The San Diego Restaurant Industry

Posted on August 16, 2016

 San Diego Industry

Prior to working in the San Diego Restaurant Industry I had worked in San Francisco’s restaurant industry. It was referred to as “THE INDUSTRY”.  I did not understand what people meant by the industry.  I always associated the word industry with factories, the industrial revolution and corporations.  I’d hear bartenders and servers chatting at a house party with other young professionals saying  “I work in the industry”.  The teacher, lawyer or dot comer would nod and reply, “right on.” Apparently they knew what they meant by “The Industry” and it seemed to carry some clout.  The longer I lived and worked there it made more sense.  I worked in an industry, the service and hospitality industry. Merriam Webster defines industry as:

1) the process of making products by using machinery and factories. (I guess my initial understanding was correct.)

2) a group of businesses that provide a particular product or service. (check!)

3) the habit of working hard and steadily. (absolutely.)

San Francisco’s factories are the restaurants and bars.  Look at the Portero district, at one time home to many factories today a thriving restaurant district.  As the outer neighborhoods became more gentrified, warehouses turned into condos, homes became bars, and gas stations transformed into restaurants. A new industry emerged.

The service/restaurant industry could not proper without restaurants coming together.  The San Francisco industry was and is a tightly knit community.  There are people jumping from one job to another in search of the perfect gig.  The industry worker in SF is a professional.  They may work days at one restaurant and nights at another.  In order to get into a good establishment you have to prove yourself.  You have to know your shit. It is not about  how you look, but what your resume says.   That restaurant industry has high expectations.  To meet those expectations, one has to work hard, the third meaning of Industry.  People in the SF service industry not only hard work because the job is demanding, but because they are dedicated to their work.  Without dedication there is no chance of working in a good establishment.  There is always someone better to take the better shifts.  Competition has created a vibrant industry.

Since returning to San Diego I have seen an industry begin boom.  Have you noticed Little Italy, East Village, North Park and South Park?  All these areas have become major restaurant districts.  We have restaurants opening in Bonita, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach areas which at one time had nothing but taco shops and corporate shopping mall restaurants.  There exists an “industry” in San Diego.  However, we still have a ways to go.

up sell the experience

The Experience Assembly Line

Industry produces a product which can be sold. In the restaurant we produce food and drinks, but most importantly an experience.  I challenge all restaurants and bars to think about producing an experience.  The food and drink is important, but service and the soul of the space is equally as important if not more important in creating an experience. What are you doing differently to create a memorable experience?  Dining has to be more than just eating and drinking.  As minimum wages increase and increase in menu prices off set those costs, our service needs to compensate.  We need to create an experience.

How do we do that?  It comes from the employee.  The employee is the face of the business.  But who are our employees and what standards are expected of them? In San Francisco there is competition, in order to get in to the best places you have to prove your self.  The labor force is full of professionals.  We are beginning to get more professionals in San Diego but we still do not have a large enough labor pool.  It is a college town, not to say college students don’t make good employees, but the majority have to much going on and work is a way to get by.  Professional employees treat it like a profession and this means they put time and effort into their work.  This means taking outside time to further their education and sharpen their craft.

In order for this industry to thrive, we need to hold our employees more accountable. We need to set expectations.  They need to know that the industry will only survive if we can sell what we produce. Like in all economic theories, production needs to equal the demand.  We know there is a demand for food and drink, or else places would not be popping up.  But for a long term success we have to increase our production of experiences.  Our employees need to produce the experiences and sell them.  Many do not understand this, and as managers and restaurant owners, we need to lay this out for them so they understand. But how do we select employees who are capable of producing?

come together

Come Together, Right Now…

The reason the industry in SF succeeds, is because as I said in the beginning it is a tightly knit community. This means everyone knows everyone.  They realized quickly that more restaurants did not mean more competition it meant more people will go out to eat.  In SD we are still a bit closed off.  We hear of a new restaurant opening and restaurant owners get the chills, “I hope it is not near me.”

