how to eat healthy. Oh holy God.

Google invites you to bring your children to its Mountain View headquarters next month for pizza, soda and television so it can teach them how to not be obese.

If you're afraid your kids are going to grow fat watching television on their computer or chatting with friends on the computer or surfing the Internet all day on the computer or deciding to become computer programmers who marry their computers and eat chips and Mountain Dew until the day their startup gets bought by the world's biggest computer, probably the best way to allay your fears is to march them down to Google headquarters.

Go there on October 20, when the company is fighting childhood obesity by holding a benefit for a TV show aimed at children.

The show is called "DooF" -- "food" spelled backwards -- and airs on PBS.

The benefit basically is a day of eating and walking around the Googleplex, but hey it's not as bad as I make it sound: the pizza is from an organic "make your own" workshop deal that will be led by Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread and by Google's pizza chef.

The soda is Italian soda from a "Euro Cafe" so, uh, probably still not healthy.

The TV is just a big screen showing interviews with kids at the event itself so it will not keep your kids glued.

You also get to tour an organic garden, sip smoothies, learn about "raw foods," taste apples from Donner Trail Fruit, do a food spelling bee, have a cheese sniffing contest with Cowgirl Creamery, and listen to some hip hop dudes called "Felonious." Fair enough.

Just make sure you don't accidentally come on some other day, or your impressionable youth will instead learn how to set up a webcam, start a blog and immerse herself in software development so that she can someday work in a giant computer that controls her transportation, laundry, diet, hair style, dating options, etc.

And bring some cash because Google can't just be letting anyone in the door for free, it's not like they are made of money.

Business Times: Hey kids! Come pig out at Google!

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hotel concierge brags he lives better than you could DREAM OF LIVING!!

An anonymous hotel concierge just wrote in to the comments to explain that he rolls posher than you, makes more money than you, lives larger than you and expects you to keep on tipping and not complaining about his commissions and kickbacks and who pays his salary or whatever.


Here is a taste:
So for those of you who think poor little concierges, what a poor living, you are wrong. Most of us have a better living than any of you. You get free everything. GC to go to restaurants, free rides to the airport and I can go on and on.
But where does the money come from?
Concierges make commision out of everything they do. How do you think they make a living???!!! that tour bus you booked, they make commission, that helicopter tour, scuba diving tour, limo, you name it they get commission just for recommending it.

Oh, also? Some concierges get salary AND TIPS on top of all this. Because, you know, when someone sells you something on commission, it is polite to not only buy it, but to tip as well.

Anyway the commenter's point is that, while kickbacks from the vendors he recommends may finance his extravagant lifestyle, they do not influence him in any way:

I take pride of what I do and I am REALLY good. Never has anybody complained about me either pushig nor selling. My company does not make me sell anything. Since when does it matter WHO pays your salary?

... wether I recommend my company or the neighbors company, I will still make money out of it. And that just comes with the title.

Does every single business that might get a recommendation from a concierge pay a commission?

Creating a positive relationship with concierges can pay dividends. When Ola Fendert was trying to get the word out about Oola's unusually late hours, he reached out to concierges, doormen and taxi drivers, including by plying them with free meals in some cases. (I mentioned the concierge thing in my article on late-night dining.)

You could argue that this sort of wining and dining is a way of spreading knowledge and ultimately helping make patrons aware about a restaurant staying open until 1am, still a rare, hard-to-find thing in San Francisco.

You could also argue that concierges who accept this sort of outreach are going to be influenced to recommend a restaurant that offers them freebies or commissions over a restaurant that doesn't give these goodies, even when the latter restaurant is the better recommendation for the patron.

These sorts of debates are not unknown in the journalism world. But the best journalists uniformly decline freebies, at least past a certain level.

Maybe concierges are totally different, maybe not.

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Limon or Dosa at Mint Plaza??

Like a sweet, sweet Julep on a hot Kentucky Derby day, everyone is grabbing at Mint Plaza, a dingy little lane where Martin Building Company is building a restaurant row to rival Belden Place.

