Fitting The Square into a Round Hole
Lauren Ladoceour - July/August 2014
With the addition of a reclaimed restaurant/bar in North Beach and a large South Bay farm to the Sons & Daughters’ family, the San Francisco chef/restaurateurs team of Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara come to grips with an expanding business that demands a 180 in how they manage things. Lauren Ladoceour traces the arc of their learning curve.
A fickle health inspector, an overwhelming payroll, and a mountain lion are all on a not-so-short list of problems confronting the chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara at the moment. But today, they’re on their Dark Hill Farm in Los Gatos, California, which sits right between Cynthia Sandberg’s Love Apple Farms and David Kinch’s Manresa. Moriarty stands off the back of the four-wheeler, driven by McNamara, talking about how much he admires Kinch’s food philosophy and his restaurant’s symbiotic relationship with Love Apple, and how he and McNamara want to bring some of that here to this former horse ranch they’ve turned into a working farm in just four months. Neither of them have much agricultural experience, so they depend a lot on area farmers and ranchers for help, as well as two full-time gardeners on staff. “I’m still learning what an acre looks like,” says Moriarty, who, along with McNamara, co-owns San Francisco’s Sons & Daughters, Sweet Woodruff, and, most recently, The Square.
In 2005, Moriarty, a high school dropout, and McNamara, who holds a business degree, met at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. A friendship formed over a pony keg of home brew in Moriarty’s Lower Haight apartment before McNamara quit the CCA to work in kitchens in Aspen, Colorado, taking off for the low season to stage throughout Europe, including France’s L’Arnsbourg, where he wasn’t allowed to pick up a knife until he’d spent a full week simply observing the Michelin three-star kitchen in motion. He also worked his way through the New York City scene, becoming obsessed with fine dining at destinations like Eleven Madison Park. “I was a total Michelin whore,” he acknowledges.
When McNamara returned to San Francisco, Moriarty was ready to move on from the line cook jobs he had been pulling in casual restaurants there and across the bay in Oakland. It was 2010, and both, then in their mid-20s, embraced the Millennial generation’s ambition and impatience for the slog to the top, instead making the leap from line cooks to owners with Sons & Daughters, a 28-seater with a modernist-influenced tasting menu in Nob Hill and a one acre garden in the back of McNamara’s mother’s yard in the suburbs that furnished much of the restaurant’s herbs, lettuces, carrots, and more.
Standing more than six feet tall with coiffed salt-and-peppered hair, black-rimmed glasses, and tatted-up fingers and arms next to McNamara’s stained button-up shirt, shaggy red beard, and newsboy cap, Moriarty and McNamara make the ultimate hipster odd couple. Cooking side-by-side in the center open kitchen, McNamara at the salad station would push for modernist dishes that shocked visually, while Moriarty argued for simpler preparations based on beautiful ingredients. The collaboration led to a Michelin star, a take-out cafe called Sweet Woodruff two years later, and then this spring’s The Square, a Cal comfort food tavern with 92 seats and a robust bar they opened in North Beach’s former landmark Washington Square Bar & Grill, bringing them from four to 60 employees in five years.
“The more you grow, the simpler you go,” says McNamara, of their evolution from gels to more natural techniques and casual offerings—roasted baby beets with vadouvan and pickled mustard seeds, for one. “This business is a result of us butting heads. Back then, I was much more precious. He was like, ‘This is the highest quality mushroom on the planet,’ and I’m like, ‘Let’s cut it into a square!’ We came to a balance, and once we got this farm going, we realized that this needs to be our focus. It gives us control over the quality of food while building our business.”
Together, their Sons & Daughters Restaurant Group is one of a growing number of mini empires, representing a broad spectrum of establishments in the Bay Area. Of course, restaurant groups are nothing new to San Francisco or elsewhere. Around the bay, there’s Charles Phan’s Slanted Door Group, with nine entities at last count, including his latest, the English-themed The Coachman. And Mina Group, which continues to expand with this summer’s opening of Pabu and The Ramen Bar, as well as Traci Des Jardins, who’s adding a grocer-Cal bistro combo to her successful lineup of sports pub (Public House), Cal-French dining room (Jardinière), and Mexican food eatery (Mijita). Younger examples include Thomas McNaughton’s Ne Timeas Restaurant Group, which operates Flour + Water, Salumeria, Central Kitchen, the event space The Upstairs (run in collaboration with the Bon Vivants above their Trick Dog bar), and the reimagining of Cafe Du Nord. See, too, Benu’s Corey Lee reaching out with a late-night bistro called Monsieur Benjamin to open later this year; Daniel Patterson, now with four establishments, with more to come; and James Shyabout in Oakland, who is putting the final touches on his next venture, The Dock, a brewery with an international menu in the Port of Oakland.
