Monday, March 06, 2006

The San Francisco Non-Chain

As we all know, San Franciscans hate chain restaurants. I don't know the demographics of the Chevy's on Van Ness, or the CPK down by Union Square, but I'm guessing it's less than 5% locals. Most people have to really hunt to find an Applebee's, Chilis, or Outback within city limits.

However, having multiple locations for a restaurant creates obvious economies of scale that are very tempting to the savvy entrepreneur. Thus the birth of the "non-chain" chain in San Francisco. Go for the all the benefits of the chain but do everything you can to keep the independent street cred.

The classic San Francisco non-chain is Pasta Pomodoro. They started on Chestnut Street and have clearly achieved some serious financial success. I met the founder, who's a very, very nice guy and is now an investor in Pesce on Polk Street and Last Supper Club in the Mission, among others I'm sure. Curious about his business, I pried for information and found out that they have thousands of employees (THOUSANDS!) and a corporate headquarters South of Market replete with more than 50 full time HR, PR, Marketing, etc people that don't touch food on a normal workday. I was amused and impressed at the same time.

Separately, I knew that this non-chain had reached full chain status about the same time I saw that they had been featured on MTV's Laguna Beach as the show's primary date spot. I have no idea whether they paid for that placement, but if so it's a great move due to the price point of Pomodoro and the demographic that the show reaches.

Here's the distinction that interests me:

Once you reach the point of having two or three successful restaurants in San Francisco you're faced with a tough choice. You can decide to thumb your nose at the critics and grow rapidly, or you can try to hang onto your street cred by deliberately stunting your own growth. Thus, for the restaurants that still stay at the small chain level, or have even grown more but not necessarily reached their potential, I wonder whether the plan is deliberate.

Here's where I think the following non-chain chains fit (Deliberately Stunted/Hasn't Made it Yet):

(And of course, I'm no more of an expert than anyone else or I would have 10 Pasta Pomodoro chains of my own)

Zao - Hasn't Made it Yet - This always sounds like a good idea, and then when you go in there, nothing on their menu ever looks like it's worth ordering. You have a picture in your mind of some sort of tasty noodle/meat bowl, and it's somehow not there. Not even close.

Pluto's - Deliberately Stunted - With outlets now on various exits from here to Tahoe in addition to the San Fran locations, I've never seen a Pluto's that wasn't crowded at lunchtime. It seems like they could open 15 more of these and all would be crowded. And due to their very-cheesy-but-somewhat-charming Universal Rules sheet they post, I get the feeling that they haven't reached their capitalistic potential on purpose.

Squat & Gobble/Crepevine/etc - Deliberately Stunted - These are the 30-some-odd crepe places in San Francisco that all go by different names, yet all have the exact same menu written on the same chalkboard in the same handwriting. Even if they aren't owned by the same person, they may as well be. Besides the fact that I'm thoroughly bored of these places, I think they have great potential for success. The overhead must be incredibly low (not even a website), the food option feels slightly more exotic than a deli sandwich, they can do every meal and they do have a strong following. Considering they've opened so many in San Francisco, it seems like they could easily branch out North, East and South.

I just feel bad for Ti Couz, which seems like the only crepe place in San Francisco that isn't a chain. But then again, it's probably owned by the same guy and I got tricked on that one too.

Fuzio - Hasn't Made it Yet - This fits the category, but isn't worth writing about. Too inconsequential, and I don't really understand what food genre they serve. Is it pasta? Asian? Lunch or dinner? What the hell is it?

Watch out for the next non-chain chain - Pacific Catch. As far as I knew, they had one location right now that's the exact same spot where Pomodoro started on Chestnut, but apparently they're now in Corte Madera as well. They have an interesting concept (fresh fish for $10) and they're trying to see if they can expand more. I see the Pomodoro arc for this one.


Anonymous said...

There is a crepe house in Sacramento now that was started by the same guy who has crepeville on polk st. A nice guy and a place I would attend for a decent breakfast option for everyone to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Any upcoming stories on Bonds' steroid use? He was eating 20 pills at once - does that qualify as SF food?