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What It Actually Costs to Open a Restaurant in San Francisco

Dollar for dollar, a comprehensive look at the agony of building a business

Uni with caviar, wasabi, and rice from Robin
Uni with caviar, wasabi, and rice from Robin
All photography by Pork Belly Studio, unless otherwise noted

For chef Adam Tortosa, opening a restaurant is more than just a pipe dream — it’s about proving something. Tortosa, a fair, lanky 31-year-old from San Diego, was first introduced to the Bay Area when he opened 1760 with the Acquerello team in 2013. Four months later, he was slammed by a mediocre review from Michael Bauer. He quickly “resigned.”

Fast forward four years, and Tortosa is set to open Robin, a firmly untraditional omakase restaurant in Hayes Valley. Throughout the nearly two-year opening process, Eater has closely followed Tortosa, from sitting in on meetings to filming the construction of the restaurant. Tortosa has opened up his financial books, sharing the price of everything from public relations to the (very expensive) plates on the tables. The result is a deep dive into what it really takes — financially, operationally, and emotionally — to open a restaurant in a major city like San Francisco.

After everything that happened at 1760, Tortosa nearly left restaurants altogether. The experience prompted a six-month depression, during which he didn’t work at all, instead spending that entire stretch of time obsessing over what went wrong.

Adam Tortosa
Adam Tortosa

“I was underqualified for the 1760 job, for sure. I wasn’t ready, so I felt like I needed to show off, to show that I had some technique or skill and that I belonged here. And because my two role models, chef-wise, were two guys that yelled, that’s the personality I adapted in the kitchen. I was probably a piece of shit to be around,” Tortosa recounts, almost as if it happened to someone else. “Obviously, I made a shitload of mistakes. The way I treated people, the way I worked in general. It changed the way I work now.”

Eventually, he came to the conclusion — with the help of some anti-depression medication and a newfound belief in meditation — that he wanted to try again. So Tortosa fell back on his sushi training from Los Angeles’ master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi and worked behind the bar at Akiko’s for two years while rebuilding his confidence. Slowly, the itch to be in charge of his own place returned, and the idea for Robin took form.

“I was very over restaurants after 1760. But if I left — if I just went back to Los Angeles — I would lose this round,” he says. “In the last few years, I’ve had some time to reflect and grow up. With Robin, I don’t feel like I need to fit in now. It’s more what I believe in.”

Unlike many of the omakase restaurants in SF (Omakase, Kusakabe, Sasaki), Robin’s sushi sharply veers away from what’s found in Japan. Tortosa tops his nigiri with unexpected ingredients straight from the farmers market, like Cara Cara oranges or confited tomato — ingredients that make more sense considering his California roots.

For the past year and a half, Tortosa has painstakingly built his personal pipe dream — and it took a hell of a lot more than hopes and wishes. He raised $700,000. His team constructed the space from scratch. He secured all the necessary city permits. He hired staff and created a menu. Now, Robin is ready to open on Thursday, July 6.

Want a real answer to what it takes to open and run a restaurant? Here it is, complete with the hard numbers that typically stay out of public view.

Robin’s Budget

Money Raised From Investors: $600,000

With a plan in place, Tortosa needed to go out and woo some sugar mamas and daddies. In his — and many others’ — case, this turned out to include his actual mom and dad, who along with some other family members and friends contributed about half of the $600,000 he raised.

For the rest, Tortosa had to go the traditional route of raising money from outside investors, a necessary evil for him. It’s a skill that relies heavily on salesmanship, and he found it incredibly uncomfortable to ask people he knew for upwards of $50,000. “I really hate, hate, hate doing this,” he said at the time. “I’m bad at talking about myself, like self-promotion and taking compliments.”

Indeed, when asked to describe himself, Tortosa stammers before simply saying, as if being tortured, “I can’t.” Talk to him about the restaurant industry or what he’s learned in his career or his beliefs, and you’ll get very thoughtful — if expletive-filled — answers. Others he’s worked with during this process are quick with compliments like “sweet,” “talented,” and “creative,” but he has trouble even acknowledging them. It’s something he’s working on with a therapist, who he sees off and on.

Self-image aside, he needed to get the money. At one point, he had an offer on the table from someone willing to give the entire $600,000 in return for half-ownership of the restaurant. It would have completely solved his money issues.

