Blue Plate's Owner Looks Back on 15 Years
In a fickle local restaurant world, Blue Plate has managed an impressive feat: it's stayed in business for 15 years and counting. The homey Bernal Heights restaurant isn't going too fancy to mark its anniversary, instead celebrating with a series of winemaker dinners on May 1-3 (more information here). In this interview, Jeff Trenam, who owns Blue Plate with Cory Obenour, speaks about weathering San Francisco's tech booms and fleeting food trends as a strong neighborhood restaurant that has defied the odds.
Zagat: Blue Plate has defied all logic about the restaurant industry to be open for 15 years - what's the secret?
Jeff Trenam: I suppose it is a bit illogical to stay in the restaurant biz for 15 years, but when you enjoy your work and the people you work with, the time flies. Cory and I have a relationship that is a little yin-yang, or maybe we are both just real yang. Whatever you want to call it, we help each other keep things in perspective. Essentially, we are having a dinner party every night which is supposed to be fun and nourishing, right? Throwing pans and screaming at people doesn't sound very fun or nourishing or interesting. We try to give everyone a sense of ownership, employees and guests alike, and then have fun with them. Whether it's the group visiting from Norway that we may never see again, our regulars, our farmers, delivery guys, wine reps or anyone of the great people that work with us, I suppose the secret is we really like the people.
Have there been any hard times or slumps when you wanted to just give up and close?
We have had our share of knocks but for the most part we have been very fortunate. We have a loyal group of supporters that have made tough times much easier to bear. We have weathered all of the tech bubble bursts without even noticing much of a difference. Of course, we are a neighborhood joint and not so trendy, so that helps. We haven't been showered with riches from the bubble times and we haven't been wrung out when they burst. Steady Eddy: that is more like us. For sure there have been times when I have wondered if the city really wants full service, independent dinner houses like us to flourish. We seem to bear the brunt of new taxes, labor laws and political crusades while large companies get tax breaks and incentives to move here. But it actually doesn't matter. We are here and everyone needs a comfortable place to eat with friends.
So the tech booms really didn't affect your business one way or another?
You see, when you have been doing this as long as we have in San Francisco you know that tech booms come and they go. Money comes and it goes. Do what you love with the people you love and the money will show up when you need it.
That's good advice for anyone! One more tech-oriented question: what role does social media play?
It plays a growing role. How could it not? Personally, I want to see more posts of Cory dancing in a unicorn mask, so maybe look for more of that in the future. For us right now though, social media is a fun way to interact with guests and fans but I wouldn't say it is a big business driver. We still rely on old fashioned word-of-mouth from the people who have dined with us as our main social media.
How do you think the restaurant has evolved over time?
Plenty - we are a bit more serious and more organized, for one. We have a stronger understanding of what we do best and how to build a team to accomplish that. The fish are smaller. The fish they pull out of the ocean, I mean. They are smaller in size, more expensive and different breeds. Generally speaking, product is more expensive. What else? Guests tend to prefer many different smaller plates to larger ones and everyone is very savvy about ingredients.
What about Yelp?
Back in 2004, Yelp and peer review sites were so new and hot it seemed a bad review could make or break a place and everyone seemed super sensitive to it. These days, peer review sites have their place but their importance is in a better perspective. And the SF restaurant market is super competitive. There are so many good restaurants, bars and cafes here and the level of expertise throughout the city in the food industry is insane. Every time I go out to eat or get a drink, I learn something.
Will Blue Plate still be here in 2029?
Hell yeah. Cory and I both have kids. In 2029 my son Oscar will be 31 so maybe we will all be driving jet packs and he will be running Blue Plate with Cory's daughters. We'll see. I don't know what I would do if I walked down this street and Blue Plate was occupied by some other business. I'd probably throw rocks at it.