Last month, chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski closed their enormously popular San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions for a remodel. It came on the heels of an epic first year-and-a-half in which the restaurant — where small plates are wheeled around to diners on a cart, dim sum-style — earned accolades from everyone from the James Beard Foundation to Bon Appétit. News of the remodel also dropped at roughly the same time as the revelation that Silicon Valley nerds were using bots to get reservations at State Bird.
Last week at Feast Portland, Eater met up with Brioza and Krasinski to talk about whether it's really that hard to score a reservation at State Bird Provisions. In the interview, they share a few details about what they've got in store for The Progress, a new restaurant that is going in next door to State Bird. They also discuss what it's like growing as chefs and restaurateurs, and how State Bird is "really evolving into what maybe we were meant to be."
So you guys have had a pretty crazy year and a half. How has it felt for you guys, including getting the Beard Award, too?
Stuart Brioza: The Beard Award capped it off for us. It's kind of unbelievable. There's a certain amount of attention spent to new restaurants, of course. I opened one restaurant in my career. Everywhere [else] we've worked has been an established restaurant. You're carrying the torch or breathing new life into it. You feel like you have an obligation to that restaurant to carry the torch. [You] certainly make your own name, but you're coming into an environment that is already established. I guess this is what happens when you have a new restaurant.
And then you were so popular you inspired reservations bots.
SB: Pretty cool, right?
Urbanspoon denied it?
SB: Well, I don't know if they denied it. I think they were blindsided. Everything touted that it was hacked, but really it was like attached. If you break it down, it's like if you're bidding on something on eBay and someone outbids you, you get an email notification. The coding was somewhat similar to that. I'm sure it's totally different, but for us simple people, it has the same effect where like okay a cancellation happens and someone's little attachment to it is triggered and it sends them a notification. That's smart, you know? We live in San Francisco, you should do that.
How long had they been doing that? I'm so amazed by people.
SB: Me too. It's like people with too much time on their hands. Does your boss know you're doing this on work time? [laughs)
They're probably doing it for their boss.
SB: Yeah, probably so. I guess I heard about something like that around four months before [the reports]. I try to look for patterns in the reservations system. You can search how many times they've eaten there and whatnot and there's a few that I'm like, "Ooh that's a bot, for sure." They come in to dinner, so who am I to complain? I think there's a lot of that going on, more than we probably know and think.
They weren't necessarily hacked into the system. But obviously things get blown up way out of proportion. It was crazy. That went viral quick. By mid-morning we were getting a call from the BBC and we were like, seriously? I remember when Paolo [Lucchesi] broke the news and he called me, I didn't even think it was that big of a deal and then I'm walking to work and I'm reading Inside Scoop and I'm like, "Holy shit. This is big." I called him back and I was like, "Hey, you might want to add to that that 30 percent of our business is still driven by walk-ins." I didn't want it to sound like no one could get in because these bots had an advantage.
What's funny is also when that came out was about two weeks before we closed for renovations. So people were like, "Oh, I can't get a reservation." And we're like, "Yeah, we closed the book 45 days ago." It's really funny, and I love reading all those comments. Everybody's like, Oh I have a solution: no reservations! No, that's not very hospitable. That's not being very business-savvy.
Why not go to no reservations?
Nicole Krasinski: It's a lot harder to manage.
SB: I think it's really not fair to people who want to come in.
NK: Even if they know maybe they'll wait an extra 15 minutes or whatever, they want to have that guarantee. They don't want to just show up and then have to have a plan B, especially if it's a special occasion or something they're really anticipating. There's a certain type of clientele [who] will not go to restaurants if they don't have a reservation. Our philosophy has always been to be a restaurant that's all-inclusive. You can come in and spend $15 or you can spend $85. So that was how we approached the reservation system.
