Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, the married dynamos behind State Bird Provisions, need no introduction for Bay Area food enthusiasts. Winners of all sorts of honors, from a James Beard Award to a Bon Appetit Restaurant of the Year prize, they're sweet and gracious in person, even under the strain of last week's big rainstorm, which knocked out their power for five hours as they were trying to set up for service on the day of this interview. With their new spot, The Progress, set to debut tomorrow (check out the basic facts and the menu to get caught up), we chatted with them about how they put a menu together in two weeks, their unique philosophy for hiring and training staff, and why they turned down the offer for a State Bird Provisions in NYC.
You guys do a lot of workshopping of your dishes. For this menu, what was the most challenging item to get right, or that required the most changing of parts?
NK: Oh, I know!
SB: Which? There are so many.
NK: The cod fried rice.
SB: It started off as a gnocchetti dish, with pickled seaweed, brussels sprouts, and bottarga. It was delicious, but it just wasn't jelling with the rest of the menu.
NK: So our first thought was, let's do it with grains, instead of pasta. It was kind of a fried grain dish, with different types of rice, and lentils, and beans.
SB: Then we started playing with the black cod. We cure it for one day, and then hot-smoke it, and half-dry it in the dehydrator. It's like black cod to the power of five. So we decided to stuff that and the grain mixture into squid—we actually did it for [a preview] dinner on Monday—and we just got our asses kicked. It was hard to manage the grill, and the return on the effort was lopsided. So we were like, "Does it pay off?" It doesn't always pay off, to put that much work into a dish, when you finally eat it.
NK: Then he took off the pickled nori, and put it in the mushroom dish. So from start to finish, we had a dish that was completely focused and delicious, but then it became a completely different dish, and then it became two more, also completely different dishes.
Is that level of shake-up typical?
SB: No, that was extreme. But then John [Becker, The Progress' chef de cuisine] just made an amazing gnocchetti dish with crab for a private party we're doing tonight, and I was immediately like, "We've gotta put this on the menu!" It ended up coming full circle.
NK: The thing is, we didn't really start testing anything until two weeks ago. All these changes have happened in the last two weeks.
SB: We've finally locked it down. All the dishes are really solid, but I'd say 80% are really finalized, and I'm really excited about, as of today [Thursday].
Was the menu process this cut-and-dried when you opened State Bird?
SB: Oh, no way. We started off with no menu there, and thought that was genius, until that backfired. Then we did a whole menu, and that backfired monetarily, because nobody bought any food. Then we cut the menu in half, and the pancakes section evolved, and we hit the right balance.
With so many ideas floating around, and now two menus to fill, how do you make the call as to what goes where? What says "This is a State Bird dish," versus "This is a Progress dish"?
SB: Oh, good question. That's going to be the challenge, for sure.
NK: You'll see the pantry items, like kimchi or pickled radishes, used in both restaurants, but we definitely don't want to replicate menu items across them.
SB: I'm sure there are going to be dishes that don't end up working at State Bird that we'll bring over here, and vice versa.
NK: There are definitely some things we can do here that we can't there. Over here, we can do something very brothy, whereas there, it's hard for people to share a broth, given the way it's served. The flavors at State Bird are really intense, because you're getting one bite of everything, together. It's the kind of food you don't necessarily want a big bowl of, because it's a lot of acid, or salt, or fat, or intense texture.
So now that you have the choice, are you looking to be more subtle?
SB: Well, "subtle" isn't really the word to describe the food [at The Progress], but at least we have the ability to be subtle here, which you just can't do next door. There's just so many things coming over there: they're all contenders, they have to get in the ring together. Here, we'll have dishes that you can linger over a bit more. Though there are some dishes that I can see working next door, and some from there that could work here. I don't know, it's that whole symbiosis thing. You see it elsewhere, too: Perbacco-Barbacco, Quince-Cotogna, Delfina-Pizzeria Delfina. Obviously, there are differences, but Quince is still serving pasta, and so is Cotogna. Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina serve similar salads and antipasti.
What's interesting about that, though, is that those three groups all did their more fine-dining concept first, and their casual place second. You guys are doing it backwards. You even had the idea for The Progress first. After State Bird succeeded, did you consider taking it in a different direction?
NK: We spent a lot of years talking about it, long before we opened a restaurant of our own. "If we're able to do two places, what's better, do the casual spot first, or the nicer one?" We talked about it for years.
SB: But when it came down to it, it didn't end up being up to us. This space just needed so much work: change of use, occupancy, zoning...State Bird just had to go first.
This space has been a lot of things: a theater, a market, a design store. What did it look like when it came to you?
SB: It was one of those old-school store spaces. It had the old-fashioned glass walls on either side of the entrance with the big displays, so you could window-shop. There was a mezzanine in the back, but it was twice as large, and there was a catwalk between the two mezzanines that was pretty cool. It had a couple of stringers holding it up—totally freakin' dangerous, but awesome. So illegal. We had to get rid of it, sadly. It would have cost us more to rebuild it than to build two staircases.
