A year and a half ago, restaurateur Kurt Huffman (ChefStable in Portland) announced he’d be opening a massive new 12,000-square-foot project in Dogpatch with a restaurant, private event space, active small-batch distillery, rooftop bar and catering service. Bi-Rite's Sam Mogannam and renewable energy financier Adam Mendelson signed on to help. At last word, the restaurant would evoke Nopa’s casual vibe and bring in Huffman’s experience working on Ox (the Oregonian's 2013 Restaurant of the Year, James Beard Best New Restaurant in 2013 nominee and Food & Wine Best New Chef winner for chefs Greg Denton & Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton in 2014). Napa Valley Distillery was going to have a small satellite space in the building and Bi-Rite would be catering the private events. The goal was a May 2015 opening. But since then, “the concept has changed enormously,” Huffman told Eater.
The high-level updates: the space is going to primarily focus on private events with Bi-Rite still leading the catering operations, and the 80-seat restaurant portion will be a rotating place for up-and-coming chefs to try out a restaurant concept for three months at a time. Napa Valley Distillery is no longer involved, and the proposed rooftop bar will be folded into the private event space.
“The direction our project is taking is a manifestation of us seeing the struggles that young, ambitious chefs are facing in San Francisco. We would make the space available for whatever chef can convince us they have a great idea. Whether it's an izakaya concept or a paella concept or a churros concept, we don’t care. We’ll be supporting them and doing PR for them and things like that,” Huffman explained. “In a certain way it's kind of like the bizarro version of Next in Chicago. But instead of going into a place and buying overpriced tickets to go worship at the feet of a great American chef and his amazing story, you're gonna pay less to come in and support somebody who's really trying to make it in the food scene. I think this is a way we can have the biggest return on investment and the biggest impact down in San Francisco.”
Huffman said he’s “never been more confident about the financial success of a business” than he is about the private event space, which will be called The Pearl, a reference to John Steinbeck’s novel. It will fit up to 900 people, have a state-of-the-art kitchen space for caterers to come in (Bi-Rite is the preferred partner) and also make use of the rooftop space. “Thanks to the fact that we have the event space next door, the restaurant doesn't have the same kind of financial imperatives that a normal project would have,” Huffman explained. “I would never do this idea normally because why would you open a place that is potentially successful just to close it after three months? That is a crazy business model.”
It’s been a long journey for Huffman to get the proper permits in the city, a process he called “terrible.” “It's genuinely a nightmare to open up a business in San Francisco and it's a fortune. You can open a restaurant in Portland in 75 days from finding a location. As an outsider, I feel like I'm observing the slow death of blue collar in San Francisco, if it’s not already dead,” he said. “For the restaurant industry that's supported and driven by immigrants and first generation families, how the hell are you supposed to spend $280,000 on a liquor license? And that’s just one of the things. I think this project brings a lot of value and opportunity to young chefs and responds to a need of the city.” Huffman anticipates The Pearl to open in January or February 2016, with the restaurant portion to follow in the summer. Stay tuned for updates.