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: Olivia Terenzio]
First, it was a group of Bernal Heights neighbors gathering in each other's homes for dinner. Then it was a pop-up restaurant. And finally, last January, Hillside Supper Club landed a permanent space in their longtime pop-up venue, the former Caffe Cozzolino. In the past year, chefs and owners Jonathan Sutton and Tony Ferrari have transformed Hillside into the quintessential neighborhood restaurant, serving comfort food with a focus on community (even knocking on doors to meet their neighbors). As they prepped for a weeknight dinner service, the duo took a break to talk about the transition from pop-up to full restaurant, Bernal's up-and-coming food scene, and their aspirations for a second location.
You began life as a real supper club. What was that like?
Jonathan Sutton: We started out in the neighborhood. Different chef friends of ours and groups of like 30 people would pack into a house, and we'd do restaurant-style food. Each one of us would do a different course. We actually plated everything, like 30 different plates. It created a little buzz around the neighborhood. For us, it was really fun, because we got to be creative and do something different.
Tony Ferrari: We did this on our days off from our full-time jobs. It was a huge commitment, but it was our food and our time to shine.
JS: The neighborhood was like, "We really need food like this in Bernal." Everyone who lives in Bernal is a huge ambassador of their 'hood. We said, this could be our chance to do a restaurant here—we already have a lot of support and following. So we started doing a pop-up restaurant.
TF: We started off at 18th and Mission, at [now-closed] The Corner. We took over Mondays there for two or three months, and did really well.
Monday isn't exactly a popular dining day.
JS: And we were doing like 110 covers every Monday. Packed. We had a simple menu: three apps, three entrees, a dessert and a cheese plate.
TF: It was a la carte, with the option of a tasting for $32. And the tasting was like 90 percent of the business.
How did you evolve into having a permanent space?
TF: During the two months at the corner, a lot of our guests were from Bernal and kept telling us we should take over the Caffe Cozzolino space. We came to check it out, and right away, we fell in love with it.
JS: It was different from being on the Cortland side, where they already have a strip of restaurants. They needed something over here.
TF: We talked to the owners of Caffe Cozzolino, and started doing a pop-up there instead of at The Corner. We did that for an entire year, every Monday and Tuesday.
Did your customer base change?
JS: Definitely, and it became more Bernal people. Before, it was a mix of Bernal people coming to see us because they knew we were originally in Bernal, and then we had the Mission people as well. Here, we had more neighbors.
TF: The original owners didn't want to just sell to anyone; they wanted to keep the integrity of the neighborhood. Over the course of the year, we got to know them really well, and they gave us a huge opportunity to take over the lease. That's what we did on January 1st of last year.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in the transition from pop-up to permanent?
TF: In general, the overhead, the bills, the permits, having full-time employees…
JS: Finding the funds to do the remodel. Over the year of doing the pop-up, we developed our business plan and started planning, so by the time we got the keys, everything was lined up and ready to go. We had two-and-a-half weeks; we were here night and day getting everything switched over.
What did you do to make the space your own?
JS: It's an old Victorian building, and we saw the potential it had. Over that year we were coming up with different ideas, like recycling materials and getting rid of the tablecloths and using brown butcher paper. It would be nice to have handmade wooden tables, but on a limited budget, this is what we could afford. We re-upholstered the chairs ourselves. We had a lot of friends and family helping us out over two weeks and did as much as we could. Tony's mom is a contractor, and she flew down to do all the painting. My family built the communal table up here.
TF: We had a ton of pro bono work from some of the neighbors. One of the neighbors upstairs did all of our branding and signage. Without that tight support we needed, there was no way we could afford the sign or the website—it just wouldn't have worked.
Do you think that could happen anywhere else, or is it unique to this neighborhood?
JS: There's a strong sense of community here. Everyone wants to help their neighbor out, and they want to know each other and see the neighborhood succeed.
TF: It's not like new college kids come in every year. People have been here 20 or 30 years.
JS: It's been the up-and-coming neighborhood for a long time, and now stuff is starting to happen.
You also had a Kickstarter campaign. Tell me about that.
JS: [Our friend] Audrey, who was part of the original supper club in the houses, is a huge supporter of us. She offered to make our Kickstarter video, and that's what she does for a living—she makes films. She did an amazing job. We had never even heard of Kickstarter until different people in the neighborhood told us we should do it. We looked into it and thought hey, it can't hurt.
So you're lucky you have a lot of talented friends.
