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riving across the Bay Bridge one bright Friday morning with Michael Tusk, chef-owner of Quince restaurant, I find myself looking at the dashboard of his beat-up car, ablaze with warning lights, and thinking how unfortunate it would be if we were to break down right here, right now. For one thing, it’s starting to rain. Also, we’ve got a car packed with produce we just picked out at Monterey Market—cases of kishu mandarins, romanesco broccoli, kumquats, oro blanco grapefruits—and, in the backseat, two whole 40-pound lambs, together worth about $400, which we retrieved from Chez Panisse. Loosely wrapped in plastic sheeting, the lambs look like extras from an episode of The Sopranos. A breakdown would be, in California parlance, a real bummer. This round-trip isn’t unusual for Tusk: In an ordinary week, he goes to the farmers market—whether in Berkeley, Marin or San Francisco—two or three times. (The lambs hail from Cattail Creek Farm in Oregon and are delivered locally only to Chez Panisse; as a favor to Tusk, the Chez chefs let him piggyback his order onto theirs.) Whereas other chefs are content to phone in orders to their suppliers, Tusk insists on hand-selecting most of the raw material he uses. He’d admit it’s not the cheapest or the easiest way to run a kitchen, since every minute at the market is a minute he’s not in the kitchen, overseeing the

longstanding employment tax (a 1.5 percent levy on payroll), small businesses are feeling the squeeze. Michael Dellar, cofounder and president of Lark Creek Restaurant Group, is candid about his displeasure. “People in city government are killing the goose that lays the golden egg,,” he says. “[Dining in] this city has been attractive because historically we’ve offered great value.” But restaurants’ ability to continue to do so is in jeopardy. As costs rise, so too does the average price a diner is going to pay for a plate of food. San Franciscans are faced with something of a conundrum. We champion the neighborhood restaurant, love the local organic farm and want every worker to have health care. But diners—especially in the midst of a recession—also bristle at the rising cost of the San Francisco entrée, perhaps not realizing the enormous effort that goes into producing food at some of the city’s top restaurants, and perhaps also secretly believing that along the journey from farm to table, someone’s getting rich off that $40 entrée. Indeed, the $40 entrée is becoming the new norm. There’s the astonishing $45 veal porterhouse at Epic Roasthouse, for example, and the ceiling-breaking $46 rack of lamb at Boulevard. San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer noted the upward trend in his “Between Meals” blog in late January: “In the next few months, we’re going to continue to see

The Check Republic WITH SF’S RESTAURANTS BEING FORCED TO UP THEIR PRICES, DINERS ARE BEING ASKED TO PUT THEIR MONEY WHERE THEIR IDEALS ARE. IN PURSUIT OF THE REAL BOTTOM LINE, QUINCE CHEF MICHAEL TUSK TAKES US ON A JOURNEY FROM FARMERS MARKET TO FINAL BILL. BY JESSICA BATTILANA PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEX FARNUM day-to-day operations and acting as “the idea guy,” as kitchen manager Morgan Maki calls him. But in the ultra-competitive world of San Francisco restaurants, Tusk’s rigorous attention to ingredients has become Quince’s calling card. Quince turned four years old last December, an anniversary that puts this 42-seat restaurant in the minority: National studies suggest more than half of the restaurants that open each year never see their third birthday. And here in San Francisco, it’s become more expensive than ever to operate a restaurant. With the recent launch of the city’s universal health-care system (a groundbreaking mandate that requires all businesses with more than 20 employees to contribute between $1.17 and $1.76 per hour, per employee, to the city of San Francisco to cover the uninsured—regardless of whether they already offer health benefits), in addition to a high minimum wage (currently set at $9.36 an hour, without allowing, as NYC and L.A. do, tips to be considered as part of a worker’s hourly wage) and the

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an increase in menu prices, whether the prices are broken out as surcharges or not.” We are, in essence, at a tipping point: Can we afford to put our money where our mouths (and ideals) are? The economic reality of rising costs leaves little in the way of options for restaurateurs: Prices must go up in order to keep the business afloat. Bill Briwa, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, teaches menu development to students as part of the Associate Degree curriculum. He describes the relationship between diners and restaurants as “a simple equation: Food (quality and portion size) plus atmosphere and service divided by cost, wait and service equals perceived value. If some part of that equation falls apart, then the perception of value falls apart with it.” For the patrons of Quince, their sense of perceived value is affected by the restaurant’s Pac Heights location, its wellappointed dining room and its formal service. The attention lavished on diners here is exceptional, befitting a restaurant that

7x7.COM APRIL 2008

WHITE-ASPARAGUS “TAGLIATELLE” WITH LOBSTER AND FAVA BEANS ° One pound fava beans in pod ($2/pound) yields a scant cup of shelled beans ° A one-pound lobster ($15/ pound) yields just four ounces of meat

WHITE-ASPARAGUS SFORMATO ° Bellwether Farms Crescenza cheese: $8.75/pound ° Labor: four hours ° Number of dirty dishes: 12


