Last February, Hi Lo BBQ made its much-anticipated debut on 19th Street. The third eatery from restaurateur Scott Youkilis, who's also behind Hog & Rocks across the street and Maverick two blocks away, it aimed to be the first restaurant fusing classic BBQ techniques with a Northern California produce-centric sensibility. Now, only a little over a year later, Hi Lo is saying goodbye: it's closing after service tomorrow night, to be replaced by the first restaurant from Lazy Bear underground restaurateur David Barzelay. The closure is the latest bullet point in a tumultuous year for Youkilis, who split with original chef Ryan Ostler after a nasty Bauer review, brought in Hog & Rocks chef Robin Song to revive the menu, constructed a bar to bring in more patrons, then decided to sell the restaurant altogether after Barzelay's team made an unsolicited offer. On top of all that, Maverick was badly damaged in an October fire, and has yet to reopen. We chatted with him about the ups and downs of the past year, how Song saved the day, and what he's hoping to do next.
You guys were originally going to close on April 27th. Why did you decide to shut down early?
That was a date that we just chose that seemed to make sense, but it was pretty arbitrary. We've had some staff changing hands and people moving on, so we're doing it earlier. They were all dedicated and great, and they made the place what it was, but they've got their own lives, too, and they need to find new jobs. Most of them got other jobs, and a few are moving over to Hog & Rocks. We could've carried on for another couple of weeks, but we didn't want to go out weakly, with this scrappy team. So it was the right move.
Are you doing anything special to celebrate the end?
No, we'll just be doing our normal thing. We'll have an internal farewell for the staff, but we didn't really plan anything else.
My understanding is that you had no intention to sell, and then David Barzelay and his team came to you with an offer you couldn't refuse. How did that go down?
It was a completely unsolicited deal. Essentially, I woke up one morning in January, did my usual routine and checked my e-mail, and his people had written me an e-mail saying "Hey, would you ever consider selling Hi Lo?" And I was like, "I don't know, never thought about it." E-mails went back and forth, I put a number out there, and they didn't hesitate. They sent an official offer, there were a couple of counteroffers, and we came to a pretty quick deal. They were fully funded, they had been looking for a space for a while, and this was just something they wanted to do. They really liked our space, and that was the selling point for them.
Have you ever been approached like this in the past, with someone asking to buy an existing restaurant?
When Mike [Pierce] and I were originally looking to buy Maverick, it took us a year and a half. Along the way, we talked to a lot of people—brokers, and such—and a lot of them said "Hey, if you like something, find out who owns it and make them an offer." Everyone's got a price, right? I think that happens sometimes—I don't know how often it happens, but it does happen. Our situation was unique because we were pretty successful there, I thought. We were putting out good food and good drinks in an absolutely gorgeous space, and we thought we were fine. But, as I've said many times to our regulars, it's a business we're running, and business decisions have to be made. It was a big, important business decision we had to make for the group.
Do you think that decision might have been different had you not had the fire at Maverick?
Maverick is actually a completely separate deal. Mike and I have a completely separate thing going with Maverick, and he's not involved with Hi Lo or Hog & Rocks, where I have a different group of investors and partners.
How is Maverick's rebuilding process coming along?
We're dealing with insurance adjusters and legal right now. There's a lot of parties involved, and the process just takes forever. No one's got a lot of fire under their ass to move and make these things happen, so we're just kind of stuck, waiting. Which is fine for now.
Really? I imagine that's incredibly frustrating.
Well, when it's out of your control, there's just nothing you can do. Luckily, I've got Hog & Rocks and Hi Lo to keep me plenty busy. I've got two little boys; they keep me busy, too. And we have new things coming up over the next year or two that we're working on.
Anything you want to say about that?
Right now, there's not much to talk about specifically. There has been talk, since we opened Hog & Rocks, about potentially doing another location. We don't have anything set up, but that could be something we look at, either in or outside the city. There's a lot of action on the Peninsula, and a few of my partners live there, so we've been looking there for a while. My brother [MLB player Kevin Youkilis] and I are working on a possible project as well. He's looking for some action down in Los Gatos; he wants to find something to do after he finishes his baseball career. He likes what we do. But it's just a lot of talk right now, nothing's really in motion.