The plaza includes three large restaurant spots, one spoken for by Portrero Hill bistro Chez Papa and the other dibbed by Russian Hill's Sushi Groove. Cult coffee roaster Blue Bottle has a café in 800 square feet, as well.

The third big spot was to go to the Castillo's family's Peruvian-Californian restaurant, Limon, but talks fell through.

Then, I was told by a source involved in the project, talks shifted to Dosa, Emily and Anjan Mitra's South Indian place about five blocks away in the same Mission District neighborhood.

Today, the Chronicle's Inside Scoop reports that Limon is back, "getting close to signing a lease."

Indian, Peruvian – the bigger question is whether Martin can make a culinary destination by photocopying neighborhood restaurants and tearing them out of their original, uh, neighborhoods. Hmmm. Worked for the Ferry Building, I guess.

Oh, and Chez Papa and Sushi Groove were supposed to open by Labor Day -- what happened to all that?

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Phan FINALLY seals deal with Soma Grand

Six months after the developers of the Soma Grand condo complex started hyping their talks with developer Charles Phan to prospective buyers, it looks like the restaurant deal is actually officially happening, if the Chronicle's Inside Scoop is to be believed.

Phan of course is known for his ubiquitous chain of StarbucksSlanted Door-branded restaurants, including the relocated "original" Slanted Door in the Ferry Building, a new one under construction in Pacific Heights, the Out the Door takeout spinoff in the Ferry Building, the Out the Door in Westfield San Francisco Centre and the forthcoming joint project with Loretta Keller at the California Academy of Sciences.

So if you loooorve Charles' crab cellophane noodles to the tune of around $700,000, give or take a few hundred thousand, and you actually mange to get a hold of a mortgage amid the financial markets meltdown, totally go for it!

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Hoist Thomas Keller by his own Sysco petard, no really GO AHEAD, says ex-employee!

Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on FlickrThere's an awesome new post in the comments from ex-Thomas Keller employee "Ken," who confirms that, yes, Keller uses Sysco frozen fries at Bouchon to make what food-media empress Laura Froelich has declared are the best French-fried potatoes on the planet.

But Ken's bigger message is that Thomas Keller has no secrets.

Ask him for the model number of his fryer, he'll tell you. Ask him for what kind of Sysco oil he uses, he'll tell you.

Wait, what?? He uses Sysco OIL even?? Not like goose fat, or rendered Unicorn, or at least the carefully distilled juice of a grass-fed free-range happy cow? God this keeps. Getting. Worse.

But anyway, the point is, you could totally TAKE ON Thomas Keller using nothing more than his goodwill and copies of his own cookbooks. Here's the whole comment:

As a former employee of TK, I will tell you that you are correct about where the fries come from. I will also tell you that if you asked Thomas or Jeff Cerciello, they would tell you what kind of fryer they use and what kind of Sysco oil they use too.

Now, all you have to do is cook and season the fries. Match what they do and open your own place, it's that simple. TK has never hidden anything from anyone. His recipes and techniques mentioned in the TFL and Bouchon cookbooks are on the money and the same as the cooks thaqt work for him carry around in their precious pocket notebooks. TK feels that all you need to know about working for him or cooking in general is - desire.

Another secret about TK is that the pork he uses actually comes from pigs, but don't reveal this, it may cause a stir.

I hope all you local chefs looking to steal Thomas Keller's Michelin-star-studded crown got all that. Basically all you need is DESIRE, along with some chutzpah, hard work, Thomas Keller cookbooks and the ability to READ.

Hey where'd all the chefs go after the last part??

View comment with original post

(Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on Flickr via Creative Commons license. You may redistribute and "remix" this cropped version under the same license.)

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Farina neighbors really, really pissed off

Photo courtesy katerw on FlickrNeighbors of Mission District Italian place Farina are upset over how the restaurants' customers are double parking their cars and worried about the rooftop seating and the full liquor license.

They think the joint is going to become a haven for loudmouth drunktards who will scream from the rooftop and puke all over their streets and leave their cars in all kinds of illegal places.

