Kenji López-Alt became a rock star of the food world by bringing science into the kitchen in a way that everyday cooks can appreciate. Then he dared to start his own restaurant — and discovered problems that even science can’t solve.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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This week, we’re playing an updated Episode No. 347, “Why You Shouldn’t Open a Restaurant.” It features the best-selling food writer Kenji López-Alt, telling us about his adventures as a first-time restaurateur. And then, at the end of the original episode, you’ll hear a recent follow-up interview that’ll give you even more reasons to never, ever open a restaurant. Also, we’re bringing Freakonomics Radio Live to Philadelphia on June 6 and London on Sept. 7. For tickets, go to freakonomics.com/live. You’ll also find information on our upcoming shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
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Some people just can’t leave well enough alone. Consider, for instance, the case of the famous food writer, the one who used the scientific method to take apart everything we know about cooking and put it back together.
Kenji LÓPEZ-ALT: If you use vodka in place of some of the water in your pie crust, you end up with a dough that is much flakier and much lighter.
He investigated whether the key ingredient in New York pizza really is the water.
LÓPEZ-ALT: So I did a full double-blind experiment where I got water — starting with perfectly distilled water and up to various levels of dissolved solids inside the water. And what we basically ended up finding was the water makes almost no difference compared to other variables in the dough.
He found that the secret to General Tso’s chicken lay in geometry.
LÓPEZ-ALT: The geometry of food is important because one of the big things is surface-area-to-volume ratio.
And he explored the relationship between meat and salt; he proved why it’s important to salt a hamburger at the last minute, on the surface of the meat:
LOPEZ-ALT: We rented a baseball pitching machine that would throw hamburgers at the wall at 45 miles per hour. You’ll see that salted hamburger kind of bounces off the wall like a rubber ball, whereas the burger that has salt only on the outside kind of splatters.
This was the man who finally brought science into the kitchen in a way that non-scientists could appreciate. It helped that his work was fun, not preachy, and delicious. We interviewed him a while back, for an episode called “Food + Science = Victory!”
LÓPEZ-ALT: I think a lot of people think of science as sort of the opposite of tradition or the opposite of natural. And really it’s not.
He had just published his first cookbook, a massive thing called The Food Lab, which went on to win a James Beard Award. His reputation and reach only grew. But then, something else beckoned. Was it opportunity — or a trap?
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s that temptation you can’t resist.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: the food writer who flew too close to the flame.
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Kenji López-Alt grew up in New York, in a family of scientists, and went off to M.I.T. to study biology. He got a little bored, maybe burnt-out, and during the summers started working in restaurant kitchens in Boston. After college, he worked in an architecture firm for a bit.
LÓPEZ-ALT: For a few months, half a year maybe.
And then back to restaurant kitchens.
LÓPEZ-ALT: My very first restaurant job was at a place called Fire and Ice. It’s a Mongolian grill, so I was a knight of the round grill. I stood in the middle of a giant cast iron grill and cooked stir-fried food for people, and flipped asparagus tips into the air and stuff.
Over the next several years, he worked in a series of higher-end restaurants in Boston.
LÓPEZ-ALT: After that, that was the end of my culinary career, or my cooking career.
He began building a career as a food writer, at Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen. Then, on the food site Serious Eats, he started a column called The Food Lab. He wasn’t expecting to turn into a food-writing rock star.
LÓPEZ-ALT: I absolutely wasn’t expecting it. I was a freelance writer living in a one-bedroom apartment with no windows in Brooklyn at the time.
DUBNER: Now, after doing all that and having that platform and enjoying it, what made you think it was a good idea to not only get back into the restaurant business, but open your own restaurant?
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s always that temptation you can’t resist. It’s like, “Oh, what if I just went back and do cooking for a little while? Would I be able to do this?” So, I had a daughter. She’s 17 months old now.
