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The Quick and the Fed

As San Francisco’s restaurant economics grow ever more perilous, chefs and owners are turning to fast-dining concepts for salvation.


A Feast of Fast
Clockwise from top left: Barzotto’s cresta di gallo; Souvla’s pork shoulder sandwich; Barzotto’s porchetta; Sababa’s chicken bowl; Souvla’s Greek fries.

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Barzotto’s Little Gem salad.

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See our list of the Bay Area’s 21 best fast-dining spots here.

Charles Bililies
has a vision, and that vision doesn’t include waiters or reservations. “I firmly believe that fine casual is the future of restaurants,” he says as he lounges at a table at the Hayes Valley location of Souvla. “It’s the way to adapt and thrive and be successful.” Looking around at his small, stylish restaurant, the first of Souvla’s three outposts, it’s easy to share Bililies’s confidence.

Although it’s around 3 p.m. on a weekday, hardly dining prime time, the place is respectably busy: Customers steadily trickle in to order at the counter from Souvla’s concise menu of Greek-inspired wraps, salads, fries, and frozen yogurt, then take a number and wait for the food to be delivered on highly Instagrammable enamel trays. They represent a fraction of the almost 700 orders Souvla fills every day; 50 percent of his business, Bililies says, happens outside the restaurant through delivery and online ordering. “People like to talk about the razor-thin margins and blah, blah, blah,” he continues. “But this works.” 

Razor-thin margins and blah, blah, blah: Talk to almost any San Francisco restaurateur these days and you’ll get an earful about the increasing perils of trying to open a restaurant, much less keep it open. The labor shortages, the rising minimum wage (currently $13 an hour, it will rise to $15 by 2018) and various city-mandated healthcare expenditures and taxes, the rents, the criminally sluggish permitting process, the beginning of the economic slowdown: Right now in San Francisco, says Marko Sotto, the owner of Barzotto, “there’s a lot of fear and reluctance to open a full-service restaurant.” And so, faced with the writing on the wall, many chefs and restaurateurs are opting for a new strategy: Go fast, and go casual.

The term “fast casual” is something of an eye-roller among industry vets, and also not remotely new: It’s been around since the 1990s, though it didn’t gain steam until the latter part of the aughts, when chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread exploited a recession-battered audience hungry for the promise of healthier, better-quality—but still affordable—fast food. A few years ago, the Bay Area began to see the growth of fast-casual chainlets like Asian Box and Sushirrito, as well as higher-end counter-service spots like Roam Artisan Burger, Salumeria, and Sweet Woodruff, the latter of which closed last spring. But in the past year or two, these kinds of concepts have proliferated at an unprecedented rate, and with unprecedented diversity. There are Chipotle-esque assemblyline spots like Sajj Mediterranean, Tava Kitchen, and Sababa. There are enlightened fast-food joints from established local restaurateurs like Daniel Patterson, who has opened two locations of Locol, and Adriano Paganini, who now has 10 locations of Super Duper Burgers and in October opened the Bird, which serves only fried chicken and curly fries. There are fine-casual restaurants like Souvla and Barzotto, an Italian spot on Valencia Street, the “fine” part of the term a reference to the fact that these establishments offer alcohol, real dining utensils, and date-night ambience. There is Lemonade, a chain of elevated cafeterias where you can find citrus-poached salmon and seasonal salads, and there is Eatsa, a chain of elevated Automats that belch custom quinoa bowls out of a wall. There are hybrid models like Little Gem and Corridor, where counter service is offered alongside full service. And there are, as of last count, approximately 8,000 poke bars

Although these restaurants answer to different labels, every last one of them is trying to do essentially the same thing: redefine what fast food is, or can be, and make it with a minimum of workers at a volume that makes it possible to thrive in San Francisco. If you insist on a single label, you could call it San Francisco Fast. Or, for better or worse, the new normal.

The good news, for diners: Many of these restaurants serve excellent food. The fried eggplant in Sababa’s sabik is transcendent, while the fries at Souvla could be classified as a controlled substance. But “fast casual” tends to evoke images of sterile corporate chains with as much warmth as an iPhone, not to mention appropriated so-called ethnic food that’s been watered down into a one-size-fits-all dilution of itself. As one prolific operator tells me when I ask for his thoughts on the matter, “No one goes on a vision quest and comes up with fast casual.” When I call Evan Rich to talk about RT Rotisserie, the counter-service restaurant he and his wife, Sarah, are planning to open in the first quarter of this year, he immediately offers a disclaimer: “First of all, I’m not opening a fast-casual place,” he says. “I’m just opening a restaurant where you can conveniently order at the counter and take food out.” The Riches, co-chefs and co-owners at Hayes Valley’s Rich Table, had long had the idea for a spot serving rotisserie-cooked meats, Rich explains, and while the counter-service model makes economic sense, it reflects “what we want to eat and where our heads are right now,” he says—not a desire to exploit a trend. Yes, he allows, “it’s going to be fast and it’s going to be casual,” but please, keep those words as separate as church and state. “When people start saying ‘fast casual,’” he says, “it’s like, ‘Ewww.’”

