Interview With the Owners of Kokkari, Zagat 2014 Top-Rated Bay Area Restaurant

Secrets on retaining staff and customers at two of the Bay Area's most successful restaurants
December 9, 2014
by Virginia Miller

Longtime Greek destination Kokkari Estiatorio has been a beloved SF institution since 1998 when founding partners George and Judy Marcus and Dr. Kenneth and Angie Frangadakis opened the restaurant (in 1995, they opened its sister restaurant, Evvia, in Palo Alto). Both have long been high-rated in Zagat's annual surveys, but this year Kokkari has risen to our No. 1-rated slot based on surveyors' votes. We chatted over e-mail last week with managing partner Paul Kirby, who has been one of the managing partners of both restaurants since 2001, and with founding partner George Marcus. Kirby and Marcus share insightful thoughts on the reasons behind both restaurants' decades of success — and how ego can get in the way of enjoying a dining experience.

Interview With Managing Partner Paul Kirby

Though there is clearly a shortage of Greek restaurants in the Bay Area in general, this alone is not the reason for Kokkari and Evvia's long-standing success. What elements would you attribute the long years of success and dedicated regulars to? 
Consistency in food and service is certainly a factor, but consistency in staff is a pretty big — often overlooked — factor. Many of our current staff (and management) have been with us from opening day and quite a few have been employed with us more than 10 years. Seeing familiar faces in the restaurant and being recognized as a return or frequent guest is a key element to our success. To that end, I believe taking care of our staff and retaining them is as important as taking care of our guests. It is pretty clear to me, as well as the frequent diner, when staff is not happy or engaged. We are committed to keeping the restaurant fully staffed no matter how the volume of business may vary or how expensive our labor costs become. For example, we have actual people (more than one) answering the phones from 9 AM to midnight every day which is a very expensive decision, but critical to dealing with our guests' personal needs.

On treating guests as if they were in their home — and how ego gets in the way of enjoying the experience of dining:
I think many restaurants (often with investors to please) in the Bay Area — understandably — focus on costs and profit and may lose sight of how financial decisions affect service. In general, we make most business decisions based on how they will affect our guests, not on how they will affect our bottom line. As a result we do not make near as much profit as we could (I think most people would be surprised) but my partners and I are committed to a more long-term view. From the very beginning, Evvia and Kokkari were intended to be proud examples of Greek cuisine and hospitality, not a major source of income, and we have remained committed to this vision.

If I had to make a broad comment about both Kokkari and Evvia, it would be that both restaurants are easy and comfortable places to dine — once you get past the initial reservation part — which is what you want when you go out. I use the adjective "easy" because it is not something that I see personally at many restaurants. I believe that firm lines, boundaries and often ego make it "not easy" for you enjoy the experience of dining. Whether it's holding a table for someone running an hour late for a reservation or changing one of our menu items completely for a guest, I encourage our staff to always treat our guests as they would guests in their home — with gracious, and sincere attention.

How have you seen both restaurants and the diners evolve over the years? 
Obviously there have been some ups and downs economically in the last 15 years, which translate directly to the way guests approach dining out. We have seen guests order less expensive wines or choose to share entrees or a number of smaller dishes during tougher economic times, and we have seen our corporate or "expense account" business fluctuate at various times during the last 15 years. I have certainly seen our diners' expectations evolve over the years. I think that when we opened in San Francisco in the late 90's there were not a lot of fine-dining Greek restaurants in the U.S. to compare to. So opening such a beautiful and grand space with fine-dining service and great food far exceeded initial expectations. I am sure that expectations have long since caught up with our execution, so our major challenge — on a daily basis — is to find ways to exceed these currently extremely high expectations. It is important that we remain aware that our guests at Kokkari and Evvia are also frequent guests at some of the finest restaurants in the country, and even out of the country, so we need to try harder every day to impress.

What do you personally love most about Kokkari and Evvia?
What enticed me to join Kokkari was the same thing that I believe keeps our regulars coming to the restaurant: it was, and still is, a comfortable place to work despite the normal rigor and schedule of the restaurant business. I have partners that understand hospitality above all else and allow me to make daily decisions based on our initial vision. The restaurants are truly family for me and allow me and a large part of our staff to not only have family but to enjoy time with family — whether it is inside or outside of the actual restaurant.

What do you and your fellow managing partners envision for the future of both restaurants?
Obviously, we have had many opportunities to expand our concept both in the Bay Area and elsewhere. We are still considering options here and may even venture beyond Greek cuisine. We are primarily concerned with not letting our current operations suffer at all in the process, so we will continue to invest time and resources into Evvia and Kokkari. Ideally, we would like to be able to be present on a regular basis in any future venture.

Interview With Founding Partner George Marcus

What did you envision Kokkari and Evvia being to their communities when you first began planning their openings?
Kenny [Kenneth Frangadakis] and I envisioned sharing our family food with our community. We did not believe Greek food had ever been represented with traditional family recipes. We wanted to make our main focus on the customer and do everything first rate with the best produce, preparation and service, so we thought it would take three to four years to get to a profitable state. We have been extraordinarily fortunate to have wonderful managers, chefs and servers who believe that we are on a special mission to make the Hellenic cuisine exceptional, and we are thankful to our many loyal customers who return repeatedly to our restaurants. We simply kept our eye on the customer with Greek hospitality and mom’s cuisine. 

What are your thoughts about the continued popularity and success of both restaurants this many years later?
The challenge is to maintain the quality of service and food when serving thousands of people and delivering thousands of meals. Over the years, we have attracted very qualified kitchen and service staff who understand that every day is a new day and every time a new customer comes in, it is a debut. We believe we are very fortunate and have been asked numerous times to expand to other markets, like Southern California and Las Vegas, but since our goals were merely to share our family food with our community, we have never pursued it.