clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Craftsman and Wolves' William Werner on Year One and Cupcake Pranks

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
william-werner-craftsman-2.jpgAs of yesterday, Craftsman and Wolves is one-year-old. To celebrate, they played a prank on their customers by turning into a trite cupcake shop for the day, complete with a double-rainbow unicorn logo. But, in reality, Craftsman and Wolves remains the contemporary, groundbreaking patisserie from Chef William Werner, and they will never serve cupcakes ever again. Ever. Instead, CAW is known for "The Rebel Within," a savory cake studded with Boccalone sausage and a soft-boiled egg in the center; as well as "The Devil" chocolate cake (which, pre-ban, had foie gras in the center); a kimchi financier; and his Thai curry scone.

A little history: Before pastry, Werner was a lifeguard in Florida. But after getting a job at a Floridian restaurant, and hiding issues of Food + Wine in his surfer magazines, he decided to follow his passion for food. He moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a pastry chef at Quince, then operated his own pop-up Tell Tale Preserve Company, where he first introduced the Rebel. Eater recently met with Werner [Full disclosure - this correspondent works the front-of-house at CAW] to chat about unicorns, John Vanderslice, and pastry as an art-form.

When you first opened Craftsman and Wolves, what expectations did you have? And how were those met or not met?
When you're opening something, depending on the day, it's just like a roller coaster ride of emotions. There's a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, and excitement. It was really haunting me a little bit. It's not even the expectation of being accepted by the general public and our new guests, but just the expectation of the product and the look and the feel and the brand. I knew we were going to get some flax for being maybe a little fancy. But we're not going to morph into a cupcake shop [laughs]. So maybe in a way that's a good thing. This may come across the wrong way, but I went into it with the expectation of a battle. We're going to do this concept that I don't feel is here right now.

Did you feel like this concept of a bakery wasn't something you see in this city? Or that it may be something people were not open to?
I think just the style. The price point is a little bit higher, there's a little bit more attention to detail, more finesse. It's really interesting because I used to do the pop-ups and at the market as Tell Tale. I feel like there's this crossover that happens. When you're doing the market stand and you don't have the brick and mortar everyones like, "Yeah, okay awesome! Do it, do it, do it." And all of the sudden you get the brick and mortar and the analytics come out. Everyone's really nit picky. "Why don't you have this? Why don't you have that? Where's the decaf coffee? Why do you only have one scone flavor? Why only one muffin flavor?"

So people started expecting more from you?
Maybe. You open up and then people kind of morph you into how they want you to be. That's an interesting dilemma that you get faced with. Because you want your guests to be happy. At the same point in time, how do you hold true to what you're doing? People always request for us to do cupcakes. I don't want to do cupcakes.

They really request that?
Yeah, especially in the beginning. "Why don't you guys have cupcakes? Why don't you have macaroons?" My thought was there are already plenty of people who are doing these things and some doing them well, and some doing them not so well. But we're going to do what we want to do. In a way we're selfish like that. We want to do things that we want to do and make us happy. Then that's going to translate into a really great product. And is everyone going to get it? No. Is everyone going to appreciate it? No. But you can't be everything to everyone.

Was there anything that customers requested that took you by surprise, anything bizarre and unexpected? Or ideas they suggested that you decided to actually do?
Yeah. Like decaf coffee. We didn't have decaf coffee. And now we do it and people are like, "I'm so glad I have decaf coffee." So, [laughs] okay. It's funny, we're still growing and you're constantly adjusting and constantly tweaking. You develop this relationship with your guests of how to keep them excited and intrigued. But the one thing I think that's been really interesting is earning the trust. I think that's huge. Once you earn the trust then you're set. An example of earning the trust is the mini cube cakes. In the beginning you couldn't give these things away man.