What all of these restaurateurs have in common is a high-end flagship to anchor an expanding portfolio, some going as far as using the group to leverage new outposts. A number of chefs continue to cook in the kitchen, as Shyabout does at Commis, while others have chosen to step back and concentrate their efforts on the group as a business, and, in the case of McNamara and Moriarty, simultaneously take on an additional venture like an 83 acre farm to supply the restaurants. Either way, the challenges of growth stack up quickly: construction, rising payroll, staffing, diffuse job descriptions, and more.
“The whole thing was never planned,” says the 34 year old Shyabout. “When we opened Commis [in 2009], I never set out to open four restaurants. We had these cool ideas and had to create the opportunities. For example, I needed some Thai food like my mom cooked, so I said, ‘Let’s open Hawker Fare because I need to feed this hunger for myself.’”
Eating house Box and Bells followed, and construction continues at The Dock. Today, Shyabout uses Commis as his hub to groom staff and eventually move them up to his more casual ventures and for testing recipes on his cooks when planning a new menu at, say, The Dock. In the back office, he handles the business side of things, hiring out a bookkeeper and human resources company, going through the city’s red tape and permits, motivating managers and chefs to continue innovating—all the while steering clear of a corporate kitchen culture by letting each restaurant create its own systems while holding to his high standards.
“Hawker Fare is a rice bowl shop, but our kitchen should be as confined and neat as a Michelin-star restaurant like Commis, even though we’re selling rice bowls for $10,” he says. Maintaining that quality across the board is a challenge, and so Syhabout sleeps about four hours a night, he estimates.
Looking at Syhabout’s model, Moriarty and McNamara saw that they needed to make a decision: either stay in the kitchen or hire people they could trust to take the helm of each establishment so they could form a corporation and build out a farm. “The biggest challenge is that the bigger you get, the less you can be in any one place,” says Moriarty. “James has done it and stayed in the kitchen every night, which means he’s probably never in the kitchen at Box and Bells. We’re figuring out how to maintain quality, letting other people do that for you, and going around and checking on it a lot. It’s a difficult transition. You’re so used to micromanaging everything and being in there every night and seeing if a table isn’t happy.”
So to make it work, they promoted Sons & Daughters’ chef de cuisine, Duncan Holmes—who was originally hired as a line cook following stints at San Francisco’s Saison and at Rutherford’s Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil—to executive chef of the whole group. This spring, he opened The Square’s kitchen. Alongside Moriarty and McNamara, Holmes developed the hearty California menu in less than two weeks, feeling pressed to keep to their March 1 opening. In fact, they’d planned to have more time for R&D, thanks to renovations the previous tenants (the defunct Bottle Cap) had made to Ed Moose’s “The Washbag,” the late Herb Caen’s nickname for the Washington Square Bar & Grill, only a few years before. With the recent remodel already in the bag, Moriarty and McNamara only needed to tear down a structural wall. They’d already spent six months with their contractor and McNamara’s interior designer mother, who traded in the pastel color scheme and white picket fence from the previous tenants for rich woods that suggest modern clubhouse all around. The look is in keeping with the city’s recent movement to preserve the interiors of San Francisco’s landmark bars and restaurants while updating the food and drink offerings for modern sensibilities: see Fog City restaurant; Joe’s of Westlake, to reopen sometime next year; Tosca Cafe, the first of two bar-restaurants New York City’s April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman are reopening in San Francisco’s historic neighborhoods (look for the Lusty Lady bar to return in 2015).
As a result of all their pre-planning, there weren’t any construction delays. The setbacks, instead, began halfway through the project when Moriarty called the health inspector.
“I said, ‘Hey I’m opening an existing restaurant. I’m taking over,’ expecting them to respond, like with the other two restaurants, that as long as we didn’t change anything major, we could open,” says Moriarty.