TF: Pretty much. [Laughs.]
JS: Halfway through the video, we added another incentive on Credibles. Donate $200 now, and when we open, you get $200 worth of credit in food from us. As soon as we did that, it skyrocketed.
TF: What better reward then the product we're creating?
After getting so much support, did you feel like you had an obligation to everyone here?
TF: Big time. We thought, if we could raise $25,000 through this Kickstarter thing, then we have to do this. We have to show these people that we care and we're here to stay, and they're going to get every bit of support back that they gave to us.
What have been the hardest things about going permanent?
JS: We did the pop-up one day a week—it's not as much commitment. When you sign a long-term lease and take out a lot of loans, there's so much pressure. You can't just do it one day; this is it.
TF: If it doesn't work, you can't just walk away. You have to be here every day, and make sure it's operating correctly.
What about the rewards?
JS: Having the whole space to yourself and not just having one shelf for your dry goods or one refrigerator. Being able to have our kitchen lined up the way we want it. Being able to prep up the menu all week instead of just for one day. And being able to afford more help. When it was a pop-up, Tony and I prepped everything ourselves because we didn't have any money to hire anyone. Now, we have seven days a week to make revenue and hire a full staff.
Any big surprises along the way?
TF: We were surprised how hard it was to find good staff that really cared about the industry. People want to work for the big boys.
JS: A year in, we've come a long way and built a strong team and have an amazing staff now and a bunch of support. It's night and day.
TF: People are like, "I'm going to commute all the way to Bernal to work for who?" And we'd say, "Come try us out—we're going to teach you everything you need to know about cooking." That's the difference between well-known chefs and underrated guys who are just cooking because they love it.
What's the reception been since you opened full-time?
TF: It's been really good. It's still a sleepy neighborhood; it's going to take a little bit of time for people to realize that Bernal is a great place to come and check out, and that we happen to be here serving good food. We worked extremely hard at getting people to come to Bernal in general.
How did you do that?
TF: Grassroots, guerrilla marketing. We made flyers and went house-to-house meeting people, saying, "We're in your neighborhood—check us out."
How have you seen the dining scene change in Bernal since you've been here?
JS: A lot, especially over the last year. We feel good that we were part of taking that first leap, bringing people here and putting Bernal on the map. Holy Water just opened, and they have a great following because of sharing ownership with Churchill and Bloodhound. Blue Plate has been here forever, and they're holding it down solid. We're friends with those guys, and they've given us a ton of advice and support along the way. ICHI Sushi's opening their second location, PizzaHacker just got started...Once we get the people here, they're not going anywhere. They're going to come back.
JS: And all the neighbors who live here will be able to walk down to somewhere instead of having to go to the Mission to eat.
TF: People don't realize how close we really are here. We're blocks away from the Mission—you can walk.
What's your crowd on a typical night?
TF: I don't think it's fair of us to pinpoint who our guests are, because we get so many different people. That's the definition of a supper club: there's something for everyone, and there always will be. If you want to come in for a glass of wine and a side of meatballs, we support that. That's what we're here for.
How has your menu evolved over the past year?
JS: This is probably the smallest kitchen we've ever worked in. A lot of the menu has to do with our cooking equipment back there. We have one six-burner stove and a tiny little grill, and that's our cooking power.
TF: It's extremely difficult, because everything has to be timed perfectly or the whole day is screwed.
What are some of your most successful dishes you've done?
JS: Our staples are the meatballs, the duck liver mousse, and the pot pie. The pot pie just flies out the door— it's comfort food. And we switch the ingredients, so it could be chicken, pork, venison or lamb. And meatballs and focaccia: it's that staple someone will always come back for.
Is there anything you tried to do that didn't work out?
JS: We can't really do anything fried. We've tried croquettes, but we don't have a fryer, and having the pot on the stove with a thermometer in there—it's a lot of real estate. Stuff like that we can do every now and then as a special, but we can't put it on the menu.
You used to have a juice pop-up here, right?
TF: We did, but they found another location. They were really cool guys.
Do you feel an obligation or need to support other pop-ups?
JS: To a certain extent. Some of our friends we worked with, we see their dedication, and they really want to do something but need a space—we're all about supporting them. But everyone who comes knocking on the door, wanting to do a pop-up here, we can't really do that. We have to run a business. But every now and then, a pop-up on a Tuesday, when we're closed, we're into it.
TF: It's fun to give back. It's how we started, so there's no reason we shouldn't pay it forward.