° The true cost of one pound shelled lobster meat: $60



° County Line Harvest Farm eggs: $6/dozen

° 10 pounds asparagus yields five pounds of edible stalk

° White asparagus: $11/pound ° Shipping: $60 for 10 pounds

° 35 percent of poached egg yolks break before reaching the deep fryer


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has one Michelin star. Service is choreographed so that dishes are presented to diners at the exact same moment; ask servers the provenance of the watercress on the plate and they’ll recite not just the farm’s name, but its location and acreage. Still, some customers don’t seem to feel the prices are justified. Tusk recounts a recent evening spent catering to a group dining at the chef’s table, an intimate eight-person spot set in the center of the kitchen. The group had the seven-course tasting menu, a dedicated server and many special touches. But when the chef ran into one of the customers some days later, her first comment was, “I haven’t spent that much on dinner in a long time!” Eric Rubin, managing partner at Tres Agaves, says people respond to menu prices in a unique way. “They see an $18 entrée and say, ‘I could make that at home for $5.’ But you’d never say that about a new car or a new sweater. Everyone thinks they’re an expert on food and beverage because they cook at home.” Tusk knows other restaurants may offer similar-seeming dishes at lower prices. “Yes,” he admits, “there is that question of value. [People] ask me, ‘How can that restaurant charge $8.95 for spaghetti with red sauce when you’re charging $19?’ But do they know that we use a single varietal wheat pasta from Italy that I get trucked here from Brooklyn? Do they know we use handpicked capers and tomato paste from Sicily?” San Franciscans have come to terms with plenty of other expenses that are part of daily life in this city—from astronomical real estate and gasoline to an 8.5 percent sales tax and pricey organic produce. Yet, judging from diners I’ve spoken with (and countless others who’ve been airing their disapproval online), the arrival of the $40 entrée feels less like a restaurant’s practical response to a real business problem and more like an affront. “Diners expect more from a $40 entrée—they want the whole experience,” says SF restaurant consultant Andrew Freeman. “Restaurants should know that if they’re charging $40, every detail will be examined, since not everyone

MILLION-DOLLAR BABY LABOR: $699,660 An 80-seat restaurant will employ about 40 full- and parttime employees, for an average weekly payroll of $11,500. Benefits add another 17 percent of payroll—and that’s without figuring in the city payroll tax or the universal health-care plan.

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is aware of the driving forces behind those price increases.” Even I will admit that, had you asked me two months ago what I thought of Quince, I would have been quick to praise the food—and to warn you it was expensive. The burden we place on restaurants to provide value is higher than in almost every other sector—here, pleasure is quantifiable, but also highly subjective. Because restaurants exist in part to cocoon us from the rigors of daily life—to whisk us away from concerns about bad jobs, rocky relationships and recessions—the arrival of a bill at the end, even though we know it’s coming, can at times feel a bit jarring. If a meal is successful in transporting us, then a high tariff at the end seems easier to bear. If not, we’re left wondering whether the meal was worth it. In response to the perception that by raising prices he’s increased his take, Tusk says, “I feel like calling people and reminding them that we’re in the restaurant business. Maybe they should come in and spend a week working here and see how hard it is, how much effort we put in. Then you’d understand why an entrée costs what it does.” Although I can’t spend a full week working at Quince, I arrive at the restaurant’s kitchen early one Wednesday morning to see firsthand what goes into producing a dish of its food. Tusk, an easygoing 40-something with a ready smile, is on his way back from the market, and I kill an hour trailing Maki while I await his return. In one corner, a cook turns out pencil-thin breadsticks and petite rolls—he’ll do this all morning in order to prepare enough for dinner service. He’s joined by the pasta maker, who will log a full eight-hour shift making tortellini and agnolotti. When he leaves, a second pasta guy takes over: In total, some 16 man-hours a day are spent making fresh pasta. The menu changes daily, meaning things are perpetually in a state of flux. When Tusk arrives, he shows me a cheat sheet he’s produced for his cooks, who have begun to take over some of the ordering. It’s two pages, organized by day of the week and written in chef shorthand: “DG rabbits,” for example, refers to rabbits from Devil’s Gulch Ranch.

Two local experts, Steve Zimmerman, president of Restaurant Realty Company, and Carol Gilbert of CGI Realty, gave us a rundown of average yearly costs for a hypothetical 80-seat, 2,800-square-foot restaurant.



Want to keep the lights burning, the walk-in refrigerator cold and the trash and compost picked up? It’ll cost you around $3,800 a month, plus another $800 monthly for water.

What about those endless fees? You know, the annual healthinspection fee ($500), restaurant license ($951), assemblypermit fee ($480), candle tax ($200), propane tax ($146) and entertainment tax ($320).