“Obviously that amount of money is very important, but I have to really trust that person,” he says. “I have to trust that they’re not going to cause more problems than essentially the amount of money they give me. If every investor brings a lot of headache, then it’s not worth it.”

So rather than give up that kind of control, Tortosa instead turned to past customers from Katsuya in Los Angeles and Akiko’s here in San Francisco. Investors gave money in $50,000 increments, receiving a share of ownership and perks, like $500 a year in dining credit, in return. But as limited partners, they have absolutely no creative control.

If the restaurant does not succeed, the hard truth is they will not get their money back. If it does, though, the investors stand to profit for as long as Robin is open — after they’ve recouped their investment, of course. Until they are fully paid back, 100 percent of profits go to them — a common financial arrangement for first-time restaurants like Robin. After that, those investors still collectively own 25 percent of the restaurant, and thus will continue to get 25 percent of the profits in perpetuity. If financial projections go according to plan, investors will have their money back in under three years.

The arrangement weighs heavily on Tortosa’s mind and comes up often when people ask about his goals for the restaurant. “My first priority is getting people this money back. They’re all people I know, and they put a lot of trust into me with that money,” he says. “As much fun and everything that a restaurant is and how everyone’s like an ‘artist’ and all that shit, it’s a business.”

Tenant Improvement: $100,000

Negotiated into the lease were what is called tenant improvement or “TI” kickbacks, a bonus that sometimes comes with newer spaces. Essentially, the landlord would cover anything that Tortosa paid for that was an improvement to the building itself — meaning he couldn’t take it away with him if Robin moved or closed.

Since Robin was an empty box when Tortosa got in there, he paid to add all the plumbing, electrical, and more, collecting $100,000 from his landlord to offset the expense.

Final Total Funding: $700,000

The Costs

Consulting: $25,000

For someone who describes himself as not self-promotional, Tortosa managed to meet an inordinate number of people while working behind the Akiko’s bar. One such person was David Steele, an owner of Ne Timeas, the restaurant group that comprises Flour & Water, Central Kitchen, and Salumeria.

When he made sushi for Steele in November of 2015, Tortosa had the start of a business plan, but no idea how to execute it. So he took a chance and Googled Steele’s email address to reach out.

“I was kind of stuck. I didn’t know what to do next,” Tortosa says. “I basically was like, ‘This guy has to know what the fuck he’s doing. Worst case scenario, he tells me to go fuck off.’”

Turns out Tortosa was contacting Steele at the perfect time: He and business partner David White were building a consulting portion of Ne Timeas. Today restaurants like Trick Dog, Comal, and Urban Putt have all paid White and Steele to consult on their projects. Although the Ne Timeas name isn’t well-known to people outside the industry, the group has quietly helped shape a significant part of the San Francisco dining scene in the last decade.

“The food at Akiko’s is terrific,” says Steele. “And my understanding as I sat there is they give the chefs a lot of creative freedom, so I was pretty impressed with Adam. We just hit it off. Adam had a rough go of it at 1760. He’s really a super sweet guy. Maybe he didn’t have the reputation for being the sweetest guy when he was there, but he’s just been a pleasure to work with.”

With Steele on board, Tortosa began to have direction. Steele and White guided Tortosa through sharpening a business plan, winning investors, finding a space, and connecting him with everyone that helps a restaurant come together: a realtor, accountant, lawyer, architect, contractor, and so much more. Tortosa has upwards of five hundred emails from Steele alone in his inbox.

“I call it the process of demystification,” says Steele. “This is Adam’s creation. We have no involvement in the creativity of this. But one of the most important things we do for our clients is the investor deck. It’s so critical to create an attractive document that gives the impression to anyone who reads it that the person creating this restaurant has their shit together, which means one has to actually have their shit together and think through everything this restaurant is going to be. That’s what we do.”

Their services for this particular project cost $25,000 up-front — plus a future percentage of profits for seven years. Steele notes that each project has different time requirements, and thus different costs.

The other part of Ne Timeas’ involvement — the less quantifiable part — is the sense of confidence that an established company with a successful track record lends a project.

So is all of that worth $25,000? If you ask Tortosa, the answer is an adamant yes. “I maybe, with a lot more time and mistakes and money, could have done this on my own,” he says. “But they introduced me to investors, and any time I needed anything, they were there with the answer. The amount of time I spent with either of the Davids is insane.”