Really?
They were so foreign, and seemed expensive, and people didn't understand. I remember having a talk with [COO-partner] Kate, and my investors and partners about maybe not doing those. Maybe they're just not going to get it. And I'm like, "Man, we just have to keep explaining them. We just have to keep talking about them and going going going." And now you see, you work there, they're the go-to thing for people. So it makes me wonder, shit, if we would have pulled that and didn't stand by and just wait for that trust factor. It's like the person who comes in for the first time. It's already presented differently. It's already kind of like, "What the fuck is this? There's shit on tree trunks. It looks like a fashion boutique or something. There are quotes on the wall. A Thai scone, don't know what the fuck that is. I can't pronounce that thing." [laughs]

So true.
You know what I mean? "The Rebel Within, it just looks like a muffin. It's $7 dollars. This is retarded. I'm just going to get, ah, a blueberry muffin. I'll take a blueberry muffin. And a chocolate chip cookie and a black coffee." Then they get that, and it's fine. I think, for us, that's the initial push. And then they get that and they really love it. They think, this is really delicious, really tasty, you can taste the quality, the ingredients, the craftsmanship in it. And then the next time I come in, "That was a pretty damn good muffin. Maybe I will get that Thai scone. I still don't know how to pronounce that thing. Maybe I'll hear someone else order that so I learn how to pronounce it."

Like the gougère?
Yeah [laughs]. I'll take one of the googers. I'll take a gauger.

People say gruyere a lot.
Yeah, nice. They're like "Oh, I thought it had gruyere in it. That's what I was saying darling." But I think that's huge because I see people do it. I see people come in and look for the very, I don't want to say bland, but the benign. The safe. And then they slowly start to experiment and branch out. But it's an interesting scenario with us because if you go to a restaurant and look at the menu, then you're really intrigued by the poetry, the adjectives on that menu. Like Rich Table. They have a similar thing like with us and the Rebel. They have the sardine chips. If you went and saw a bowl of sardine potato chips you may think, sardine chips $3 dollars? I don't know if I want those. What else is there? But when it's written down on a menu, it grabs your attention. But for us, when you come in and the product is there, the description is there, so it's a really different relationship and I think the event that happens between the guest and you guys, that's really something I want to focus on next year. How to tailor even more when a guest comes in, and how do we try to understand where they're headed and what they're looking for. That's something I like that the staff does there. I like the conversations and the dialogue and the guiding through the case. Explaining what things are, who we are, where we come from. Not just standing there...

And glaring.
Yeah! And not being removed from it. But it goes back to the trust thing. In the beginning, you can look at Yelp and you just want to cry. It's really mind blowing to me how in the beginning, out come the wolves from fucking nowhere. The talons coming out about everything. People ripping on us because we didn't have a sign because we didn't get a permit to pass for our sign.

And they just thought you were trying to be cool by not having a sign?
Yeah, I heard one guy say "They think they're too cool. They don't have a sign." And I do have a sign. I'm not allowed to put it up [laughs]. What do you want? for that first year, it was almost like you're kind of standing on a stage naked. Just letting everyone point out every fault and everything they love about you all at once. I don't think people realize how personal it is sometimes.

Who are you favorite customers?
I mean, I love all of my customers [laughs]! Anyone who comes in there I love. My favorite guests are the ones who are constantly excited to see what the next thing were going to do is. That's a big part of what we wanted to do at Craftsman. We wanted to change. We wanted to evolve. In the beginning it pissed a lot of people of. They'd come in and say, "Where's the blueberry muffin?" And, you know, there's no more blueberries at the market so no more blueberry muffin. "Uhhhh [sighs], I don't know if I want this muffin." So the ones I may favor a little more are the ones who are exited to see what were going to do in the fall and the spring and summer. I don't know if that comes from being in fine dining and restaurants, where the menus are constantly changing, but it puts a lot more pressure on us to develop something each time that stays. But now I feel like we can have a greatest hits album.

What's on the greatest hits album?
That fucking blueberry muffin. For sure. The Rebel is on there for sure. I think now the Thai scone will be on there. That seems to be a really popular one. I think the kimchi financier. We're brining it back in the winter. The eclair is on there. And some things we won't change, but just kind of dance around it. That Vietnamese cinnamon caramel thing.

But there will never be, because people do come in and ask, a vegetarian rebel.
There will never be a vegetarian Rebel. You can print that in bold. And for Christ's sake, it's the embryo of a fucking chicken in there. I know it's not fertilized, but how can you ask me for a vegetarian Rebel, but you want to eat this like, soft cooked egg? It's so fucking bizarre to me. And I'm not going to fill that thing with tofu. I'm just not going to do it. That's like going to see a really great band and saying, "Hey, play a Skynyrd song!" [laughs] You're just like, "What the fuck? What did you just say?"