SB: So here's the thing. For us, what's really worked is that we kind of run a 70-30. 70 percent is in reservations and 30 percent is in walk-ins. So when someone no-shows, we take a walk-in. One of the reasons we went with Urbanspoon was the whole texting "your table is ready" thing. You can give people a gauge of what time to come back when they put their name on the list. If there are no-shows, we're pretty fortunate that we can fill that seat.
State Bird Provisions, San Francisco, CA. [Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux]
And you have good foot traffic?
SB: That's the other thing. I think if you do no reservations, you've got to be in an area that's entertaining.
NK: Densely populated with other restaurants.
SB: If you show up to a restaurant and there's nothing to do around, how boring is that, right? We've got a couple bars in the neighborhood. There's even the movie theater. We actually have people that will come in, get on the wait list, or even say, "Hey, can I come back at 9?" We put them in for 9 and then they go see a movie and come back. Which I think is awesome. It's perfect for the right person.
How is your renovation going?
SB: It's going. It's construction, full of intrigue, mystery, some triumphs, and some disappointments. But the idea was that we could be a little more to more people. We get constant requests for larger tables, which we can't do. Our largest table is four people, and people want to bring like six or eight. So we're going to be able to offer two larger tables that can [seat] six or eight people. And those will be pretty strict reservations. We're kind of thinking it's like four tables a night. We want to set some regulations because that would really be unfortunate if people didn't show up. We'd feel that. But it'll be pretty cool. A whole night of small plates geared to however many people at the table. It'll add another dynamic to the restaurant and to the kitchen, too.
So it'll be a different experience, then.
SB: Yeah. It's not going to be the cart service that we do. Same food, but it'll be a little more like the kitchen will create a menu and we'll do that daily based on whatever information that we're able to extract from people. And we're such a flexible restaurant that it's super easy to be accommodating. But it'll basically be waves of small plates that'll come out. I think it'll be a neat dynamic to the restaurant.
Were you always eying that space?
SB: When we signed the lease for State Bird, we also signed the lease for our next restaurant, The Progress, totally naively. In hindsight we're like, "We're so brilliant." But at the time, I wanted it and thought we could get to it quicker. The success we had at State Bird, we've just been riding that wave and it slows everything down. But there's a space in the same building right in between the two restaurants and the tenant who was slated to go in backed out. We knew that we would really be kicking ourselves if we didn't take it.
We were thinking okay what else can we do? We kept talking about this third little mini restaurant. Something like that. We were racking our brains and we were like, wait a second. Why don't we just knock the wall out and expand State Bird? It just makes more sense. It's the perfect thing for us because our business has been so big and our restaurant has become so efficient. Yet as you're operating in it you're like, I wish we had this. So now we're able to re-think a few of these efficiencies. That allows us to go seven days and hire a couple of more cooks and managers, which is really exciting actually. Now we're really evolving into what maybe we were meant to be.
I was talking to the Walrus and the Carpenter folks, and they also have a smaller dining space, but they very much want to keep it that way. How do you know what feels right?
SB: That's a great question. We've thought about it. The space that we're taking, we decided not to take the entire space for State Bird. We're splitting it between the two [restaurants]. We could have easily sold those tables.
NK: People were like, "Why don't you just put State Bird in the big space next door?"
SB: We're like, no. Because that's not our plan. We looked at it like how could we add something more besides just seats. In this case, it worked out to be two large tables that we don't have. So it's another customer amenity that gives people a way to experience State Bird in a different way.
NK: The original dining room isn't really changed. The map of it is going to be very similar.
SB: The cart service is the same. I think we actually lost two seats in that equation. But we're going to gain the two large tables.
And you re-open in mid-October?
SB: Yeah. We don't have a date set yet.
How impatient are people getting?
SB: It's a real delicate balance. We're right in the middle of our contractor and our staff. We're pretty fortunate that our staff has been awesome about hanging on, really dedicated to the restaurant. As we are to them.
And what's the latest on The Progress?
