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Barbacco Talks Sardines, iPads and Possible Expansion

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Staffan Terje (left), Umberto Gibin.
Staffan Terje (left), Umberto Gibin.

Loosely one year has passed since the dynamo team of chef Staffan Terje and GM Umberto Gibin gave their first restaurant Perbacco a little sister next door. With its shiny Cass Calder Smith design and a dressed down menu befitting these economic times, Barbacco made a splashy entrance to the FiDi scene; then continued to forge new ground by becoming the first West Coast restaurant to implement iPads into the wine program. Now with a new year and new ideas on the horizon, we take a moment to reflect and learn what these two have up their sleeves. And it's a little more than we bargained for.

A year ago, what were your main concerns going into all this with Barbacco?

Umberto Gibin: The first concern that came was, are we going to take away business from the big sister? And we discussed it a lot, and said no the concept that we have is completely different; it’s more of a compliment. We chose not to have a liquor license, just wine and beer.

Staffan Terje: When the space went on the market the larger concern was, we’re going to have new neighbors. When people say I’ve never been to Perbacco before, and they ask where are they located, and we say we’re right next door to Tadich Grill, I’m good with that. But you don’t want to give directions and say we’re right next to Burger King. Because that would be the type of company that would have happened to come in here. That was a natural because the economy was tanking.

UG: The landlord told us a couple of chains were looking at the space. One thing we had a smart landlord who wouldn’t allow that.

That would have definitely changed things. Now how do you feel the two crowds compare at Perbacco vs. Barbacco?

UG: Sometimes it’s the same person in a different mood. For a lot of guests who have business meetings to take care of, Perbacco is their choice. It’s more conducive for business conversations, you’re not sharing tables with others. Some of these people the next day when they want something a little faster, a little more energy, they come over here. And then I notice dinner time, it changes. We have a slightly younger crowd here.

ST: One of the things I noticed, we have a greater percentage of women here. The restaurants in the Financial District are mostly more geared towards men. Especially on the lower end, you have sports bars. And there are women that don’t want to go there and they have nothing. This was a segment that wasn’t addressed, and we have a large workforce down here that are female. Don’t deny them the ability to spend the money.

Right. You’ll take it!

ST: Exactly.

UG: It’s the same color [laughing].

Were there any big surprises after you opened?

ST: We thought that lunch time check averages would be lower. We thought it would be a little speedier. People actually spend a little more time. We changed things to speed it up. We thought people would come in just for a sandwich, but they’ll have an appetizer, so that was a little surprise. Even thought we don’t sell a ton, there’s people that’ve written they really enjoy having half glasses of wine because it means they don’t have to go back to work hammered.

UG: And at dinner time we also thought it was going to be much faster service: an hour for dinner. But now it’s not unusual to have two or three hour dinners.

ST: People say thank you for opening this place in the Financial District. So it feels good. I think we hit the market at the right time.

You modeled after a restaurant in Italy right?

UG: Yes, the trattoria we saw in Chiavari was what we wanted to do.

ST: But also at Eataly in Torino when we sat down at the counter and they did certain things that really inspired us and made us start thinking in a different way.

UG: How easy it was, how fast it was.

ST: And good quality. And there they really didn’t have skilled people serving us. It was a system set in place so pretty much anyone could do it, but it was very high quality, done in a fast casual sense. You have to look at the things that have slimmer margins, that have better systems. We wanted something that wasn’t as expensive as Perbacco. So we had to look at it and ask what are the things we need to do for our business to make it profitable and sustainable. So you know, no tablecloths, you know that’s become a big trend, not just environmentally but it saves you money. And also the younger crowd is expecting a different type of service. They have a more segmented way of living. Everything is short bursts, whether it’s news or entertainment, so smaller plates, more variety, coming at you faster for the younger crowd.

So would you say Barbacco has been just as successful as Perbacco?

UG: It took a month longer to explode the way we wanted. As a matter of fact, now, a year later, we’re busier than ever. Perbacco also because of the time and the economy and so on, it was overnight.

ST: Certain dinner services were tough. Our Saturdays we thought were going to be gangbusters and they weren’t basically until we got the review.

UG: Barbacco took five weeks for Saturday to become busy. The fourth Saturday we thought maybe we should adjust our business and then the fifth we did 350 guests and never stopped.

Why do you think that is?

ST: Word of mouth and also the Financial District I think is just slow on the weekends.