Are you still pretty involved in the pop-up scene?
TF: We actually go to a lot of pop-ups.
TF: Rice Paper Scissors has always been good. They've been around for a while. There's another one at Dear Mom, Ante Meridian. Also Kinfolk on Cortland; I believe they're taking over the space soon. They're doing really well. The food is amazing. That's something that's going to help elevate Bernal.
You've been doing a lot of events lately, including a beer dinner. Has that gone well?
JS: Yeah, we want to get to a point where we're doing one a month. We also do our family-style dinners. People can book two or three days in advance for 10 people or more, and we plan the menu based on the guests' preferences and do a three-course, family-style dinner. A roast leg of lamb, roasted vegetables and potatoes, or whole grilled fish.
TF: Or roasted pork shoulder. It's big, rustic—it's amazing. You show up with 10 people, and it's like, dig in.
JS: Our goal is to have this table booked with a family-style dinner every night. It's cool how my family built this table, and we're sitting here.
TF: This tree came from the property where Jonny grew up. We're very particular about things we put up. It all has to make sense or be something we had a hand in. We want people to be here because they heard about us or love what we're doing, not because they read about us in 20 magazines.
You've been working together for how long now?
JS: We worked together in Miami in 2005. We were working for the same chef, Christian Delouvrier at La Goulue, and we were going to the same culinary school. From there we became good buddies.
TF: We always joked around about opening our own place. Both of our families are from Italy, so we had all this crazy stuff in common.
JS: We were both busting our asses and really trying to learn at a young age. After that we kept in touch; we'd call each other here and there to catch up—what kitchen are you working in, what are you learning, what are you doing. I called up Tony when I was in D.C., and said, "I'm thinking of my next move; I'm trying to figure out if I'm going to go to New York or San Francisco." He really pushed me to come out here. I got an opportunity where I transferred through Michael Mina, and we started hanging out again.
TF: We were roommates, and then we started a pop-up.
How do you divide everything up here? Who does what?
JS: For a while we split it up. One of us would do fish, one of us would do meat, one would do produce, one would do cheese—and now it's gotten to the point where one person does everything and the other can be off.
TF: We want to really start having a good balance of personal life and professional life, where we're able go out and travel and see our families. It's tough in this industry to do that, and we want to make it possible. We can still have a couple of restaurants and have a life.
JS: Having that balance of two chefs in one house gives us the opportunity to do more things and have more free time. We have a strong team, too—we're getting to the point of trusting everyone to do everything to the right standard when we're not around.
What's your proudest accomplishment of the past year?
TF: Getting through the first year! [Laughs.]
JS: Opening the doors. The first night we got all the remodel done, and we had the doors open and the kitchen was prepped up, it was mind-blowing. I've never been so nervous in my entire life. Every day we're pushing harder, and evolving. From the first day we put a dish on the menu to the last day, it will change over time. By the time we take it off, it's exactly where it needs to be.
TF: Over the year, we really discovered who we are as chefs and what our food is and what people are accepting here. First and foremost, we're in Bernal. We gotta take care of the neighbors.
What do people want in Bernal?
JS: They want comforting food.
TF: They want approachable, fun stuff that, for the most part, is pretty recognizable.
JS: I feel like we're doing a good job introducing new ingredients and techniques in a very approachable way. We have some guests who say, "Let the chefs order for me." That's the best. For us, it just feels good.
TF: Some of our regulars come in two or three times a week. A lot of guests now are really close friends and family, and they invite us to their homes and cook for us. It's something unique that we have here, that not everyone has.
What's next? Any plans in the works for 2014?
JS: We want to do another spot in the future. We're not sure exactly when or where it's going to be.
TF: We're really big on helping create community and bringing something new somewhere. We also want to be somewhere where help is wanted, where people want us to be. There needs to be a huge story behind it, and we need to be emotionally attached to the space.
JS: It could either be in Bernal, maybe on the Cortland side, or maybe another neighborhood.
TF: We've been playing around with the idea of Glen Park; even the Bayview is starting to come around a little bit.
JS: The up-and-coming neighborhoods. That's our style. We don't want to be a trendy spot for two years; we want to be the neighborhood spot that's here for 30 years.
The wall behind you has a ton of names on it. What's the story?
JS: That's from the Kickstarter.
TF: One of the rewards was that for $100, you get your name on the wall.
Are these people who have become friends?
TF: Oh yeah. It's been a humbling experience. And this is just the beginning.