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.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
A little over a year ago, Hopscotch opened next to a bus stop on San Pablo Avenue, a not-so-main thoroughfare of Uptown Oakland. Housed in a former BBQ joint, Hopscotch is the brainchild of chef Kyle Itani and GM/bar manager Jenny Schwarz, who met during their tenure at Yoshi's San Francisco and worked to define their Japanese-inflected interpretation of American cuisine. Over the past year, the restaurant has received praise from East Bay and San Francisco critics alike, including Chronicle Rising Star Chef honors for Itani. Eater recently met with Itani and Schwarz to discuss their first year of business, their inadvertent ambassadorship to Oakland, beef tongue, and their plans for the future.
What has surprised you about your first year in business?
Kyle Itani: I think that we knew what we wanted to do, and I always especially believed that Oakland could sustain what we wanted to do and could catch on. And then, we're not located on a restaurant row of any sort, so?
There is a Subway...
KI: And the liquor store. I think just that people have found us and enjoyed us has been the most surprising thing. I thought that it would take a long while to really establish ourselves, and it took only about six months, which is great.
Jenny Schwarz: Kyle and I have worked together for so long and talked about it for so long. It's what we enjoy doing—going out to places and talking about what we feel is the ideal way to serve and present something. And when we put the restaurant together, very early on, it felt like it was right. It didn't feel like a work in progress for a long time. Now, it feels like a work in progress, because we have a higher standard for ourselves, and we feel like people have a higher standard for us as well.
In terms of expectations that you had when opening, do you feel like some of those were met or not?
KI: With the menus in the beginning, I was a little bit subdued, and I thought, "I don't know if people are really going to get this," not so much because it's Oakland, but it's this part of Oakland and this street. A lot of times you go to a restaurant and you say, "Well I know the chef, and my friends have all been here and say it's amazing. It's a little weird but I'm totally willing to try it." Here, it's like, "Who is this guy, what is this place, where am I?"
JS: "What are these Japanese ingredients, when it looks like a diner?"
KI: So it's a very odd combination if you don't have any background. And we didn't have any background to present to anybody starting out. But now it's like, "Oh, this sounds really cool, and I know a few regulars who would love this." We're dialed in to our audience, in that way.
Speaking of regulars, do you have many?
KI & JS: [Simultaneously.] Yes.
JS: It's a small place, so I think it's very comfortable and homey for people. We have people that have been coming in since the beginning, and we can count on them bringing new friends in every three or four weeks. When Kyle is doing something new or gets a whole animal in, we'll post pictures of it. And the same people are always part of the conversation and are excited to try it.
What would you say your demographic is?
JS: I think that we initially thought that it was mostly people from our neighborhood. One of the things that has been most surprising about our experience has been this neighborhood and how sophisticated our audience is, and how cool they are, too. It's not like, "Oh, we're food snobs. We like fancy things." It's like "Oh, this is delicious, and you guys are cool and fun and laid-back." It's the ideal crowd. Obviously with Michael Bauer's review, you get a lot of attention from San Francisco too, which is great as well. It's a reason to cross the bridge and see what's going on in Oakland, which is so exciting.
Do you think the San Francisco diner that comes over the bridge has higher expectations?
KI: I think they do, just in the sense that they are going to travel that far to get here, and it builds the anticipation. However, we are always just trying to exceed everyone's expectations in all aspects of service.
JS: I think some people are still catching on to what is happening in Oakland—that there's an actual, legitimate food scene. And they'll come over here and people will say, "Well I'm from San Francisco, and you guys are really good, as good as a San Francisco restaurant." But there are people who just don't get that we're all part of the same community, really.
Do you live in Oakland?
KI: Yes, and I've always felt connected to the people and culture, and I knew I wanted to do something here. Even when we worked in San Francisco, I always lived in Oakland.
JS: I was living in San Francisco when we first opened, and I moved to Oakland just after. Logistically it made sense, but since then, I wouldn't change it. I do miss San Francisco. I find a lot of inspiration there and am over there at least once a week, but Oakland is fantastic and the weather's great. There are plenty of bars and restaurants and interesting people to enjoy here.
Did you want to open in Oakland because it's your home, or because you saw a market for it?
KI: I thought that once people figured out our product, that it didn't really matter where we were, that it would stand out on its own. But so much of a restaurant is hospitality, and when you're taking care of somebody, you ideally want to like the person, or at least be able to relate to them. And for me, sometimes I would look out at a dining room in San Francisco and say, "Why am I cooking for these people?" Here, we can relate to everyone who comes in.
Do you have any least favorite customers that come in?
KI: They're not usually customers...
JS: We're right by the bus station, and we've had some people come in to use the bathroom. We just instituted a customer-only bathroom policy.
What was the spot before?
KI: This used to be a barbeque place that was beloved by the people of San Pablo Avenue. And even though it hadn't been around for months when we first opened, people would come in and ask where the barbeque menu was. It took a couple of months for people to realize it was different.