Amount Spent to Date: $25,000

Rent & Utilities: $84,269

Robin’s building
Robin’s building
Google Maps

With investors secured and a solid business plan in place, Tortosa needed to find a space. Headlines love to tout San Francisco as having the most expensive rents in America — an obvious challenge for restaurants across the city, where profit margins are so razor-thin. So Tortosa took his time finding the right location. He was targeting the Tenderloin-Nob Hill area or Hayes Valley.

“I wanted a space where we would fit into a community of other businesses. I don’t look at other restaurants as competition. It’s more like an ecosystem — all of a sudden, X area becomes really good, because it’s all of these restaurants and bars together,” he says.

It sounds great in theory, but it’s another story to actually find this. Out of a dozen locations he saw (“They were such shitboxes,” he says), only one space — a ground-floor storefront in a brand-new micro-unit building in Hayes Valley — stood out. But there was already a letter of intent on it, meaning that another prospective restaurant owner had put in a bid. The deal fell through, however, and Tortosa scooped up the space.

For his 1,250 square feet, Tortosa pays $8,000 a month, or $62 per square foot. In June of 2016, he signed a triple-net lease, wherein the tenant pays all real estate taxes, building insurance, and maintenance on the property in addition to rent and utilities. He put down a three-month security deposit and first month’s rent, totaling $32,000.

Written into his contract was a bonus six-month reprieve from rent for the build-out, since it was an empty space. Tortosa planned to be open by the time rent kicked in. But this is San Francisco and ubiquitous permitting delays shoved Robin another six months down the line. Which means Tortosa also had to pay $48,000 rent before he ever opened.

The remaining $4,269 in this category went toward utilities over the year he’s had the space, like gas, electricity, garbage, water, telephone, and Internet.

Amount Spent to Date: $109,269

Architecture: $34,500

Since Robin was in a completely new building, Tortosa could construct it any way he wanted. Of course, he had no idea how to do that. So he turned once again to Steele and White, who put him in touch with a few architects, including Todd Davis, who built his company working on residential projects.

“I just vibed with him the best. That’s how I pick everyone basically, on vibe,” Tortosa says. Like a lot of creative chef types, he’s not a numbers guy and runs almost entirely on feeling.

It also helped that Davis wanted to break into restaurant design. To get his foot in that door, Davis gave Tortosa a break in pricing, settling on $25,000 to draw up the plan and push through the permitting.

“I got to eat Adam’s sushi at Akiko’s, and it was one of those experiences where you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, you’re legit,’” Davis says. “There are a lot of fakers in San Francisco, but that meal was one of those food experiences that inspired me even more to make it with this project.”

Davis spent the majority of his time either dealing with the city to get permit approvals or working on the design of the space. He connected Tortosa with the slatemaker who created the custom slate-top sushi bar, which lies just a few inches higher than the wood bar where guests sit.

“The sushi cases are built down into the bar, so there is nothing blocking the view of chefs making the sushi. It’s one-of-a-kind like that where they can set up their stuff and they’re making the sushi right in front of you,” Davis says. It’s one of the elements of the design he’s most proud of.

Robin’s rendering
Robin’s rendering, which provided the layout for the space, though design details have changed
Todd Davis

The other $9,500 in this category went to mechanical, engineering, and plumbing design, which another company handled. This comprised the gritty details like heating, ventilation, air conditioning lines, and an air-flow system. Once the company decided the best places for things like California-compliant Title 24 lights and water drains, they tested it all with the city.

Throughout this time, Tortosa was working on Robin during the day and still slinging sushi at Akiko’s by night.

Amount Spent to Date: $143,769

Permitting: $22,100

Dealing with the city’s Department of Building Inspection is the bane of every restaurateur’s existence. It’s why almost every SF restaurant is delayed for months on end. Once all the architectural and system plans are in place, the city’s planning department has to approve them before construction can start. This is the point of the process where most restaurants get delayed. Robin was no exception. This restaurant had an especially complicated procedure, since the space was originally approved as a retail location. That means on top of regular restaurant permits, Robin needed a dreaded change-of-use approval.

Approvals dragged on for months and included steep fees: A fire department permit worker told Tortosa that it would take him two to four weeks to even look at Robin’s paperwork — or, for $536 ($134 per hour of overtime with a four-hour minimum), Tortosa could pay for him to look at it right now. Tortosa forked up the cash, and one day later, his permit was approved.