The theater closed in 1925, and after that, it was pieced out and parted out. They built on new wings at some point, and covered over an alleyway. We found a piece of sidewalk inside the building. It looked like Planet of the Apes. Weird and cool and incredibly expensive to remove.
Let's talk about your walk-in policy. Obviously, reservations are going to be hotly contested, and will go quickly on OpenTable. How are you planning to deal with that?
SB: Well, we're still working it out, but our plan for right now is to have only the bar open for walk-ins. We're not going to put seats at the bar, just like when we opened at State Bird, though we did move into seats at the bar there later on. We're definitely considering reserving some more walk-in space in the dining room, but we're just not sure what that's going to look like yet.
Our policy is never to say "no." We always say "yes" and then figure it out after. I'm not a rules person, for the most part, and I hate when people tell me not to do something and I know that there's a way to do it. I try not to put restrictions on anything.
In addition to being married, you guys have worked together in kitchens so long. Because of that, I assume you have kind of a personal language. Now that you're hiring so much staff, and have two restaurants to run, is it hard to convey that? Are there those moments where it's like, "Well, I get it, and you get it, but how do we explain it to someone else?"
NK: We're getting better.
SB: But it's true, we're pretty bulletproof. We can have an entire conversation with no words.
NK: I think [The Progress] really helped us improve. We had to hire 43 people in two months, and that means a lot of communicating what this place was going to be. After the first couple of interviews, we solidified what we wanted to say. These vague notions that pervaded through State Bird had to be explained to people who've maybe never had the opportunity to dine there. We've solidified in words what we want the experience to be, how we want people to feel when they come into the restaurants.
Do you have an elevator pitch at this point, essentially?
NK: A little bit! [Laughs.] Stuart's pretty good at it.
What are the key words you use to describe this place, and the experience you want to have?
SB: It's very simple. We spend 90% of our efforts on our staff. Everything that we do is spent on every employee that works here: creating a better working environment, fluidity and a way of communicating, education, teambuilding or whatever you want to call it, culture-building...that was our elevator pitch. 10% of our effort is spent on the actual diners coming through the door.
Why we do it this way is very simple: if I can spend 90% of my efforts on every staff member, and every staff member is going to spend that on each other, and delivering things to the guests, it trickles down so well. That's why people are attracted to us, why we keep staff for a long time. Honestly, when I was talking to prospective employees, I was like, "I'm not even going to tell you about the food; I could care less." I want it to be about people. Nicole and I may not have done the first-round interviews, but we sat down with every single person that we hired. It was hard, but it was awesome. We want people to know that their bosses are completely here and present for them. We don't want to micromanage. We want to make people feel important, the moment they come through the door.
You guys have definitely kept on a lot of employees. How did you decide who to keep at State Bird and who to bring over?
SB: It was tough. It would have been so easy to just liquidate State Bird of all of its people, but we were pretty calculated about it. There are maybe 10 people who are joining us here. We've got four in the front of house, two of whom opened State Bird with us, because we really feel they represent State Bird so well, and we want them to be the bearers of culture in the new restaurant. There are a couple of co-positions in the kitchen; both restaurants share the butchery department, and Mikiko [Yui], Nicole's co-pastry chef, is doing both restaurants. And Max, our lead line cook, came over.
We really need State Bird to not miss a beat. Glenn Kang and Kevin Law, our chef de cuisine and sous chef, really know it, and they're keeping that flame lit. Some people kind of end up creating their own positions with us. We're constantly asking them, "Where do you want to go?"
Given that you have this amazing staff, with so many people that you trust, have you considered expanding out of SF? I know you had an offer from Drew Nieporent to do State Bird in New York, and you turned it down to do The Progress. Would you ever consider doing that in the future?
SB: New York? No. We've talked about it, and our growth is going to be based on some pretty key factors. For us, this is our home. It's a beautiful building, and a place where we can get real reach. It's the headquarters. But you're right, at some point we're going to be plagued with this issue. Awesome people and nowhere to send them to grow. But the opportunity has to make sense. It has to be a place where we feel like we can make an impact, and have an impact equally made upon us, so that we can come back and make this place even better. That's one of the rules. Another is that the food ingredients, year-round, have to be quite stellar.
NK: We've cooked in places off-season in other areas, and it's really very challenging.
SB: We can say we're spoiled, but this is why we live here. Sure, we're spoiled with great ingredients, and cursed by the high cost of living and the difficulty of doing things. But we're from here, and we chose to plant our roots here. With that said, we're curious people, too. If there was an opportunity to do something that satisfies our curiosity and really has the infrastructure in terms of ingredients, and that can support itself as a business, we'd think about it. And I don't think New York satisfies those three things for us.