As always, there’s a lot on Daniel Patterson’s mind. Recent weeks have found him spending time at Alfred’s, his classic San Francisco steakhouse, which just reopened after a two-month closure because of a basement fire. Then there’s Locol, his fast-food brand with Roy Choi, which has seen its share of headlines in the past few months following the closure of its Oakland location. He has an eagerly awaited new cookbook about to hit shelves. In the kitchen at Coi, the tasting-menu restaurant that put Patterson’s name on the map, chef Matthew Kirkley now runs the show, with little interference.
But when it comes to thinking about his empire, Patterson’s focus right now is on Alta, and how to turn it into a restaurant group. A quick refresher: Alta was the highly anticipated, casual San Francisco restaurant Patterson opened in 2013. Its menu has an identifiably California style with a bit of Eastern European flair — and fantastic ice cream. But for Patterson to grow it, he’s had to reevaluate what the restaurant fundamentally means to him. “I don’t want to do just a restaurant,” the chef says.
How Alta started
When Patterson opened Alta CA on a rough stretch of San Francisco’s Market Street in December 2013, he was one of the first in a coterie of restaurateurs investing in the area known as Mid-Market.
“I would love to say that I was prescient, but the reality is that a friend [Ryan Sarver], who was one of the early employees of Twitter, in 2012, said, ‘We’re moving buildings. Would you consider a restaurant there? There’s no restaurants there,’" Patterson recalls. “I said, ‘You raise the money, and we’ll open the restaurant.’ He did, and we did.”
In an area SF Gate had described as “chronically blighted,” Curbed SF mapped 40 “revitalization projects” happening along Market Street in September 2013, calling it “San Francisco’s hottest development and redevelopment neighborhood.” The diners would come, the theory was, because so many people would be living in the new apartment buildings and working at Twitter’s new HQ, which is basically across the street from Alta. In the months following Alta’s opening, restaurants from well-respected hospitality companies in town popped up in the area: There was Oro (in September 2015), Bon Marché (in August 2015), Cadence (in January 2016), and Volta (in January 2016), among others.
But by mid-2016, the closures started. “Rash of new restaurants folding in short order,” read a November 2016 San Francisco Chronicle headline. “2016 has seen the abrupt closures of several restaurants that seemed to have every prospect of success, given their celebrated owners, good food, and attractive spaces,” wrote Jonathan Kauffman in that article. Owners of shuttered Mid-Market projects said they “suspect that they bet on a rising neighborhood too soon, or entered the market at the same time as too many other ambitious, pricey restaurants.” Some familiar names among the closures: Oro (in June 2016), Cadence (in June 2016), Bon Marché (in August 2016), and Volta (in September 2016). Eater SF dubbed the phenomenon the “Mid-Market Massacre,” when, in January 2017, AQ — a well-regarded restaurant that opened in the neighborhood in 2012, before Alta’s arrival — also closed.
2016 was a tough year for Alta, as well. “We about broke even because of costs going up,” says Patterson. “We definitely saw our business go down last year, but we were just able to make adjustments.” Patterson notes that, “even for us, we’ve seen the area not really materialize the way that we originally thought.”
Are the new apartment buildings filled with temporary workers instead of residents invested in the neighborhood? Is the tech sector not booming as much as it once was? Patterson won’t speculate as to why, exactly, the Mid-Market neighborhood didn’t work the way all these restaurateurs thought it would. “It could be a million things,” he says. “For us, as a restaurant, we’re the bottom. Everything drifts down and it just drips on our head basically.”
Alta Group’s bar director Aaron Paul was at Alta from day one. “The first year, it was this really awesome neighborhood vibe. We were like the living room for all these people across the street [at the Twitter building],” he says. “Then it kind of drifted.” Still, the restaurant’s in a good groove now — especially thanks to increased traffic at the nearby Orpheum Theatre. “We are busy every single day because of Hamilton,” says Paul.
Turning Alta into Alta Group
Alta was never meant to have multiple locations. “If I was making a replicable concept, I would never have done it the way I did it,” Patterson says now.
But in May 2017, he opened the second Alta in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, inside the Minnesota Street Project, a building that offers artists affordable, sustainable gallery space. This second Alta is an on-trend, all-day affair, offering continuous service to local residents and visitors to the gallery.