But that was just the fire department permit. In total, there were 14 subsequent (not simultaneous) permit stops: planning, building, fire, mechanical, health, public utilities, and more. One stop in the chain of approval took anywhere from one day all the way up to six weeks. The process was especially long if a permitter requested a change to plans, because the approver needs to see the fix before signing off on it. Then there are ridiculous things like this: One permitter would not approve plans because the font Robin used on the paperwork was too small. She requested that it be 1/8 of an inch or larger before she would even read it.

To make it all happen, Davis biked down to the planning department almost daily, while Tortosa followed up with each department via email, practically begging the process to move forward.

“One city worker forgot to drop our plans in the correct health bin, and instead it sat on the corner of his desk for a week. Who knows how long it would have been there if I didn’t ask. That one week of a complete waste of time cost me about $2,000 in rent alone,” Tortosa says.

As he was learning in an acute way, time was money. For that reason, some restaurants will pay companies that specialize in permit expedition, but Tortosa did not go that route. “They’re like the fucking mafia,” he says.

He did, however, decide to get professional help with the alcoholic beverage control (ABC) permit. By paying a company $5,000 to secure his beer-and-wine license, Tortosa was able to skip the work himself of that particularly involved process, which includes minutiae like mailing notices to every single resident within 500 feet of the restaurant. For Robin, the company mailed out 586 notices.

In September, during this process, Tortosa left Akiko’s to focus full-time on Robin. It turned out to be a premature decision, since permits took so much longer than anticipated. So Tortosa planned a last-minute Japan research trip, where he traveled the country for two weeks just eating along the way. It was his second time in the country.

Finally, on December 15, 2016 — pretty much the day he had hoped to open to the public, and nine months after the permit process started — Tortosa got the official green light from the city of San Francisco for construction to start.

Amount Spent to Date: $165,869

Robin in March, mid-construction
The space in March, mid-construction

Construction, Kitchen Design, & Equipment: $298,800

Because Tortosa chose a brand-new building that had never been occupied, every single thing had to be built in. The upside is that he was able to create his dream space from scratch. The downside: That it cost him much more time and money.

Again, with Ne Timeas’ help, Tortosa gathered three bids from Bay Area construction companies. He settled on the least expensive one, which at $170,000 — $230,000 less than his most expensive bid — would require a heavy amount of project management from him.

For construction, Tortosa budgeted $225,000 with a $25,000 contingency. He ended up paying $220,800. Because of that difference, he was able to go above budget on other things.

A separate design company, for a flat rate of $4,500, created the layout of the kitchen and sushi bar, with a professional focus on what makes the most sense operationally for things like sink placement and refrigeration. That company then put together an equipment list and sent it out to different companies to bid. Tortosa went with a $53,000 bid, which covered big items like refrigerators and the sushi cases.

All stainless steel elements, like tables, sinks, and shelving cost another $20,500. Even with a limited kitchen — Robin does not have any hoods, meaning no stove, which saved Tortosa about $30,000 — kitchen design and equipment still managed to be one of the largest expenses.

Over the course of January through May, the construction crew built Robin, framing the space, building the bar, installing plumbing, adding wiring, and a whole lot more. The costs on top of the bid include things like the required horn strobes for the fire alarms ($2,800), tile ($6,000), acoustical treatments ($12,000), and eco-grip flooring for the kitchen and behind the sushi bar ($12,000).

While that happened, Tortosa had a lot of free time, especially since he wasn’t working at Akiko’s anymore. He catered some private dinners while figuring out final design details, but he spent the majority of his time trying to ensure he was as mentally strong as possible.

“I was reading a lot and meditating. Just trying to get my personal life in order. I knew that I was about to walk into a very stressful project,” he says.

Tortosa tries to meditate for at least 20 minutes a day. He even attended a meditation seminar at one point. As the opening has gotten closer, however, it’s become less of a regular thing.

He’s also devoured books on management. With bad memories from 1760 in mind, he wants to avoid an unproductive kitchen dynamic this time around.

“Obviously that situation was very difficult for me. I’m glad for where I’m at from it, but I wish I treated people differently. I treated a lot of people not well,” he says. “I put way too much pressure on myself. It’s just a restaurant. It’s just food. It’s really not life or death, but that’s how I acted.”