Instead, zoning approval and a hearing were required, plus an additional visit from the fire department. Once everything was checked off their list, they got into their new kitchen with Holmes to create a relaxed tavern menu of mostly shareables: Marin Miyagi oysters; fromage blanc and chive gougères; a baby kale salad (again); beef tartare with sage, miner’s lettuce, and vinegar chips; whole roasted squab. Fewer in number are the mains, such as baby back ribs, braised lamb shank, and whole rabbit with its saddle poached and legs confit.
With recipes at the ready, the final step was to develop the bar. At first, they hoped they could pull it off without a bar manager, but after a mock service, they realized they needed to make another hire. “We called our friends at Comstock Saloon and Bar Agricole asking for help,” says Moriarty. “The next day, four people showed up and told us what we needed to do.” One of those bartenders was Claire Sprouse, who eventually came on as a full-time manager and helped create The Square’s modernized mid-20th century cocktail list: White Russians with rye, coffee, milk, brown sugar, and allspice, and a Harvey Wallbanger with a hint of vanilla, for example.
In the middle of all this, McNamara was working on the group’s new farm, purchased with an investment from his parents. Now living and working 66 miles south of The Square, McNamara says his influence on the restaurants’ menus begins with the seeds, fruit trees, and livestock he brings in. He also oversees the new greenhouse, delivers sheep and pigs to raise, buys rabbits from Devil’s Gulch Ranch, keeps the mountain lion at bay with his patrolling dogs, works to expand the orchard threefold, terraces a field, builds an apiary, looks after the shiitake forest he and Moriarty put together after watching a YouTube video, and plans an edible fence of blueberry bushes.
McNamara, who prides himself on multitasking, drives up to the city for a weekly meeting, where he tends to pick apart the scratches in the wall or lament the purple ceiling his mother chose for their first restaurant. (“It’s royal plum, not purple,” quips Sons & Daughters’ maître d’.) McNamara is also more likely to say yes, fixing The Square’s sound system behind Moriarty’s back because he knows his friend would otherwise say no.
“Yeah, until Monday, when someone calls me up asking for $4,000 in checks that we can’t afford,” says the structured and focused Moriarty, who also handles all the payroll, press interviews, staffing, paperwork, and permits. “But you know what? It really does sound better in here.”
Throughout the week, Moriarty stays in San Francisco and makes the rounds to the restaurants on his white 2005 Suzuki DR 650 motorcycle before service. “If it’s nice out, you don’t see him as much,” says Sweet Woodruff chef Aaron Fetherston, the cafe’s fourth chef, who’s something of a Terry Richardson lookalike. “He’s great, but he’s tough. Maintaining the standards of a Michelin-starred restaurant in a corner cafe is hard.” Other times, Moriarty will come in for a meal for quality check.
In March, one such dinner produced quite a few notes from Moriarty to his sous chef at Sons & Daughters. The poached oysters, fourth course artichokes, and the finishing lamb shoulder? All misses for Moriarty. It was a bad texture and temperature combination for the oysters. Too much acidity and not enough fat for the artichoke. The lamb eventually got KO’d and didn’t even make it to the next night’s service. He also had some thoughts on the savory amuse bouche and desserts. “So lots of work to fix the menu, but hopefully we are our harshest critics,” says Moriarty. “I gave the meal a C overall.”
Now that their managers have managers they’re managing, McNamara and Moriarty have taken a pause and noted how quickly their world has changed—and how quickly it could change again. “You can’t start The Square and have the others go downhill. Sons & Daughters went up and down in the beginning, but in the last few years it’s found its place. We’re very conscious about not letting anything slip. It takes a lot of work and a lot of worry,” says Moriarty. “I don’t know how many more restaurants you can do. I’m personally at my limit.”
Which is why they don’t have anything else in the works, though they’re leaving it open for discussion if they can get the farm to support a fourth venture in a few years. Otherwise, they’re not interested. Both are also leaving themselves open to going back into the kitchen in the future, remembering the earlier days when their daily tasks were clear and straightforward.
However, no sooner do they tell each other how much they miss cooking and seeing each other every day than they begin planning out a barn on the farm for sit-down dinners at the edge of the field, near the babbling creek. “It’s not the world domination of restaurants where you’re putting out restaurant after restaurant,” says McNamara. “We want people to sit down and feel taken care of. This farm is the lifeline of that. It’s also how we’ll get more talented cooks and staff because they’ll come down here and have a direct link to the ingredients.” It’s part of the business plan, naturally.
Lauren Ladoceour is the author of The HUNT San Francisco and editor of Weekend Almanac (WeekendAlmanac.com).