Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Though it's been open for two decades as of this month, the brunch line at Dottie's True Blue Cafe has yet to wane. The brains behind the SF brunch mecca? Owner-operator Kurt Abney, who cooks on the line every day, making the grilled cornbread, egg scrambles, black-bean cakes and savory strata that Dottie's is known for.
Kurt's restaurant career started at age 19, when he took a line-cook gig at a restaurant in his native Arizona. In his early 30s, he began attending the pastry program at Tante Marie's Cooking School, taking over ownership of the then-two-year-old Dottie's shortly thereafter. Since adopting Dottie's and making it his own, he's been written up in Gourmet, featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and made numerous lists of the top brunch spots in the city. A little over a year ago, he also relocated the restaurant from its original Tenderloin location to a much larger space on 6th Street. Eater recently met with Abney at Dottie's, where he reflected on the past 20 years and the restaurant's future.
How did you find and come to own Dottie's?
I had a partner for 10 years. In 1992, we sold everything we owned here in San Francisco and moved to Paris. Our plan was to travel for at least a year throughout Europe, and we were going to keep a little journal of cafes and restaurants that we liked. Then we'd decide after a year whether we would come back [to San Francisco] or stay over there and open what would be, for us, the ultimate little cafe.
Unfortunately, he died very suddenly, 10 days after we got there. So I ended up coming back to San Francisco once I was allowed the proper paperwork for bringing him back. I didn't work for about a year and a half while I was dealing with all of that, and then I decided I needed to carry on with what we were going to do. So I went to pastry school [at Tante Marie's]. When that finished, I started looking with a broker for spaces to open a place, and didn't really find what I was looking for. He said, "There's this restaurant that's already set up. It's a breakfast place. They opened it maybe two years ago, but it's not really what they want to do, so why don't you look at it?"
I did, and it was at the Tenderloin. At that time, I really was iffy about the neighborhood. I wasn't sure. I ended up just saying, "Let me go for it and let me see what I can do." I had cooked all my life, but I hadn't cooked professionally since I was 19. I had always been at the front of the house of restaurants during that time.
And how old were you when you found Dottie's?
I was 32. So I went in there before we opened, and just started practicing with eggs. Because I didn't really know how to cook all styles of eggs. I started making my own bread, and just kind of gradually built from there. It was very scary the first six months or so, especially the first winter. Once winter rolled around, we had days where we literally were there all day long and took in less than $100.
When you first opened, what was the menu like, and how has it changed over time?
I initially just kept [the original owners'] menu, but I started taking things off right away. Things I didn't want to do for lunch and stuff. I did a specials board and that's how I started adding things in. And dishes were created, like the black-bean cakes which we've had for 20 years. I went to New York for a friend's birthday, and it was a Cajun-themed party. There was crawfish and I was cooking black-eyed peas. We started drinking and sort of forgot about the food, so the black-eyed peas turned to mush. I went through her cabinets and threw some spices in and some breadcrumbs and made some patties and fried them. Everybody loved them, and I thought, well, I can do this for breakfast as a vegetarian replacement for sausage. So I came back and started doing it, and it became one of our biggest dishes. Initially it was black-eyed peas, but now I use black beans; we always have black bean chili, so I use that mix to make my bean cakes. A lot of dishes have come about from me experimenting and with my own health issues. I have some gluten-free things now because I am one of those people that can't have it. [Laughs.]
And you have so many lovely breads, too.
I know. And I've been a vegetarian...well, I was a strict vegetarian for 20 years. I started eating fish five years ago, but I've always eaten a lot of bread. I love it. But I just can't do it anymore. It causes me all kinds of problems.
So you've been a vegetarian since opening Dottie's.
Yeah. Any time I'm doing meat stuff, I ask the other people in the kitchen to try things. But I work a lot from memory when it comes to doing things like that. When it comes to making sure everything is balanced, the spices, I'll have them taste it.
What's your typical day like?
I don't come in as early as I used to. In the early days, I did the baking also. But now there's a full-time baker who comes in around two in the morning, on average. I don't get here until 6:45, 7 a.m. We get the line set up and I make sure everything is the way it needs to be on the floor, and we're just set to go. Then I literally work the line, which at some point I need to stop doing all the time. I've been doing it for 20 years, there at the stove for eight hours on the days we're open. But just this past September I went to a five-day schedule, just because I can't do it any longer. Six days a week for 19 years, literally.
After we close, there's clean-up and ordering and prep for the next day. Taking care of the money at the end of the day. And oftentimes, I will have to shop, because a lot of the stuff I have to purchase myself. Depends. I generally get home around seven in the evening. Sometimes later, depending on the day. It's still a 12-hour day, generally.
How do you spend your days off?
Oftentimes I'm doing paperwork on one of the days. I'm also in the process of getting things together for a cookbook, so that's my latest project. And historically, I always get myself involved in big messes, like buying a piece of property and renovating it while I'm working. So I really create monstrous things for myself at times, which causes me a great deal of stress. I think I'm finally learning how to stop doing that.
After working all day, do you then cook dinner for yourself at home?
No. I'm always best when I make a fresh juice at home for dinner. That's all I really should eat. When you're over 50, it's so easy to gain weight, and I just can't eat at night. [Laughs.] When I'm best, I'm doing that kind of stuff and I really don't cook much at home. Once in a while, but very rarely. I have a dehydrator and I'm experimenting, working on some gluten free vegan crackers and things like that.