RENT: $267,120 (including 32.5 percent NNN) Restaurant rent varies widely, of course, depending on location and other factors. In SF, it tops out at about $10 per square foot per month; we’ve based our estimate on an average rent of $6 per square foot. A quarter of all leases require the tenant to pay NNN (net-net-net) expenses, which include real-estate taxes, property insurance and—if the business is in an office building or shopping center—common area maintenance (CAM) charges too. NNN expenses can add anywhere from 25 to 40 percent to the base rent.

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Rather than ordering from a national distributor such as Sysco, which would deliver everything from mayonnaise to onions to T-bone steaks, Quince uses a dizzyingly complicated network of suppliers. “OK, it’s Wednesday, so we’ll pick up the pigs at Chez Panisse. The wild mushrooms should be coming in; I’ll go to the market for eggs; we’ve got half a calf from Sonoma on its way. The fish is coming in from Maine—stone crabs, but they didn’t have any sea urchin—and I’ll pick up some of those Guru Ram Das blood oranges at the market.” It would be easier (and probably less

a side dish of jumbo green asparagus, steamed and dressed with hollandaise, goes for $10.75 at Morton’s steak house, the Tusk creation seems more than worth his estimated asking price (were it offered à la carte and not, as it is, as part of a tasting menu) of $16. “I’m putting white asparagus on the menu because it’s exciting. If I don’t provide special things, things that other restaurants don’t have, then I’m in trouble.” Bill Briwa, who owned a cafe up in St. Helena in the late ’80s, sums up the trouble local restaurants are facing. “Many struggle to keep their doors

SPEND A WEEK WORKING HERE AND SEE HOW HARD IT IS. Then you’d understand why an entrée costs what it does. expensive) to order everything from a single source, but doing so would be antithetical to the guiding philosophy behind the restaurant. “I don’t think I’m better than anyone else,” Tusk says. “I just wouldn’t want to do this if I had to cut corners.” The white asparagus that is debuting on tonight’s menu, for example, Tusk picked up earlier in the day, at the Greyhound station on Fremont Street. It comes from Fairview Gardens in Goleta: Founded in 1895, the 12acre plot west of Santa Barbara is one of the country’s oldest organic farms, and one of a few in California that grow white asparagus; it’s shipped to San Francisco in the luggage compartment of a bus. That asparagus costs Tusk $11 a pound wholesale—and that’s before shipping, which runs another $65 for 10 pounds. It’s in the chef’s best interest to make the most of the product, so his plans for the spears are grand: He’s creating four distinct tastes, which he’ll plate together. It’ll be, in his own words, “a blowout.” He’s thinking he’ll do a sformato (blanched, puréed white asparagus, béchamel and local Crescenza cheese); a soup served in a tiny shot glass; asparagus “tagliatelle” (paired with Maine lobster and fava beans from Freewheelin’ Farm in Santa Cruz); and a warm composition of tender peeled stalks (topped with the yolk from a poached farm egg that has been breaded, fried and drizzled with brown butter). Tusk figures his cooks will spend some four hours working on the various components. To the labor and food cost, add the time he spends running around picking up ingredients, as well as all of his overhead costs: the lot FOR A BEHIND-THE-SCENES across the street, which he rents for the VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH valet parking, for example, or the air TUSK, VISIT 7x7.COM AND conditioning he installed last year, or the CLICK ON “RESTAURANTS.” antique tableware. When you consider that APRIL 2008 7x7.COM

open,” he says. “Rents are high, minimum wage is high and now there’s the health-insurance thing to contend with. Restaurants are faced with this ugly dynamic: They’ve got to raise their prices, but they’re loath to do so for fear it’ll impact their business.” Some restaurateurs, in the interest of transparency, have decided to explain the increases to their customers—Delfina, Luna Park and Delessio’s have all instituted surcharges, from a $1.25 coperto at Delfina to a 5 percent tariff on all receipts at Delessio’s—hoping that informing diners of the reason for these additional charges will help assuage the effects of increases. Other restaurateurs, such as Lark Creek Restaurant Group’s Dellar, admit they’ll be raising prices “as modestly as possible to get by” but don’t plan to go the surcharge route. “We shouldn’t air our dirty laundry to our customers or burden them with our business decisions,” Dellar says. Tusk says he understands the impulse to slap a surcharge on the menu, but you won’t see one at Quince anytime soon. Rather, he’s hoping his loyal customer base, many of whom dine there weekly, understand the lengths he goes to in order to make a meal memorable, and will continue to patronize his restaurant even as prices increase. There’s no doubt dining in San Francisco can be an expensive proposition, and in a tough economy, the prices we pay for things—and how often we can afford to enjoy them—are bound to be affected. Yet our standards show no signs of lowering—if anything, the demand for special, locally sourced ingredients and flawless service has increased in the past decade, as diners in San Francisco become ever more savvy. But it’s time we realize the things we hold dear have real costs—for the farmers, for the restaurateurs and for us, the dining public—and decide, once and for all, whether we’re willing to pay them. Because, after all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. x 7X 7SF 85

7X7 : The Check Republic / April 2009  

7X7 Magazine Jessica Battilana The Check Republic: A profile of Quince chef Michael Tusk April 2009

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