Eighty of them complained to the restaurant owners before the place was even built -- parking was already out of control. Then they found out about the roof seating and full bar and got more pissed.

Then 50 wrote letters against the place to the Planning Commission. The commission approved the restaurant anyway and everyone got triple pissed.

The restaurant opened in June, approximately, which apparently pissed the neighbors off even more.

One neighbor got so pissed he was arrested for throwing paint on cars parked illegally outside the restaurant. The only witness was someone from the restaurant so the charges were dropped.

But just to give you a sense of how being pissed can change a man: the guy allegedly throwing paint is, by day, working as a criminal attorney.

Also, he told SF Magazine, on the record, as Matt Wilson, the following: "I just want everyone to know that this restaurant has fucked me."

Like I said: Piiiiissed.

SF Magazine, which wrote about the whole situation (offline, since it is now the year 1993), thinks Farina's owners need to learn to be more nice and friendly to the quadruple-pissed neighbors, because after all Delfina, Range and Bar Tartine have learned to do so.

Either that or just keep having them hauled off to jail for being so damned pissed all the time.

(Photo courtesy of katerw on Flickr via Creative Commons license.)

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SF hotels face capital famine


Hope you had a GREAT summer!

Did you have a GREAT summer?

Hope so!

Because now the money is gone!



Probably not a big deal. The money went away for the month of August, and may return in September, or October, or sometime in the fall, or maybe next year, or maybe not quite ever, but everyone expects it will probably come back.

But for now it's taken a little vacation. Or an extended sabbatical. Whatever.

Don't want to overstate things. By "the money," I just mean the commercial paper that underwrote 80 percent of all hotel finance. And by "gone," I just mean not being given out to anyone, anywhere, anymore.

This really is not a big deal, unless you're a hotelier. Or a restaurateur. Or in the construction industry.

Or a broker, or in interior design, or an architect.

Or in the hospitality industry. Or in a business impacted by the hospitality industry. Or in a business that touches in some way on real estate.

Or in a business that needs, like, capital.

In a nutshell, the problem is that most commercial lending was done through supposedly very safe "commercial paper," or short-term loans to reliable businesses.

But Jim Cramer's hedge fund buddies took some of these loans and invested them in subprime mortgages, junk bonds and probably high-grade Columbian cocaine, no is really sure at this point because we're only talking about hundreds of billions of dollars and who really tracks that sort of pocket change.

Mainstream banks like the one that runs your checking account thought this all sounded swell and started borrowing and lending money this way too.

No one worried too much because as soon as someone made one of these insane loans he could then chop it up into a million pieces and sell the pieces to other investors who didn't know or care much about what they were buying.

They just cared that the loan had been stamped "AAA" by the ratings agencies, who of course valued the loans using computers, esoteric math no one understood and inputs no one could agree on.

About a month ago, everyone finally realized that some of this paper was not backed by operationally sound businesses but instead by people lending money to typical American homeowners which, as you might imagine, is a batshit crazy business to be in. Then they realized they couldn't tell which commercial paper was being used badly and which was sound. Then they stopped issuing commercial paper, which is a way of saying they stopped loaning anyone any money.

Commercial paper underwrites 80 percent of hotel deals, according to Jones Lang LaSalle. Ha ha, pretty hilarious madcap situation, right?

So now hotels, who by the way were sort of supposed to be the saviors of the hard-pressed local restaurant industry, can't get cash and have lost about 20 percent of their total value in like a month or two.

A small fraction of the top hotels can still get money from what are known as "balance sheet lenders," aka people who actually have cash money to lend and aren't counting on reselling the debt to others to offload the risk and aren't like panicking or whatever. Also, if you had a deal closed -- truly closed, not just nonrefundable -- before the meltdown, it will generally still go through, which is why you will still see deals being announced.

The whole capital crunch nearly derailed the recent Hotel Palomar sale a couple of times, all the principals told me, but luckily it was far enough along to make it to the finish line.

More in the ...

Business Times: Credit crunch leaves S.F. hoteliers hungry (free link)

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