I do not understand this way of thinking.  Look at the areas we mentioned, Little Italy, North Park and South Park, they have become thriving districts and most the restaurants in those areas succeed.  That is as long as they produce an experience. Those that are scared, shame on you. The reason you don’t want more restaurants is because you know you are inferior and cannot compete.  More competition puts everyone one  their toes and challenges them to do their best.  Yes, they now have to work for it.

But we do not need to do it alone.  Work together. Go out and visit other restaurants. Talk with other servers and bartenders. Learn what they do best. Take the good, take the bad and make your decision on how you can improve your business.  I get so frustrated when I see below average servers and managers working at other properties. When I see people that worked with me at some point and then run into them at another establishment I cringe.  Why couldn’t they call for a reference.  We should be a close knit community and use each other for success. So if you decide to hire someone that is going to represent your brand and you do not check a reference then shame on you. You obviously do not want to thrive in the industry of hard work. If it is too difficult to pick up the phone and call for a reference then you obviously  are not invest in training and could careless about your brand.

hard work

Hard Work is Pride

Hard work can be construed as a negative. Nobody wants to work hard.  The definition of industry is the habit of working hard.  However, hard work does not mean laborous, back breaking work.  It means taking pride and putting time into what you do.  Hard work is equivalent to time, thought and passion we invest in our jobs.  In the “Industry” in SF, pride and passion were key.  People were proud of their position as a bartender, server or manager.  They invest time and energy in what they do with the intention of always looking to improve. They strive to be creative and push the boundaries.

I see this in San Diego among the craft beer and craft cocktail community.  Bartenders work hard to push the boundaries of cocktails.  They take their work home, practice and perfect their craft. Breweries work around the clock looking for the next beer flavor and improving their core beers.  There are restaurants that trying to push the dining experience.  However, as a whole I see too much complacency.  Too many restaurants open with the same formula. Managers, servers, bartenders come and go and very few retain long term employees. There is a lack of pride.

In order for a successful industry to thrive the workers need to have pride in what he or she does.  I see so many passersby in this industry and it is detrimental to the demise of our industry.  Few of these transient workers take pride in what they do. Without pride, how do we expect them to give the guest a special experience.  They are there to collect a tip, pay check and go home.  All the other steps of service during their 6 hours of work, are just steps, no thought or energy is invested.

And this comes from the top.  I firmly believe in a one of the principles of Marxism in that the employees should choose their managers.  For example, the server knows where the mice en place should best be located, the bartender knows where the well should be built.  They work those stations on a regular basis. They should hire the manger and select a manager that will help them succeed in performing those steps of service with most efficiency. The managers goal is for effective and efficient service.  The employ hires a manager which will meet this goal, a manager that motivates, teaches and is clearly there so that the employee and guest are rewarded. This means that the managers need to take pride in what they do. But how many actually do?  How many think about how to improve, educate and rise the level of their employees. How many are there because it is a job that has some sort of prestige, but really are not invested in the the long term success of the business. If a manger does not take pride in what they do, then neither will their employees. A strong staff comes from strong leadership. Leadership is not ruling and enforcing, leadership is inspiring, setting high expectations and helping people meet those expectations.  I hate when I see managers that have high expectations but do not invest the time and energy that is needed to help the staff accomplish meeting them. Rather, they watch and wait for them to fail so that they can use their power to chastise and demean.

Pride means working hard, setting high expectations and inspiring those around us.  We need to step it up in order to create a a strong industry in San Diego.  We have to take pride in what we do.  This translates to the guest as a memorable experience.  We have to get away from doing what we do because it is what we do. We need to go further and push the boundaries of our industry.

We are so close.  We need to work together as restaurants, bars and pubs and build a strong unity in order to create a thriving industry.  My challenge to you is to support other local business. Talk to them. Remove negative finger pointing and insecurity and make competition internal and not external. Reach out to others, ask questions, share recipes and ideas. Take pride in your job and inspire those around you to be their best.  Then and only then will we ever have a thriving in San Diego Restaurant Industry. I look froward to it.

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