UG: We would hear all the time people want to go somewhere they can make a reservation, not take a chance on a wait. Originally we started only with walk-ins unless you were a party of six. And now pretty much every single seat is available online except the communal table and a counter seat.

Very interesting. So back to Bauer.

ST: It didn’t hurt to get three stars. But you still have to work hard every day.

So did it impact business?

ST:Oh yeah it did. Of course. It probably helped getting the word out that we’re here with both places.

Any major menu tweaks since you opened?

ST: There’s always things that we try that don’t work. That’s why at Perbacco we always change menus daily, here it’s weekly. You can’t be that married to a dish that you won’t change it. In the beginning we put out tripe and it didn’t sell at all and now a year later we put it back and it’s selling very much. So maybe it was a little premature for us to put it on that early. We needed to get people to trust us. You want to stand out in the crowd too, but at the same time you can’t be so stand out that people are only going to try it once. So now that people know whatever we do tastes pretty darn good, it’s easier to introduce things that are not as common. You start sneaking things in. Then there are certain items we’ve done from the beginning.

Like the sardine sandwich?

ST:Yep. And when sardines are back in season it’s going to go back on the menu. We’ve gotten a lot of press out of it. It’s really tasty.

UG: Somebody stopped me on the street the other day and said when are you going to put the sardine sandwich back on? You know when we were testing it for the menu it was a little bland, then when you get it all together, with the condiments, you can’t stop eating it.

ST: It’s a great sandwich. It sounds weird. It came from Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krazinski’s wedding reception out on Angel Island. They were doing two sandwiches: squid and sardine and a pulled pork. Now, if you have pretty much all chefs and industry people at your wedding reception and you have pulled pork left over, the other sandwich must be pretty darn good.

Moving on to the iPad. Was that something you knew you wanted from the start?

UG: The idea was [publicist] Andrew Freeman's as a matter of fact. Of the decision making group I was most skeptical of all. I was thinking number-wise, the economy, and is it going to increase our profits or not. I couldn’t come up with a reason to say, yes let’s go. In the end I said OK; we made a deal. When we first opened we had a simple wine list, some description, nothing else.

What are the solid business reasons for having it? I can see that it’s a very cool and glamorous gadget but..

ST: Well we kept on talking about it. Andrew said to us we would be the first to have it after SD26 [in New York]. First on the West Coast. So there was definitely a press worthy thing. Second going back to the whole technology thing. When we opened we got the remote control POS system so servers can take your order and swipe your card at the table. All these tech advances are a way for people to dig deeper. You now they don’t need a sommelier at the table. It’s new. It’s probably where we’re going. So somebody’s going to have to take a step which is really scary. It was a little bit of a risk. Our friend, who’s a big tech geek, it freaked him out, He wants a paper wine list. And then you have people at retirement age and they’re like this is really cool.

It’s like the kindle.

ST: Yeah, there’s some people that aren’t going to like these. We have an option for a paper wine list, but a lot of people think it’s really really great. And it’s increased wine sales.

UG: The simple fact that it’s here on the table with you for the duration of your dinner is so helpful. When you’re just about to finish your glass, you’re ready to search for your next one, so you don’t have to wait for your server. It eliminates wait time and the info you have is even more. You have the label, the varietal...

ST: We also get to buy a little more wine. The whole thing with the wine bars and so on are becoming ever so more popular. You have people who are novices; they want to learn; they read a lot. Still there’s the intimidation factor with the sommelier. Here you can educate yourself and you don’t have to think you’re stupid.

So are you going to open any other Barbaccos?

UG: Barbacco is scalable, yes. But it takes certain areas. Places with foot traffic.

Pac Heights?

UG: Pac Heights. Fillmore Street. That would be a perfect location for a Barbacco. Union Street could be a good location for Barbacco.

ST: It doesn’t really translate everywhere in the city. But you want facing the street, so people see people sitting outside. Where there’s a lot of energy and people constantly. But I think as far as price points, I don’t see why we can’t make a couple more of them.

UG: We need bigger spaces though. Seventy seats isn’t enough for a concept like this. We should have twice as many.

ST: We see some of our competition around the city. They’re doing very similar in the sense of the food they’re serving. This casual Italian is working. People like it.

Who do you consider similar to you?

ST: Somebody like Beretta, Delarosa, more casual spaces. Even Bar Bambino. We don’t mind if the place gets loud and fun, with good food, not too pretentious. It’s simple, good, seasonal. We use the exact same products we use next door. We’re not going to buy a lesser product just because this is a lesser price. You just have to be more creative.

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