SB: What's the progress on The Progress? As soon as we get State Bird open, we're going to kind of move right into construction next door. Probably it'll be about two months between. But we've already started a lot of structural work.
What do you have in store there?
SB: We just say it's like the polar opposite of State Bird, but yet there's so many neat things we've learned from State Bird that we want to carry [over]. It's like the opposite, but it's also the same. State Bird is just a whole slew of small plates that go out. The Progress will be the opposite.
A cart at State Bird Provisions, San Francisco, CA. [Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux]
Do you have specific dishes in mind yet?
SB: I think we have the ideas of what we're working on there. The format is somewhat set. One of the biggest things that we've learned at State Bird is that you can have food on your table in less than two minutes if you choose. I love that. I want there to be food on the table like you're going to a friend's house. Let's say you're going for a dinner party, you walk in, and there's just cheese and crackers. You're hungry and you just want a nibble of something. I love that.
NK: Not quite cheese-and-crackers, though. (laughs) A little different.
SB: We're really excited about the design. We're still not 100 percent set on what that looks like. It's a really beautiful space. The building is an old theater called The Progress. It's mirrored on both sides. The difference is that State Bird has a floor built in, so we have a lower ceiling. In The Progress, it just goes all the way up to the roof. So it's got a nice dramatic element to it.
And it's much bigger?
SB: Yeah, definitely. It's like comfortable big. It's not gigantic. It's about 90 seats or so with the bar seating. So like the dining room is like 50 seats, which is what State Bird is. And then we have mezzanine seating, there's a mezzanine on both ends. One will be above the kitchen and one is above the entrance. It just opens up and has this curved ceiling. When we looked at the building, we actually fell in love with that space. And then the landlord asked us if we'd be interested in doing something with the other space. We had this crazy idea of State Bird, which was not in the cards to begin with. We just totally winged it and then got some people on board who believed in it. Maybe not the best business model in the beginning, but it all worked out.
I read in an interview how you don't really get inspiration from dining out or cookbooks anymore, but from stories.
SB: When I was in my twenties, we were pretty hardcore into cooking. Both of us were really driven by cookbooks and [the] constant collecting of them and dining out everywhere and bringing huge ideas back. That was shaping our cooking style and how we thought about food through experience. Now I'm more fascinated by the story of food and how someone came across this dish, if it's got some historical background to it or if it's regionally specific. I think that idea is far more inspiring.
NK: Also with having so much more knowledge now over the years, you can kind of connect. You hear the story and it might spark a memory or something that you connect in a way that you can't if you don't have those building blocks.
SB: I think there's just a certain point in your cooking career that you're just like, "All right, this is what I cook." We're in our late thirties now, so we have some established ways. For me, they're awesome. I go into restaurants now and I'm looking at the bathroom, and I'm looking at all the floorboards.
NK: And how the service is and the kitchen's design.
That's what you can take away from other places.
SB: Yeah, that's a lot of it. And then the food. Does the food and the space match?
NK: Does the service match the style of food?
SB: The music that's being played.
NK: It's a lot to make the restaurant feel that way. It doesn't just happen. A lot of things do just happen that you don't actually control intentionally, but many things have to be premeditated. That's a long, hard road to get to that point that they feel natural.
Yeah, you can train to cook, but not really to know how to build a restaurant.
SB: Oh man. No. Anybody who says they do, they're full of it. We set out to open a restaurant and all of a sudden I'm like, uh, do I really want my kitchen like that? You're thinking about design, but it's all about what kind of chairs do you like? I don't know, comfortable chairs? On State Bird's chairs, I spent 120 hours maybe going to look at chairs, looking online for chairs, sitting in chairs.
But yeah, details and design are a really fun part of having a restaurant. As important as the food is, I think the atmosphere really has to make you feel great as well. I don't know if we've achieved that at [State Bird]. I think it's going to evolve into that with this next phase. We've really thought about what could make it that much more comfortable. So I think we're really going to hit our stride. Let's really become what we should be.