Amount Spent to Date: $464,669

Furniture & Equipment: $37,585

Robin’s dining room chairs
The dining room chairs, which many people tried to talk Tortosa out of for their desk chair-like qualities. He’s pleased with how they look in the space.
Patricia Chang

As with all of the design elements, Tortosa spent a lot of hours searching for the perfect tables and chairs. He had a very specific idea in his mind of what he wanted them to look like, and he scoured the Internet to find them. Finally he located a company that would custom-create what he envisioned. In the end, the 24 burnt orange leather chairs, 13 wood sushi bar stools, and nine tables — finished with the Japanese wood burning shou sugi ban method — set him back $19,760.

“I was very excited when the chairs came and then everyone I showed them to hated them. Like everyone. They either hated the color of leather, or they hated the design, or both,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve known what I wanted Robin to look like from before day one. So when people would just see little aspects of it, they would think, ‘It doesn’t make sense or doesn’t go.’ But then when people saw them in the space, they liked them.”

Through this process, Tortosa’s outlook has vacillated between confident and insecure. But when it comes to the design, he has stayed consistently certain of his vision.

“He’s been both confident and humble. He’s open to any and all suggestions from us and other people who he respects,” Steele says. “But at the same time he puts his foot down when he feels strongly about something. It’s an extension of him.”

Nine thousand dollars backed point of sale devices, an alarm system, and a music setup — from which rap and old-school hip hop will blare, creating what Tortosa hopes is a relaxed, raucous atmosphere.

“Most high-end sushi places right now have a very temple-like environment. It’s not the most fun environment and kind of intimidating,” Tortosa says. “I really want Robin to have personality and soul. The most important part is that the guest has fun, in my opinion. They’re coming in to eat, yes, but I’d rather them feel something than just be like, ‘Oh, that food was great.’ I’d rather them say, ‘I had a great time.’”

The rest of the money in this category went toward service stations, a host stand, and office infrastructure like a desk, printer, and computer.

Amount Spent to Date: $502,254

Design, Artwork, & Smallwares: $59,953

One of ceramicist Jered Nelson’s plates creates the illusion of water, on top of which sits Ora king salmon belly with whipped tofu, roasted and confited tomato, aged lemon, and Thai basil
One of ceramicist Jered Nelson’s pinch plates for Robin creates the illusion of water, on top of which sits Ora king salmon belly with whipped tofu, roasted and confited tomato, aged lemon, and Thai basil

The design of Robin kept Tortosa up at night. He spent countless hours scouring the Internet and creating Pinterest boards to communicate his ideas.

“A lot of people are going to hate the design. It’s not for everyone, and I understand that. But the feeling of the restaurant is so important to me and I wanted to be 100 percent involved in every aspect,” he says.

The result is bold and moody — distinctly unlike the industrial, spare aesthetic common to San Francisco. There’s a showy coral- and black-tile backdrop for the alder wood bar, custom-painted walls with thick rose gold resin drips flowing down, and quirky commissioned artwork. Then there’s the bathroom, which is as bright and colorful as the main room is dark, with splashy, saturated walls and a penny tile floor that Tortosa and his parents spent hours making together.

Tortosa sourced from almost exclusively California artisans using local goods for all design elements. Bay Area decorative artist Caroline Lizarraga has worked on restaurants like Nightbird, The Riddler, Black Cat, and more. This project especially excited her.

“It was quite contagious to get excited with Adam about Robin. A lot of restaurants are worried about making it, so they don’t want to be risk-takers,” Lizarraga says. “But Adam was just wanting to go for it. Being an artist, that’s a very appealing scenario. He also trusted my work and wanted me to express myself, which upped my creative game quite a bit. I think it will be a breath of fresh air for San Francisco.”

Lizarraga hand-poured the rose gold resin that drips down the main room walls, a technique she has never used with this medium before. Hanging on those walls will be Ferris Plock’s character-based custom artwork, which combines contemporary pop culture with the aesthetic of Japanese ukiyo-e. In one, a deranged Donald Duck head sits on a kabuki-style body. All that custom work didn’t come cheap, totaling $43,250, of which the top ticket item was the aforementioned $14,500 slate bar for the sushi chefs to work on.

Then there are the smallwares like plates, glasses, and cutlery. One wooden spoon cost $4. Each custom Japanese-made hinoki cypress chopstick was $5. A wine glass, imported from Gabriel Glas, was $35. A single small bowl, one of 412 custom ceramic pieces from Jered’s Pottery in the East Bay, cost $20.