Next, in the late fall of this year, the group will open their next location, in Yotel in the Grant Building on Market Street, a few blocks away from the original Alta, and Patterson’s first-ever hotel restaurant project. The deal — which treats the hotel as a partner and Alta as a free-standing restaurant with a lease, not as a service or license contract — has been in the works for nearly two years, and allows Patterson greater control over the project, which will also include a rooftop bar.
“We’re going to sell the place we’ve got now and then move down to the hotel,” Patterson says. “We’ll operate up until the hotel opens later this fall, move the staff on over. You can’t have two restaurants three blocks away from each other. That’s crazy.”
Haven, Patterson’s Oakland restaurant that’s been closed since March 2017, will also transform into an Alta. (“I don’t think that’s a big surprise,” he says.) If all goes according to plan, the Oakland outpost will open in spring 2018, leaving Patterson’s Alta Group with three locations in the Bay Area (remember, the original Market Street will be closing) by the end of next year. A group is born.
“Over the last year, I started moving people over to Alta because I needed to pick the growth vehicle,” Patterson says. “People always loved Alta. I always loved Alta. It wasn’t always as well run as I would have liked, so I had to take responsibility.” He “stripped down” the management team to one person besides himself, and began re-populating the team around a new goal: “to build a restaurant group around love, kindness, compassion, empathy ... a social impact business that serves delicious food and makes people really happy.”
Taking any restaurant from a single location to a multi-unit group means diving into systems and processes. About a year ago, Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United reached out to Patterson about participating in its racial equity pilot program, which together they’d implement with the opening of the Dogpatch location. For Patterson, this was a way to put social impact at the forefront of the expanded human resources infrastructure the restaurant group would need as it grew.
“You can’t just say, ‘I love everyone. Come work here,’ because the fact is, a restaurant — any business — needs to be explicitly designed to diminish, if not entirely get rid of, the biases that people bring to their jobs,” says Patterson. “Obviously, there’s always been a glass ceiling for women and people of color. There hasn’t been the same opportunities opened for everyone equally; we’re leaving a lot of talent on table.”
Alta Group also hired Gabriel Barba as its director of learning and development, and he worked closely with ROC to develop training and hiring practices. “Many years ago, I got into the role of teaching people how to be successful in their workplace,” says Barba. He sees Alta as “making this sharp left turn into a different system of running restaurants,” he says. “I think the biggest challenge is having the guest understand that, having other restaurateurs understand that."
Patterson, Barba, and ROC implemented new protocols for job interviews and codified standards for raises, promotions, and goal-based performance reviews. Patterson says this kind of structure is rare; especially in kitchens where too often a new hire has to immediately fill a hole on the line. Alta is also tip-free and service-charge-free. Patterson has front-of-house and back-of-house “on the same scale.” This, he says, creates “astronomical” payrolls, but, on the other hand, a more equal work environment. And by investing in a corporate team (ie. folks like Barba and Paul), he should hopefully save on store management costs, since that team is able to pick up slack.
Alta Group’s new director of operations, industry vet Joe White, believes there’s room for money and progressive values to coexist. “The dollars and cents do matter to me because that’s my gig, but all the other stuff has to fit it, as well.”
Patterson puts it this way: “On a day by day basis, we just run a restaurant. We cook food, we make drinks, and we do the best we can.”
The systems developed for the Dogpatch location were simultaneously applied to the original Market Street restaurant, and will be a part of the upcoming locations. To Patterson, this cultural shift is the most fundamental adaptation that makes Alta a scalable brand. “We want to create a new business model that maybe if it works, other people can do it,” he says.
What’s in store for Alta next?
After the Bay Area, Patterson has his eyes on Los Angeles. “We’re pretty far along,” he says, explaining that his group has zeroed in on the Southern part of the city, because Patterson wants to be able to hire from Watts, Compton, Crenshaw, and the other areas he’s gotten to know with Locol Watts. But there’s no set timeline. “It’ll fall in place and it’ll be whatever it’s going to be. I would love it if it’s next year some time,” he says.
Does Patterson want to bring Alta outside of California? “If we can get our shit together, definitely,” he says. “We’ve got our dance card full for this year and next. Then as things come up, who knows? Someone could come with some other city and once we can do the hotel well, they might say, ‘We have a hotel in another city.’ If it feels right, we'll do it, and if we like the people, if we like the area, if it feels like we can do it well.” It’s a lot to think about.