You mentioned already some goals you have moving forward. And I know there have been a lot of changes recently. Like adding beer and wine, extended hours. How are you adapting with those changes?
It's almost like reinventing ourselves. We never thought we'd sell this much savory food. Never. I didn't even want to do any savory food in the beginning.

Did you have a savory menu at all when you first opened?
Yeah we did, but I didn't want to. I was just like, oh we're a pastry shop. So I think that's something we learned from our guests a bit. Some people say to me "I'm not a big sweet person, but I just really like this space. I like to just come in and have a sandwich there." And I never thought of it like that. Some goals are to establish a really fun, curated beer and wine list. I would love to see us move into that kind of late night thing where someone can come in and have a really great glass of port or sherry or wine or bubbly or beer. And have one of the cakes or eclairs or something like that. That opens up a whole lot of opportunities and options for us. From entertainment to...

Entertainment?
I thought about it. We have that big wall...

I was talking to [employee] Hye Young about that wall and how you should project films on there.
I know, right? I thought about that too. Like, why aren't we projecting something on this wall? I don't know, just different, interesting things. I like the idea of readings and stuff. I like the collaboration a lot, like getting involved with 826 Valencia and doing some interesting readings.

A lot of interesting people walk through Craftsman and Wolves. For example, Robin Williams. Great person [laughs]. And now it looks like Stephan Jenkins is a regular.
Does he live here or something?

He lives in the neighborhood.
How did you guys know it was him? Did he say, "I'm the lead singer of Third Eye Blind?"

[Laughs] No. [Employee] Neela recognized him. Is there anyone, for you, that has come in and you admire?
I think there have been two people who've come in that I was really excited about. One was Phillip Givre, he's a French pastry chef and he came in and checked out everything and that was really exciting. And then John Vanderslice came in.

What? Really?
And I was too nervous to say anything to him. But I was really excited that he came in. He had a coffee, some pastry, a lime tart and sat down for a while. I was like, "Holy shit, it's John Vanderslice." [Former employee] Josh and I were freaking out like little school girls. Josh said, "Go up to him. You own the place." And I was like, I can't, he's too cool for school man.

A lot of people who come in also comment on how perfect and pristine your cakes look. That they are art pieces. How did you develop your aesthetic? And do you even think of it as art?
I don't know, that's a really good question. I really want to have a panel with a bunch of people and talk about this whole chef/artist thing. I hear good arguments on both sides. I heard a really good one the other day from Daniel Boulud of how artists paint one picture, but Chefs put out 200 plates a night. If you go in and you eat something it can transcend you to a memory you had growing up and the textures, the smells, the aromas, and it's beautiful before you even eat it. That's pretty intense. And you pump out 50 of those things a night. Part of me, this is going to sound crass to say, but part of me feels like the artists has it fucking easy. [laughs]. Do I think all chefs are artists? No, I don't. Flipping hamburgers every single day, not an artist. But someone like Chris Kostow at Meadowood, yeah, that guy's an artist. You take a guy like Chris, or David Kinch, these guys who are working 15-hours a day, making sure that from the time the fucking vegetables are picked to where you get it on your plate and every little tiny step in between. Holy shit. If you put that much pressure on an artist I think they would just explode.

And for chefs, it has to look good and taste good. And I have to say, working there I sometimes feel like I work at an art gallery.
It's weird, growing up I didn't know what I wanted to do. I liked the emergency medical field. Adrenaline rush and excitement. But looking back now, I think I could have gone into design. I really like design - industrial design, textile design, architecture. I really like that aspect of things. As I work more and more and find out about myself, I think pastry, with what we do, is applicable to that. You know, working with Benny Gold. He's an amazing artist, skater, has his own shop now. Beautiful work. And now we're doing this stenciling. I want to do something [with Benny Gold] where he designs the logo or the look or the feel of the stencil and we put it on the cake. And hopefully there's some collaboration with flavor. I'm just thinking about where we're going and how we can make things a little bit different and just have fun with them.

[Photo: Aubrie Pick]

· Craftsman and Wolves Tests Out Cupcakes Thursday [~ESF~]
· All Craftsman & Wolves Coverage on Eater [~ESF~]

Quince

470 Pacific Avenue, , CA 94133 (415) 775-8500 Visit Website

Craftsman & Wolves

746 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater San Francisco newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world