San Francisco Restaurants Combine Fine Dining with Counter Service

June 29, 2018

Along with serving as a hub for the tech industry, San Francisco is also home to some of the country’s best restaurants. Unfortunately, the city’s success has led to skyrocketing rent costs that are pricing out the low-income residents who staff these eating establishments. So with a high demand for fine dining but a small pool of potential employees, local restaurateurs have begun to search for ways to save on service without compromising quality.

The result is that more and more eateries are starting to look a lot like Souvla, a charming Greek spot with fine food that customers order at a counter. Souvla has all the qualities that one would expect from an upscale establishment: an extensive wine list, genuine silverware, Instagram-ready dishes. Only instead of being doted on by wait staff, customers must scout their own tables and refill their own glasses. So far this “fast-fine” business model has worked out brilliantly for Souvla, which has added two more locations while also inspiring numerous imitators. “Souvla was the beginning of this whole new onslaught of things that in every single way look like a full-service restaurant — nice décor; good wine list; tasty, healthy foods. It’s much more chef- and ingredient-driven,” said Golden Gate Restaurant Association executive director Gwyneth Borden. “But it’s ‘take a number and go to a table.’”

On one hand, places like Souvla could be revolutionizing the restaurant industry by providing fine dining experiences without a full service staff. On the other hand, though, the labor shortage that led to these innovations represents a real problem for the community. Even with a minimum wage of $15 per hour and other benefits, most working class people cannot afford to live anywhere near the city. “It’s really sad,” said Jennifer Sullivan, who moved to San Francisco from Chicago twenty years ago. She rented a studio apartment for $750 a month and was able to pay her way through college by waiting tables. Now Sullivan fears that her story wouldn’t be possible for someone living in the Bay Area today.

Questions:

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of “fast-fine” restaurants like Souvla?
  2. Do you think tech companies could do anything to offset the enormous cost of living in cities like San Francisco? Why or why not?

Source: Emily Badger, “San Francisco Restaurants Can’t Afford Waiters. So They’re Putting Diners to Work,” The New York Times, June 25, 2018.

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