Hi Lo had some bumpy times in the beginning, but you said it was doing well by the time you got the offer to sell. What was the key ingredient that put it back on course?
Robin [Song, Hog & Rocks' chef who took over chef duties at Hi Lo] coming in was a huge help. He's been a great partner, and he's become what he's really set out to be, and what everyone talked about him being. He's a hell of a cook, and a good leader. He really came in and turned things around. The one thing that we really wanted from the beginning there was to do this style of cuisine but do it seasonally, with great ingredients, and that's right in Robin's wheelhouse. His connections with local meat purveyors were huge, and that made a big difference.
BBQ is tough, though. You've got guys who've been working on it their entire lives trying to get it right, on machinery and smokers they've had for years. It's just not an exact science, and it took us a while to learn how the equipment works, and get the right wood. But I think in the last 5-6 months, we've put out the best stuff we've made in the 15-16 total months we were open.
What was the toughest part of that transition?
Well, in general, we had issues with the counter service. No one in San Francisco seemed to understand the counter service, they all assumed it would be table service, and we had difficulty getting people to order at the counter. In San Francisco, people like to make reservations, and BBQ is a thing that's popular with big parties, so it got a bit complicated. We didn't take any reservations for the first few months, and we had to make that move from counter service to table service with reservations because that's what people wanted.
At that point, we knew we also needed to add a bar, because once we filled up, we needed a place for people to wait. But of course, we couldn't open a bar instantly, and it took us four months or so to get the plans ready. On the outside, it seems like there were all these changes, but things take time. You can't just flip a switch and insert a bar. Those decisions are made based upon the idea of years of business ahead. By the time the bar came online in November, it all seemed to click: now we have a bar, people are making reservations, we're taking a lot of big parties. We had family-style shared plates, which were what people were asking for. It was where we really wanted it to be.
It sounds like there was a lot of work helping this restaurant get where it needed to be, and then right when you got there, you got this offer. Obviously, you had to do what was best for the business, but is there a sadness there, that you never got to enjoy the fruits of all that labor?
Of course! This project wasn't a year and a half, really, it was actually four years in the making. It took a lot of time to build that building—we had to do foundation work, rebuild everything. I don't know of any restaurateur that hasn't opened a restaurant or a bar and hasn't made adjustments...
That's normal, everyone has to adjust. The unusual part is to finally have made those adjustments, gotten to a solid place, and then have that first year end up being your last year.
Yeah, it's weird the way it all turned out. I would have never thought four or five years ago, when we started this thing, that we would have gotten an offer that squared everyone up, and that just made sense. We never thought that way, because why would anyone think that way?
Of course. It's not typical.
From an outsider's perspective, restaurants can seem glitzy and glamorous, and like pet projects. They seem to be out-of-the-ordinary, because they sweep people away from their daily lives. But I have a lot of people that invested their hard-earned money, and it takes a lot to get these places open, especially nowadays. We had to make a decision that was best for not just the past four or five years, and what I've done during those years, but also for what the next four or five years are going to look like, too. You don't want to leave the people who helped make your restaurant happen with nothing. There's so many people involved, and I have to take everyone's opinion. I can't take that lightly. They might want to put my face on it, but I'm just one of 20 people involved.
As of next week, you're just going to have one restaurant operating, after having three for so long. Any big plans for Hog & Rocks?
We're really excited about where Hog & Rocks is right now. In the last year and a half, Michael Lazar has really put a huge stamp on that bar program, and I really feel that we're running one of the top programs in the city. Our bar staff is so professional and so willing to push the envelope. Robin will get to spend more time working on one kitchen and menu. We're at a new beginning with Hog & Rocks. I think it's going to be an exciting rest of this year—we'll keep pushing and trying new stuff, and continue to do what we do well. As for the rest, there's no rush. We're young.
· Hi Lo BBQ OUT; Lazy Bear IN on 19th Street [~ ESF ~]
· Hi Lo BBQ Launches New Menu, Drops Lunch [~ ESF ~]
· Ryan Ostler Out at Hi Lo; Robin Song Takes Over [~ ESF ~]