Welcome to Hot Takes, the Eater SF series that addresses burning topics on the minds of restaurant industry workers in the Bay Area — from their perspectives.
In the past 20 years, Adriano Paganini has opened 20 successful restaurants in San Francisco under the Back of the House restaurant group umbrella — incredibly popular spots like Lolinda, Beretta, and Super Duper Burger. That’s hard enough to do anywhere in America, but in a city where the process of opening a restaurant is plagued with problems, and many are closing shortly after their debut, it can seem like an especially impossible feat.
In his words, here’s how Paganini has become one of the most prolific restaurateurs in San Francisco — despite the fact that he would never say that himself.
Opening new concepts is definitely a passion of mine. If I just wanted to make money, then I would probably just grow a couple of the brands that we have that can grow, like for example Super Duper, which we are growing, Delarosa, which we're looking for a third location, and Uno Dos Tacos, we're looking for a second location. If it was just about that, there are more locations that I could do in the Bay Area with those concepts.
The reason we are coming up with new concepts, which is a lot of work and is a different type of work, is to motivate my team of almost 900 people. If you're able to do that, you're going to be successful. You're going to have great people that work for you.
"The truth is, restaurants in San Francisco are getting too expensive. They don’t need to be."
In pretty much all of our concepts, we have one or two people that are either part-owners or they're very passionate about that particular concept and they're there doing the day-to-day. Luis Flores, for example, is part-owner of Uno Dos Tacos, and he's also a guy that has worked with me for 15 years. He was at Pasta Pomodoro, then at Beretta, and he's Mexican and he's passionate about Mexican food. His family had a restaurant in Mexico, so we said let's do a Mexican restaurant. I'm also passionate about Mexican food because I love it, but that's not enough. I need someone else to have that passion.
There's also something to be said about, as a company — any company — you can't stay steady. You're either going up or going down. It's the same in any industry; why does someone open up one little retail store and somebody else becomes The Gap or whatever? I saw a need in the market, and I thought I could do it, and we did it. It's fun to do. I really like the challenge; I'm very competitive. The whole team is very competitive — low-key, but competitive.
We also understand value, which is critical. I think it's because value is what people need in San Francisco. I like value myself, I really do — I grew up with not a lot of money in Italy, and that made it important to not spend money if you don’t have it. So we not only understand value, but we’re passionate about providing it. It's important — and interesting — to me to operate restaurants that are not exclusive. Restaurants that anyone can afford. You might think we're doing this because that is what works, but that's also what we're passionate about.
The truth is, restaurants in San Francisco are getting too expensive. They don’t need to be. I also don't like the whole fanciness, the whole exclusiveness. I can afford it, but I don't like it. I want young people to be able to afford to eat at my restaurants. There is room for restaurants that are more exclusive and more expensive; there is just not room for hundreds of them.
Our success is a combination of many different things — and it's very not perfect; it's very messy — but somehow we understand all that enough to put it together in a cohesive fashion and it works. It's like anything: Once you get it, you get it, and then it's easier.
I can't explain to you what the magic bullet is, but between me and the team, we somehow understand the market. We understand the rules that we're playing with. We understand branding and positioning. We also understand operation. We understand how to create a team and how to motivate it. It's thrilling; it's fun and rewarding when they work. It's a lot of work, and everyone is exhausted, but everyone loves it. It's a little bit of a high when it's open and it does work.