JS: I just had someone come in the other day and ask, "Is this the barbeque place?" Two years later! However, it was here for a very long time, before the new development across the street came in. And before the development, the area was pretty dilapidated, and the barbeque place was the only thing over here. It was a facet of the community.
Why did you decide to open in Uptown, versus Downtown?
JS: Initially, we were looking around on Telegraph in Uptown, and it just seemed like there was a need for another restaurant in the area. The Fox Theatre is great, and we definitely get a little push on those nights. We operate at almost maximum capacity most of the time.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your first year?
KI: The liquor licensing was one of the biggest hassles. It took longer than we thought it would, but like with most restaurants, you know there is always something that is going to go wrong.
JS: I think we were operating so well on some levels, and then some things, we just didn't have everything figured out. We only very recently promoted staff to take on more managerial roles. We were doing everything on our own, and allowed ourselves to get a little burnt out. We weren't enjoying working together and being here necessarily all the time. But we just had a little hurdle to get over.
KI: Some of the biggest challenges I've faced had to do with staffing. Cooks are so hard to find. It's funny, because I don't really have a hard time keeping cooks. Once I can actually get a cook, I can provide them with a better work experience than they've had before, and I can keep them motivated and want to stay. But recruitment is the hardest thing.
Do you have a day off?
KI: Well, we're closed Mondays...
JS: But we were here from about 8am-8pm this Monday.
KI: About half the time, we take Monday off.
How has your turnover with staff been?
KI: I think I have an insane amount of turnover in the kitchen, but then I talk to my colleagues in Oakland and San Francisco, and they say I'm right up there with them. But we only have eight cooks total for brunch, lunch and dinner. I worked at Yoshi's for a long time, and there were 19 cooks scheduled at one time. So, if one cook didn't show up, we just thought, "OK, we're all going to have to work a little harder tonight." But if one guy doesn't show up here, you've lost a third of your staff. I was convinced it was because I was in Oakland, but that's not really the case.
JS: There are so many great things about being so small, but if you're one person short-staffed, you've lost 20-30% of your manpower.
How has the front-of-house staffing been?
JS: Better. It had been just about one year before I had any turnover. I got super lucky. I have a really incredible staff, and I've been blessed.
KI: I think for the front-of-house staff, so many of them live in Oakland and have been in Oakland a long time, so when a restaurant like ours opens, they are really behind it. They believe in it. We have some really good servers that could work at a lot of restaurants, but they would rather work here because they think we're changing the neighborhood and this block, and Oakland's reputation in general.
KI: This summer, we've done a lot of food shows and events, and it's funny how we very quickly become an ambassador for Oakland, no matter where we are. It could be in San Francisco or L.A., and when we say we're located in Uptown Oakland and someone has a negative reaction to that, we're so quick to correct them.
JS: People say, "Really? Where all the crazy stuff is going on? Will I get shot?"
KI: I actually enjoy it, being a representative for Oakland. We're happy and proud to do that. I like that we're part of the renaissance here. City leaders and people that are well-known in the community come in, and we love to see them here.
Why did you decide to be open for lunch?
JS: Because we're tiny and we need to have a certain number of people come in every day to pay the bills. And we honestly didn't expect to be as well-received as we have been, especially in the first year. We started lunch quickly to start making revenue.
KI: Once we're open for lunch, we're just open all day. I hate the idea of turning people away at 2:30pm. We don't ever want to turn anyone away for any reason, really. They have so many options to go spend money that they work really hard for and they chose our place, and we take that very seriously.
JS: Even though we appear very casual, we have trained our staff in a fine-dining service style, and we are very particular about how our food comes out of the kitchen.
Do you have any evolutions in mind for this coming year?
KI: The word is out, and there is a lot of pressure. Now, we have to keep impressing people and exceeding their expectations. We have to keep up our game. I just really want to focus on nailing down my staff.
Did you feel any more pressure after the Bauer review and/or being named a Rising Star Chef from the Chronicle?
KI: The only pressure I felt was that I actually had to interact with the customers. [Chuckles.] Because I feel like I'm terrible at speaking to guests. I am genuinely interested in how their meal is, but I always feel like I'm interrupting their dinner, and I feel uncomfortable.
JS: I always tell him that they just want a little face time with you. They don't care what you say. They are just happy to be here and want to say "Hi."
KI: But then I come out, and they are having a conversation and I want to just walk back to the kitchen, to not interrupt them.
So you two met when working at Yoshi's, which, in so many ways, is different than Hopscotch. What do you think you brought along with you from that experience?
JS: We were very privy to a great financial system and basic stuff that is super important. And it became very helpful, because we had similar ideas of what our food costs should be.