Even setting aside visions of corporate hellscapes, fast-casual concepts do suffer from a certain lack of romanticism. Their operators tend to talk about them in terms of volume, efficiency, and metrics—the language of commerce, not love. Hasnain Zaidi, the co-owner of Tava Kitchen, a South Asian concept with four locations in the Bay Area, says that one of the greatest benefits of a fast-casual model is that it “allows you to scale—you can create a concept that is systems- and process-driven.” What that means, among other things, is that you can design your concept for maximum efficiency, through a brief menu that requires fewer ingredients and workers to execute it, and by purchasing ingredients in greater volume at a lower cost. “You get economies of scale happening,” Zaidi says. “It’s such a critical factor for fast casual.” It’s also undoubtedly a selling point for Bay Area investors, many of whom hail from the scale-obsessed tech industry.

To be fair, Zaidi, whose background is in finance, stresses that he’s driven as much by his desire to make South Asian food “approachable” as he is by economics. And because he’s not burdened by the financial limitations of a full-service restaurant, he argues, he has more resources for “developing people and investing in ingredients”—some of which come from local farms. Even if Zaidi’s systems-speak veers into “One word: plastics” territory, it’s not difficult to see the allure of Tava’s sales figures—each location serves between 600 and 700 people a day—and the freedom that such volume can bring.

Guy Eshel has found similar liberation through numbers. Last May, when he opened his fast-casual Israeli restaurant Sababa in the financial district, he projected he’d have to do 170 covers at lunchtime to turn a profit. So it’s been “humbling and awesome,” he says, to in reality do close to 300 every day. Eshel, who was previously a cook at AQ and wanted to open a fine-dining restaurant until he took stock of the considerable odds, says that greater numbers have allowed him to spend slightly more on labor and certain ingredients: With tips, his cooks make about $20 an hour, and he can afford the organic Japanese sesame paste he uses in Sababa’s cauliflower salad. Eshel is currently looking for a second location with a larger production facility to handle more catering, which accounts for about 10 percent of Sababa’s business (and is another facet of fast-casual concepts that restaurateurs increasingly depend on). And he may break into the wholesale pita business, too; he’s been “really excited,” he says, by the number of customers who ask to take Sababa’s freshly baked pita home with them.

Whether or not the success of Sababa and its ilk does portend, as Bililies says, the future of restaurants, it certainly reflects the way that a lot of people want to eat now—or, more specifically, the young working professionals who can’t or don’t want to make time for a sit-down meal. It also reflects, as Golden Gate Restaurant Association executive director Gwyneth Borden says, “the fact that food is pervasive nowadays.” Restaurants don’t just compete with restaurants anymore: They’ve also got to deal with meal kit delivery services, tech and finance cafeterias, and the fact that everyone from Target to Walgreens is selling prepared food. “Is it the death of full service?” Borden asks. “No. But we are at this inflection point where the way people deliver full-service restaurants is changing. Absolutely.” 

For the past year, Berk Kinalilar has been negotiating that inflection point at Troya, the Turkish restaurant he owns on Fillmore Street. Originally located in the Richmond, Troya has been in Pacific Heights since 2012, and 2016, Kinalilar admits, was “the worst year I’ve ever had.” In addition to rising taxes and food and labor costs, the restaurant struggled with a changing clientele: The younger couples moving into the neighborhood, Kinalilar says, “just don’t want to spend time sitting somewhere. They want everything right away.”

While business at the restaurant dwindled, though, Troya’s food truck, which Kinalilar launched at Off the Grid last year, proved to be a blazing success. People had no problem paying $12 for a lamb wrap, and the truck would usually sell out in two hours. “It got me thinking,” he says. The problem, he realized, “wasn’t the food. It was the concept.” And so in late November, Kinalilar turned his full-service restaurant into a fast-casual one. Where Troya’s previous incarnation had served complex, labor-intensive dishes, its new one has a menu heavy on wraps, bowls, salads, and kebabs whose prices top out at $18. The change in business, Kinalilar says, was immediate. Before the switch, he did about 35 to 40 covers on the weekdays; now he does around 150. “My check average has gone down, but I’m almost making the same amount [in] sales,” he says. “I’m also doing online delivery with Caviar, and that adds up to about 5 to 10 percent of my sales, which is huge because I’ve never done it before. So all I can say is, so far, so good.” 

As customers, we, too, can take some pleasure in the upside of the trend: In addition to helping some owners adapt to a brutal economic climate, it’s providing the public with some good, relatively affordable food. It may not be sexy, but these are not sexy times, and they require ease and simplicity. If a restaurant wants to serve you an $11 locally sourced pork shoulder sandwich in less time than it takes to order an Uber, then take it. Things could be worse.


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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