A few of Jered’s Pottery ceramic pieces, commissioned for Robin
A few of Jered’s Pottery ceramic pieces, commissioned for Robin
Patricia Chang

Jered’s is the Bay Area’s go-to fancy ceramicist whose work is also in Mister Jiu’s, Rich Table, and Michael Mina. Tortosa spent a ton of time with its owner Jered Nelson, traveling to his Richmond workshop upwards of 15 times. “I would tell him what I liked and didn’t like, and then I would go snoop around his shop and pick other glazes or designs,” Tortosa elaborates.

The two talked a lot about the functionality of some of the pieces Tortosa wanted, since Nelson had never made a chopstick rest or oshibori (wet towel) holder before. One of the most unique pieces from Nelson is a white ceramic hand (pictured above) on which Tortosa will serve some pieces of nigiri. It’s inspired by an influential experience from one of his trips to Japan where the chef served sushi directly into diners’ hands.

Amount Spent to Date: $562,207

Branding & Public Relations: $23,900

Potato chip nigiri with grilled ramp aioli and Ossetra caviar, placed next to the Robin logo
Potato chip nigiri with grilled ramp aioli and Ossetra caviar, placed next to the Robin logo
The Robin logo alongside seared canary rockfish, its liver, grapefruit ponzu, and chives
The Robin logo alongside seared canary rockfish, its liver, grapefruit ponzu, and chives

In a saturated market like San Francisco, restaurants need more than just great food in a nice room — they benefit from a cohesive look to tie the web presence together with the physical space. Graphic designer Jordan Ma created Robin’s brand, drew the logo Tortosa became so attached to, built the website, designed the menus and business cards, and created the custom soap labels. Ma says he was inspired by pairing Japanese minimalism and elegance with a younger, more modern look.

Tortosa wanted a lot of thoughtful, unique details throughout Robin, so he focused on partnerships with local artisans. Plans to make an exclusive beer with a local brewery fell through because his order size was too small to make it worth it for the brewer. But Tortosa managed to find plenty of Bay Area makers in his quest. See the organic hand soap he commissioned from local skin care company Botnia for $500, and the 30 black aprons with rose gold rivets and straps designed by Oakland-based Guro Designs for $2,200.

Conveying all this information to the media and public is Magnum PR, the public relations firm Tortosa hired, “based on the vibes” he got from owner Jen Pelka. Magnum also represents major city restaurants such as Mister Jiu’s, The Riddler, Souvla, and Rich Table. For Robin’s pre-opening PR, Tortosa paid $12,000. Magnum has already started sending out press releases and invitations to media (including Eater) and influencer dinners, which will undoubtedly sway the way Robin is portrayed to the public in the weeks to come.

Amount Spent to Date: $586,107

Labor & Fees: $38,988

There are many mundane elements of opening a restaurant, like legal and accounting fees, recruitment services, taxes, and lots and lots of insurance. All those fees racked up $16,988.

Labor is the other huge expense, though more so once the restaurant opens. In the past few weeks, Tortosa has brought on consulting manager Michael Huffman (Aatxe) and beverage director Anna Nguyen (Liholiho Yacht Club). Salaries paid to date tally up to $22,000. That number includes Tortosa’s salary, which he started collecting in mid-May.

Tortosa outside Robin
Tortosa outside Robin

Once Robin opens, Tortosa will provide health insurance for any employees who work over 30 hours a week and opt in. Through human resources app Gusto — which also handles all of his payroll and onboarding — Tortosa chose the Kaiser Permanente Platinum Plan, in which he will cover 75 percent of the fees, working out to $350 per person per month.

“It signifies that we care about the people who work here,” he says as to why he wanted to provide this benefit. But it’s also more personal than that for him, harkening back to his six-month, post-1760 depression.

“Eventually I got prescribed Wellbutrin. It definitely helped. A lot, a lot, a lot,” he says. “I’m sure some of my co-workers have been depressed at some point, but it’s not something that you talk about. Unfortunately that’s not what young males or people in general do in the kitchen.”

Chefs are slowly coming forward to discuss mental illness in the restaurant industry, and Tortosa wants to continue that momentum. Providing health insurance for his employees is one way to do just that.

