Local visionaries find success in an evolving marketplace.
Succulent chicken from Salt Craft in Pleasanton.
Courtesy of Eli Pitta
Given slim profit margins and endless work hours, opening a restaurant has always been an iffy proposition. But today, with labor scarce and mandated minimum-wage hikes; sky-high leases and liability insurance; an inexorable rise in meat and fish prices; and increasing competition from meal-delivery services, fast-casual eateries (à la Chipotle), and sit-down national chains promoting “fresh, local, and sustainable” ingredients, the independent restaurant has been thrown into survival mode.
Putting liquor front and center is the most obvious solution. (One of Oakland’s newest restaurants, for instance, is named Copper Spoon Cocktails and Kitchen.) With low or no labor costs and a high profit margin, spirits are fueling the bottom line. But the bar-driven business model is in danger of oversaturation; diners can only consume so many delicious drafts, craft cocktails, and winning wines on a weeknight.
To get a glimpse of the future, Diablo looks at three innovative restaurants paving the way for the East Bay dining scene.
SKIP THE TIP
With Main Street commercial leases out of sight, Pleasanton resident Matt Greco rented a 1,200-square-foot house on a side street and stripped it bare. A former chef at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Greco turned the home’s entire interior—basement included—into prep spaces, a kitchen, and a bakery display area, utilizing every square foot as fully as possible to maximize efficiency and minimize long-term costs.
When Salt Craft opens this month, customers will order at the inside counter or from the outside host before selecting an alfresco table. In developing his concept, Greco says he focused solely on “value perception and taste of food.” A lamb pastrami or a porchetta and provolone sandwich costs $7 (for a half) or $13 (for a whole); the house-made pastas and world-class dinner entrées go for $18 and $27; and tips aren’t allowed, meaning—in essence—every meal is 15 to 20 percent off.
By buying state-of-the-art equipment, doing all his own butchering, baking his own bread, offering only local beers and wines on tap, and designing each dish to minimize labor, Greco has created a venture that aims to meet the demands of a cost-conscious, on-the-go, health-minded, and sophisticated clientele. 377 Saint Mary St., Pleasanton, saltcraftpleasanton.com.
Dosa by DOSA
At Uptown Oakland’s Hive—a mixed retail, residential, and restaurant hub—Dosa by DOSA’s glass facade lures millennials into a hangar-sized hangout with a photomural of a Delhi marketplace and a diminutive bar that doubles as an ordering counter for quickly concocted, high-quality tikka masala rice bowls, gingery street wraps, and dosas—made-to-order rice crepes—stuffed with butter chicken or coconut-curry lamb (served in a custom box for patrons who are on the run).
Owners Anjan and Emily Mitra have overseen two full-service, dinner-only Dosa restaurants in San Francisco for a decade. But Dosa by DOSA—which opened in December—is another animal entirely. It’s a seat-yourself, all-day affair (even serving breakfast) as amenable to laptop-slinging singles as it is to a group of friends noshing on whimsical snacks while watching a Warriors game.
By limiting the scope of service, focusing on volume, allowing customers to create their own dining experience (grab a seat at the bar if you want to be waited on), and relying on a commissary kitchen for the basics, the Mitras have found a formidable formula. The quality blows away the standard Indian buffet; the experience is fast but flexible (there’s a lounge area and outdoor seating); and prices are far below what most full-service restaurants charge. 2301 Broadway, Oakland, dosabydosa.com.
Over the last two decades, Tony Gulisano has created a mini chain of casual Chow restaurants scattered across San Francisco, Danville, and Lafayette. But with Chow Oakland’s recent debut, he’s realized a dream he mapped out on a sheet and a half of paper in 1994.
The Lafayette outpost, which opened about eight years after the S.F. original, was the first location to move toward that vision by incorporating a chef-driven market—selling fish, produce, stocks, and sauces—into Chow’s sustainable-food concept. Essentially, it served as a trial run for Gulisano’s master plan. When the Danville Chow opened in 2008, he added a mini bakery. Now, with the launch of Chow Oakland, which is four to five times larger than the Lafayette space, Gulisano has seen his dream come to fruition—just in time to meet the changing challenges of the restaurant industry.
The new market is located upstairs from the restaurant, and visitors will find a small café and coffee shop downstairs. The whole, high-energy experience is wrapped around a production kitchen featuring a wood-fire grill and exhibition bakery.
Gulisano says the ultimate magic of Chow Oakland lies in its multiple venues, which allow for “zero waste.” With chefs in charge of each space, ingredients from one area can be put to use in others. This synergy creates a hotbed for food and drink while solving the problem of rising restaurant costs.
Chow seems to have struck upon a viable blueprint for the new food economy. As Gulisano puts it: “My colleagues will look at our work in Oakland and see a viable path for their passion and careers.” 3770 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, chowfoodbar.com.