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Industry Leaders Discuss How to Push the SF Dining Scene Into the Future

Eater teamed up with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association to explore how San Francisco's eating scene has evolved — and needs to evolve.

From left to right: Thomas McNaughton, Karen Leibowitz, Charles Phan, Kim Alter, Ellen Fort.
From left to right: Thomas McNaughton, Karen Leibowitz, Charles Phan, Kim Alter, Ellen Fort.
Stefanie Tuder

San Francisco is at an important moment in its dining history: Costs to both the restaurant and diner are at an all-time high, and technology is changing the scene in ways never seen before. Restaurateurs have to get creative to tackle the many challenges, so Charles Phan (Slanted Door), Karen Leibowitz (The Perennial, Mission Chinese Food), Thomas McNaughton (flour + water, Central Kitchen, Cafe du Nord) and Kim Alter (Nightbird) sat down last night at The Battery with Eater SF Editor Ellen Fort moderating a discussion on how our city’s dining scene needs to change to survive. Ideas discussed in front of the sold-out audience included app delivery, the true cost of food and the touchy topic of tipping. Here are the top six quotes from the evening:

On technology’s effect on dining out:

"When opening a restaurant, we have conversations like, ‘Should we have Instagrammable light in here?’ and it’s mind-blowing because it’s about the food, but it’s changed in the last five to ten years in what you need to think about when opening a restaurant and how people eat now." —Kim Alter

"And how people approach reservations has changed. We’ll get emails at 4 p.m. that say ‘I have a reservation at 8:30 p.m., but actually I’m gonna come in at 7,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, are you? You may have to wait for a table then.’ There’s a reason why reservations are set up why they are, and this is the real world and we can’t just move pixels around." —Karen Leibowitz

"When opening a restaurant, we have conversations like, 'Should we have Instagrammable light in here?'"

On delivery apps:

"I’m thinking about shutting them off. It’s a really flawed system. These folks [delivery app owners] seem to think we can just whip out food of some machine we churn in the back. That’s the whole reason at Slanted Door we don’t do to go — it’s not because we don’t like money; we love money. But it would mess everything up so bad. We’re always late getting food out to the table, let alone to go. You have this system of these people like, ‘I’ll just connect the food and get them to cook the food and we’ll deliver it.’ But shaking beef is not designed to travel a mile. It travels 50 feet at most." —Charles Phan

On the cost of a restaurant:

"When you go out to eat, you’re not thinking about how much the chair you sat on cost.You’re not thinking rent is $12,000 a month. There’s a strong conversation about how much apartments cost per month, but not about how much restaurants cost per month. When they take that bite of food, a diner is not thinking about how much it costs to process that and pay your cook $25 an hour. You’re just thinking, ‘I can pay $2.50 for chicken at Safeway.’ It’s an education of people understanding what things actually cost." —Kim Alter

"Bottom line is I have burn my waiter a little bit and the waiter has to take a pay cut and I have to move that money to the kitchen."

On tipping:

"I’ve always said that if a line cook at a restaurant could make a fair living wage in San Francisco, no one would be able to afford to eat at a restaurant in San Francisco. The $26 entree turns into $56 entree. There are so many people in SF and NYC right now putting their necks on the line of essentially an experience of, ‘How do we make the economics of a restaurant work?’ It’s something I’d love to know the answer for myself." —Thomas McNaughton

"Bottom line is I have burn my waiter a little bit and the waiter has to take a pay cut and I have to move that money to the kitchen. We’re looking at it, and we’re going to find way to do it. My job is to take care of everybody. My folks, my staff, then the customer. I’m hoping I don’t have to increase price from the customer standpoint, because it’s always a risk that they’ll go elsewhere. So okay, do you want me to rock the boat and I’ll start making bad food because I can’t keep anybody in the kitchen? If a waiter takes home $400 in a night, that’s $65 per hour, $15 an hour in wage and $50 in tips. But if you pay your cook $18-20 an hour, there’s a huge gap in that. Everybody’s gonna do what they gotta do, but it’s time for us to explain it to the customer." —Charles Phan

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