Amount Spent to Date: $625,095

Opening Food & Alcohol: $26,000

A fried nori chip topped with A5 beef tartare, Fort Bragg uni, pickled shallots, micro wasabi, Asian pear, and togarashi
Sesame noodles with black truffles, Japanese chimichurri, and black and white sesame seeds
Canary rockfish being seared on a Japanese binchotan. Robin will do this in front of guests.
Santa Barbara uni with a shiro dashi-emulsified egg yolk, lemon, and soy

Clockwise: A fried nori chip topped with A5 beef tartare, Fort Bragg uni, pickled shallots, micro wasabi, Asian pear, and togarashi
Sesame noodles with black truffles, Japanese chimichurri, and black and white sesame seeds
Santa Barbara uni with a shiro dashi-emulsified egg yolk, lemon, and soy
Canary rockfish being seared on a Japanese binchotan. Robin will do this in front of guests.

“I’m not really worried about the food being good,” Tortosa says in his typical effusive way, which could easily be mistaken for hubris. But a wave of omakase restaurants has flooded San Francisco within the last year, and with each opening, Tortosa gets more and more nervous. He hopes his food is different enough to both fit well into the existing sushi scene, yet also make Robin stand out.

“There’s already a lot of good sushi in San Francisco. Every omakase restaurant has its own unique perspective and so do I,” he says. “Growing up in California and not being Japanese, I grew up eating different food, you know? Not right, not wrong, just different.”

Tortosa’s unique perspective is to combine traditional Japanese techniques with more contemporary Californian flavors. He worked for four years under master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi in Los Angeles, before cooking at New American restaurant Ink in LA, then moving on to open 1760 in San Francisco, and eventually work behind the bar at Akiko’s.

All of that experience has informed unusual pieces of nigiri such as flounder with Meyer lemon, micro shiso, and blood orange kosho (a Japanese chili pepper paste typically made with yuzu), using local fish and produce. Tortosa will try to keep his ingredients as sustainable as possible, only serving hook-and-line caught or sustainably farmed fish. The majority of his product comes from five purveyors: three local companies, one in Baja, and one in Japan. Fish will include San Diego uni, Baja pink grouper, live scallops from Boston, Bay Area ling cod, Half Moon Bay swordfish, and more.

“The restaurant is not going to be for everyone. Some people want a place that serves 50 different types of rolls. But someone who enjoys good fish will like it here, because all we have is a ton of good fish,” Tortosa says. “It’s not like we’re bastardizing the fish and covering it with mayo. We’re just taking good fish and elevating it a little bit differently.”

To prep for the opening, including the complimentary friends and family practice dinners taking place this week, Tortosa will purchase $26,000 worth of food, sake, beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages.

Amount Spent to Date: $651,095

Contingency: $50,000

Needless to say, food is not solely what diners pay for when they go out to eat. Rather, it’s all of the above — not to mention the costs that kick in once a restaurant opens, such as increased labor, higher insurance fees, reservation services, flowers, cleaning, taxes, and so much more. This is often why the price of an avocado toast or an entire omakase can feel cringeworthy.

Tortosa has about $50,000 set aside to get him through the first few months, should he need a windfall for any reason. To recoup all of these costs, his financial projections have Robin hopefully making $1.8 million in total sales in the first year. That accounts for losing money the first month and then slowly increasing profits month by month. If the projections hold true, there will be a seven percent profit — just $135,000 — in the first year, all of which will go straight to investors.

Amount Spent to Date: $701,095

Final total: $701,095

$701,095 and an unquantifiable amount of time and stress later, Robin is ready.

“I’m nervous about everything that could ever go wrong. Like what if no one comes to the restaurant,” Tortosa says. “So many great restaurants fail for so many reasons. It’s so close [to opening] and there’s still a lot of shit to get done.”

He’s spending his final days before opening curing fish, unpacking ceramics, training staff, and trying to meditate as much as possible.

“I understand it’s very unhealthy, but I base my self-worth off the success of my job. When you work in restaurants, you dedicate so much time and effort to something that doesn’t pay you that well, that doesn’t have good hours. There are not that many redeeming qualities on that end. So success is what matters to me,” Tortosa says. “I hope it works. More than hope — I’m not leaving it up to hope. It’s everything to me that it works.”

Stefanie Tuder is Eater SF’s former senior editor. She now lives in New York City and writes for Eater NY.
Patricia Chang is a photographer in San Francisco.
Albert Law is a photographer in San Francisco.
Editors: Carolyn Alburger and Ellen Fort


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