This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
[Photo: Lisa Keating]
As the DJ of West Oakland's modern soul food joint Brown Sugar Kitchen, Phil Surkis knows he can only please some of the people some of the time. For every five songs he plays: a mix of jazz, soul, funk, '70s, and '80s with a huge helping of Michael Jackson; the general consensus is you'll like one. Don't expect his song selection to change anytime soon. Surkis is married to executive chef/co-owner Tanya Holland, and he's co-owner himself. The couple have single-handedly brought new life to an economically downtrodden area of Oakland. In spite of nonexistent public transit (they're working on a shuttle, but there's no nearby BART station or regular bus schedule) and an industrial neighborhood most cars treat as an expressway, the hip, modern soul food restaurant has become a food event for diners who will drive 90 minutes to get here, wait 90 minutes to eat, and leave happy. We ask Surkis how he makes it happen.
Let’s start with the basics. How many seats are at the restaurant? And which are your favorites? 46 seats, 14 of them are counter. I really don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. Some customers are hesitant to sit at the counter, but once they do, they’re addicted to watching the “dance” of the kitchen. On the weekends, we’ll get groups of 20 at the door. Our largest table seats six. You do the math.
It's noon on a Saturday. What’s the wait for a table? We’re a small place, and wait times often change on a dime. On the weekend, it can range from 20 minutes to 90 minutes, and even 2 hours sometimes.
When can I show up and just slide on in to a table? Weekday mornings when we open at 7 a.m. This is a great time to be at BSK, as it gives us a chance to mingle and get to know our customers before the craziness starts.
Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like compliment your music taste or bribe you with gifts? People have tried a lot of things, like assuming the identity of customers higher up on the list, but no one has tried to bribe us. Flattery doesn't work either.
What do you do when VIPs drop in? First of all, everyone is a VIP. We’ve had a nice handful of celebrities come in, though they wait like everyone else. Tanya: You can cut in line if your name is 5 letters long and begins with an “O”. Oprah, Obama.
Tell us about your favorite customers. There are so many. Tanya and I often look around the room and think, everyone is so cool here. We wouldn’t mind hanging out. Tanya jokes with me that I’m having a dance party when I’m on the floor. I’m really meeting so many different people, and everyone is vibing off the love in the room. Keep in mind that I’m from the East Coast, and I’m not a very “touchy-feely” kind of person.
Any celebs ever drop in? We have some regulars like Taj Mahal, Boots Riley and Ledisi. You can find pics of them on our Facebook page.
Do you have a Wall of Fame? We don’t have a wall of fame at [the restaurant], except for a picture of Tanya with Julia Child from her days at cooking school at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy..
BSK has received a ton of great press. Is there any one review you can associate with a bump in reservations? Two pieces come to mind: 1) Check Please! Bay Area. I think I heard it's KQED’s most popular show, and I believe it! After our segment, I was telling people 3 hours, and people were waiting! 2) Jonathan Gold’s Gourmet review. He wrote a transcendent review saying our chicken and waffles are worth the drive from LA. Many people followed his advice.
With 3.5 years under your belt, what have you learned? I simply try to be courteous, friendly, efficient, and mostly have fun. I’ll be honest, hosting at BSK can be a tough gig when there are 75 people hanging out and waiting for a table. I’m proud of my “table math”, though. With our combination of tables, it can get a bit tricky, but we make it happen.
What’s the most outrageous request from a customer you’ve had to accommodate? Nothing outrageous comes to mind.
Where are you eating when you're not at BSK? We’re big fans of Boot & Shoe Service. Actually, we often run into our customers over there. Some who have dined at BSK that same day. BSK and Boot & Shoe in the same day?it doesn’t get better than that!
What’s the item on the current menu that more people should know about? Everybody knows about the buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffle. Everyone should know about the BBQ Shrimp and Grits. Big, technicolor flavors, but not “hot” spicy. The customers who’ve discovered it won’t order anything else!
At the end of the day, what’s the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? A good sense of timing.
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