Is there a dish on the menu that is your favorite to make?
I like making preserves and things. I don't do it as much as I used to. I do like baking, but it's rare that I do that anymore. Once in a while, I'll make a few loaves of bread.
What about your favorite thing to eat on the menu?
For me, the zucchini cakes. That's a gluten-free item. I love strata, but I can't eat it anymore because it's a savory bread pudding. But I really love that. The sweet-potato tart, I really love. But that's also a wheat crust on it. The fritatta is one of my favorites. But I eat a lot of salads, things like that. I start everyday with a green smoothie with coconut water and spinach, protein powder, and blueberries, and I put nuts in it, or avocado.
It's a great way to start the day. It gives you everything you need and it lasts a long time.
What do you love most about this job?
The people I've met over the years. I've made some really great friends through the restaurant, and some people that live in different countries come here every year. I've seen their children go from little tots to college age. It's pretty amazing having that kind of relationship with people, and people sending cards and letters over the years. People come up to you and tell you how much they appreciate what you do. That's the most rewarding for me.
Over the past 20 years, have there been some weird moments as well?
We have always been located in a neighborhood where you have many colorful characters. I've had people throw food at me, things like that. One man that used to come on a regular basis was always very rude to everybody, and I just told him at one point, "I'm not sure why you come here, but you really shouldn't come back, because I don't want you treating the staff the way you do. There's obviously something you like, or you wouldn't keep coming back." Then he told me he was going to come back and blow my head off with a .45.
I didn't see him for a long time, and one day, I looked up and he's standing in the doorway in the line. I just shook my head and said, "No. Even though it's been a year since I've seen you, one thing you need to know is I will never forget your face. You don't threaten my life then think you're going to come back here." He tried several more times, every couple of years. And every time I would see him, I would say, still, no. And he said, "But I'm a different person now." I said, "I'm really happy for you, but I'm sorry. You can't come here anymore."
Has he followed you to your new location?
No. I haven't seen him in a few years. But literally, for 10 years, every couple of years he would pop up.
I've had a couple instances like that. Stalker-like people on the phone.
They'll repeatedly call?
Yeah and say things like, "I'd like to see you cooking in this outfit." [Laughs.] Someone left a note on my car once, and I knew who this person was. I looked up and he was staring through the window, and just kind of moved away. And then I saw the note on my car: "I'm sure you have somebody, but if you'd ever like to talk, I'd love to meet you." It was signed Punk Rock Boy. [Laughs.]
Was he quite young?
Yes, and I still see him on the street now. He's an addict.
Does he actually look like a punk rock boy?
Yes, he fits his description. Absolutely. That was a long time ago, when I was younger, probably 15 years ago, when he left that note on my car. Those are my memories.
Oh man, so you've encountered a lot of semi-creepy people.
Sometimes. But also some wonderful people.
Who are some of your favorite customers?
I have one here, her name is Kara. She comes in generally every Monday, unless she's traveling, which she does often. She comes in for bean cakes. You see people who have been coming here for 20 years, and they order the same thing. A lot of our favorite customers have passed away over the years. There were a lot of elderly people who used to come all the time in the old place. We have one here, and he sits at the front table and he's pretty much by himself. Sometimes he comes in his pajamas! [Laughs.] He feels that comfortable.
What do you think of your new location? Do you miss the old place?
No. Well, sometimes I miss the ease of running it, because it was so much smaller. This is definitely a lot more of a challenge for me to keep control of everything. But I love the space. It's beautiful. And the neighborhood, it's no different than where we came from, so it was not an issue in moving here.
At what point after opening did you start getting long lines? When did that start?
Well, we had it on weekends, even in the beginning. But we were open for nine months and we were in Gourmet magazine. There was a little section they did on breakfast spots in the Bay Area, and we were one of them. That was really the turning point for the whole business, when we really took off. People came in overnight, from all over the place, with the page ripped out of the magazine.
How do you feel about reading about yourself or being on television?
I don't particularly like to watch myself. I've had experiences where people write things that aren't true. It comes with the territory. There are some people who want to build you up, and some people who want to bring you down. But you have to focus on what you do, and forget about it.
When you think about your future, do you have any anticipation of how much longer you want to work here? And the plan for Dottie's in general?
It's important for me to get the book done. And I do have issues with my body from standing for 20 years. It's just...you're not meant to stand for 12 hours a day for 20 years. It begins to take a toll. [Laughs.] The writing's on the wall for me; I definitely have to change the way I work. I'll stay in the business, I know, but I may completely change what I do.
What kind of physical things happen?
I've had blood clots. Working all day, then getting on an airplane to Mexico, waking up the next day with a blood clot in my leg. Thank God it was on the surface and visible, because otherwise you could just drop over dead. [Laughs.] So now I'm supposed to wear compression stockings. Not glamorous. But I wear them sometimes. Not always.
Are you wearing them today?
No, I'm not. [Laughs.] And I used to wear the thigh-high ones, too, but they always roll down over the course of the day. So when I wear them, they're the knee-highs. But anyone who is on their feet all day, not matter how old, should wear them. It definitely causes problems as you get older. Also, you end up having back problems, so I go to the chiropractor on a regular basis and I get massages on a regular basis.
Where do you go for massages?
I have my own massage therapist, so I have my own table. I've had my own massage therapist for almost 20 years. And I always make sure I get a facial every month. I try to take care of myself as much as I can. You have to treat yourself.