KI: My experience was very different, because I was working for Chef Sho Kamio. He was my mentor chef, and I followed him to three different restaurants. So even though I worked for Yoshi's, I worked for Sho, really. It was a very strict relationship with the food. It was a mentorship relationship that so many cooks don't get to have anymore. I was super fortunate to work under one chef for six years.
When you met at Yoshi's, how did you start building a business relationship?
KI: I was new to San Francisco, and I remember telling her I didn't know anywhere to eat.
JS: For years, we would go out to eat on our day off, and we would eat at like eight restaurants and bars throughout the day. We just wanted to experience different things. He would order the food, and I would order the drinks, and we would talk about the service the whole time.
KI: Those conversations turned from, "If I had a restaurant, I would do it this way," to, over the years, "OK, so when we open our restaurant, we should do it this way."
When you first opened, you had two burgers on the menu. Now you only have one. What happened?
KI: When we first opened, we one burger with [beef] tongue and one without tongue, because we thought some people wouldn't be into it. And now we just have the Hopscotch burger that comes with tongue. If people don't want the tongue, we can take it off, but we usually will just put it on the side for people because we think they'll like it. Initially, we wanted to give guests the option, until they trusted us.
JS: Establishing that trust with the guest is key, whether it's a long-term customer, or someone who's just walked in the door for the first time. I always tell servers that the first thing you need to do is establish trust with your guest. Then you can lay out their experience for them.
In terms of menus for the future, do you have any changes you see coming through, now that you have established some rapport?
KI: We have six apps and six entrees, and that's pretty much all my kitchen can handle. Structurally, I think that we'll keep it pretty much the same. In terms of composition, I think we've found a sweet spot in what customers like, and what I like to cook and what my staff likes to cook. But we've been talking about doing these regional Japanese dinners, maybe on Mondays. Just to show all the different ways to approach Japanese food.
JS: Now that I've finally hired someone to help with management and with administrative stuff, I can return to the beverage program. It's been successful so far, but I want to keep growing it and keep educating the staff.
In terms of your identity, some have said you are Japanese-Californian, other said you are Southern-Japanese, what do you want to identify your cuisine as?
KI: When we first opened, I wasn't really sure. People would ask "What kind of restaurant is it?" and I realized I needed to find out an answer to that question. Early on, there were two articles that got it, and they spelled it out in a more articulate way.
JS: It was Luke Tsai and Ellen Cushing, both in the East Bay Express. She comes in one night, and it's cold outside and has a maple old-fashioned, and I was in tears when I read it. Kyle's mom was in tears when she read it. It is a great piece of writing, and I told her that.
KI: And Luke's piece talked about how we were fusion but not fusion. Fusion is a word everyone knows, but it has taken on a life of its own.
JS: I think it's American. It's just American.
KI: And my America is Japanese-American. And a lot of my friends are Asian-American. And it's what we grew up eating. There are these flavors we remember and cook anyway, at our own houses.
Do you ever feel limited by your customers' expectations?
KI: I don't, because the core menu is solid, and I like to offer verbal specials to the customers. I also have a really good relationship with my fishmongers. This one guy emails me from the dock at 11 pm every night with what he has. And I think, I don't have a use for that fish, but I will find a use for it.
What do you think the favorite dish is among your customers?
KI: It's easy to say the burger or the chicken.
JS: But the fried chicken was never intended to be a staple dish.
I have to ask about the fried chicken. Where did that come from?
KI: I have a friend whose family is from Guam. He was a chef with me at Yoshi's. He would make staff meal, and he always marinated his chicken in a lot of mustard and soy. And I made a marinade similar to that and fried it, but the batter kept coming off. Then, I thought how in Japan we fry everything with potato starch. You put it in the marinade to make it sticky and then fry it. Then I started blending flour and potato starch for the dredge with buttermilk, and eventually it stuck.
How do you guys stay inspired during all this business? Do you try to go out to eat?
JS: I just went to Italy for two weeks, but that was more about other things I find inspirational, like art and architecture.
KI: We have always found the restaurant community to be so tight-knit. I was the first one of my cook friends to open a restaurant, and since then, a few others have opened some, and we try to go support them.
Have you found any places to be particularly inspiring?
KI: I don't get out much anymore, but I think the last great meal I had was at Coqueta, about a month or so ago. I was really impressed. The food was really solid. I also went to New York a few times this year, and every time I go to one of David Chang's places, I'm so inspired by how he has so many restaurants, but they are all executed so well. And so many restaurants don't do that. You could start out with one great restaurant, but end up with four mediocre restaurants.
JS: People ask if we're going to open another Hopscotch or expand, and I just like that we have one very solid thing to offer people.
So are there no plans to expand?
JS: Long-term, sure. But no plans as of now.
KI: I like Hopscotch as it is, because we saw it one way, it was received another way, and then together, everyone, including us, is molding what it will end up being, still. It's only a year in, and I like that.
JS: Just to put so much of ourselves into something and have it be so well-received has been the most remarkable part of it all.