The counter at Souvla, a fast-fine Mediterranean restaurant group in San Francisco - Souvla / <a href=''>Facebook</a> The counter at Souvla, a fast-fine Mediterranean restaurant group in San Francisco - Souvla / <a href=''>Facebook</a>

San Francisco Restaurants Can’t Afford Waitstaff

Times are tough in San Francisco, according to the New York Times. So tough, in fact, that residents forced to do things like order at the counter at restaurants (gasp!) and bus their own tables (say it isn’t so!).

A piece titled, “San Francisco Restaurants Can’t Afford Waiters. So They’re Putting Diners to Work” attempts to draw a parallel between the high cost of housing and its effect on the style of popular restaurant in the city — the type without a formal waitstaff where patrons need to do the majority of the heavy lifting.

Restaurant businesses do not operate in a vacuum. And perhaps, given San Francisco’s rising minimum wage and California’s law prohibiting a separate tipped minimum wage, this type of fine counter service has become a feature, not a bug. Washington, D.C. voters already voted in favor of eliminating a tipped minimum wage, and a decision on the same by New York’s governor is expected soon, yet still highly contested. If a restaurant is to survive in a challenging labor landscape, shifting to this type of model, which still gives customers great food and friendly service, could be the only way for beloved restaurants to survive in New York or any other place staring down significant changes to the way employees must be paid.

For all its clichés (“tech richies,” anyone?), the Times piece succeeds in solidifying the desire for an evolving business model, adjusting to both the clientele and modern-day realities of restaurant operations. Souvla, the counter-service Greek restaurant that has become the de facto poster child for this type of restaurant, gets it — owner Charles Bililies nails it with the quote, “We can sit around here, and we can complain and whine and moan. We can be very negative about this. Or we can sort of turn this on its head and see an opportunity.”

Anthony Strong, chef and owner of the forthcoming Prairie restaurant in San Francisco is an industry veteran with over a decade of experience running kitchens at now-iconic SF restaurants Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina, and Locanda. He’s not sharing all the details of his new project — yet — but acknowledges the importance of pushing the boundaries of narrowly-defined business models.

“It’s an exciting and challenging time to be opening a new place in SF, and it’s been intriguing to see how much the economic has changed here over the past 12 years,” he told Skift Table. “I’m a firm believer in constraint leading to innovation, so we’re taking this opportunity to heavily rethink every aspect of the conventional full-service restaurant format, it is outdated and we need to develop new models that work better for everyone involved. A large number of the meals I’ve enjoyed most haven’t been in full-service restaurants; I think it is critical to reconsider what constitutes a great dining experience, loosen things up a bit.”

Business owners need to read the room — what do the consumers want and how can they give it to them in a way that makes business sense? By virtue of the fact that both consumers and restaurant owners are taking well to the Souvla-as-Uber model of restaurant innovation (that is, every restaurant wants to be the “Souvla of X” just as, as the Times notes, every gig economy startup wants to be the “Uber of X”), it’s working in the Bay Area and beyond. New York City’s Mr. Hospitality, Danny Meyer, operates one of these spots, too; Martina, in the East Village, serves thin-crust pizza and wine with an order-at-the-counter model. Last October, Bon Appetit called this style of fast-fine dining “the next frontier.”

So, beyond the sensational headline, perhaps meant to be heeded as a warning in New York, the real story is the ingenuity and creativity businesses like Souvla have employed in order to continue to serve a demanding audience high quality, delicious food in pleasant spaces while paying employees a liveable wage. If that means I need to clear a dish or two, I’ll take it.

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