LÓPEZ-ALT: Thank you. And when she was born, my wife and I decided that she would continue to work, and I would be the at-home parent. So I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for the last 17 months. And about six months into that, I was approached by some friends of friends who owned a bar in San Mateo, near where we live. And they were interested in opening up a beer hall and they were looking for a chef partner. And so I thought this might be something fun I could do in my spare time. Which, you don’t have too much spare time with a baby on your hands, but I thought this could be something fun and this is a good opportunity, relatively low-risk. Mainly it was because my wife and I sort of longed for a place like this in San Mateo, a family-friendly, casual, upscale place. And that was the concept that they were working on. So it seemed perfect for me.
And initially I thought my involvement would be relatively minimal. I would work on some menus. I would lend my name to the menu. What was actually really surprising to me was — when I first signed on with them, I sent a short little tweet saying, “Hey, this is happening, I’m opening a restaurant,” something like that. Eater picked it up. A bunch of other publications picked it up. And then all of a sudden it became not, “Kenji López-Alt is partnering with these two guys who are opening a restaurant.” What it became was, “Kenji López-Alt is opening a restaurant.” And then I was like, “Oh man, I guess I’m really going to get sucked into this.”
DUBNER: Okay, so the restaurant is called Wursthall. So, first of all, for those who haven’t been to San Mateo, California, just give us a quick sense of the vibe of the place, and then we’ll get into the restaurant and why the choices were made to have a German beer hall with sausages.
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well, San Mateo is a city that’s basically dead center between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. My wife works at Google and she works down in Silicon Valley. We initially moved up into the city and her commute was crazy. So we’re like, “All right we’ll move down to San Mateo.” And if you look at the real estate curve: very expensive everywhere, but extremely expensive in San Francisco, extremely expensive in Silicon Valley. And in San Mateo and a couple of the surrounding cities, there’s a small dip, so we were like, “Alright, that’s where we can afford to live.” And that’s where my wife’s commute will be all right. I think there’s actually a lot of people in our situation there right now.
DUBNER: Why a German beer hall — why was that the right concept? Or why was that the concept they wanted?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well, it’s two factors. One of them is the space itself. We’re located in a really nice, old, historic building, lots of nice light, so it seemed very conducive to this beer-hall atmosphere. The other thing is that my partner Adam Simpson, he is really into beer. And finally, beer halls are kind of just popular right now. So it seemed like a concept that worked in the space, that worked with Adam’s knowledge-base, and it seemed to be something that was hot and lacking in the San Mateo area.
So far so good, right? So for everyone out there who’s thinking, “Hey, maybe I should open a restaurant” — we asked Kenji López-Alt: “what’s the first step?”
LÓPEZ-ALT: So, the first step to opening a restaurant is, don’t. Opening a restaurant is a series of putting out fires every single day. I mean, even once you’re open, it’s still a series of putting out fires. Step one: don’t.
DUBNER: Okay. So, can you walk us through the opening process? What kind of work goes into those preparatory weeks, months, I assume?
LÓPEZ-ALT: So, the first step is, you have to have a reason for people to believe that you’re going to succeed and to give you money to do it. Because it’s not cheap to open a restaurant. And then from there it’s working with the architects and designers and doing all the build-out, which inevitably takes way more time than you expect. And for us we had this extra problem, because we’re in this really old building and the previous tenants and the landlord, they didn’t take the best care of the space.
But working back from my side, from the kitchen perspective: initially a lot of it was conceptualizing how German do we want to be? How California do we want to be? Because we knew we wanted to do both. Figuring out what the service style was going to be, and how customers are going to order. And really thinking to ourselves, “All right, when people come in here, what are they coming in to do?” Initially, when Adam and my other partner, Tyson Mao — when they were thinking of a beer hall, they thought, “Right, this is going to be essentially a bar. Some people maybe come to have a nice meal, but most will be coming to drink and have some food on the side.” And that’s what the initial menu is designed around: a selection of sausages, a couple of sandwiches, some appetizers to share.
So now he got to work creating a menu.
LÓPEZ-ALT: I had developed the initial opening menu on my own in my home kitchen before we had even hired any sort of kitchen staff. And I’m pretty methodical, so I had a recipe booklet written out, everything done in metric units, something that anybody could look at and replicate. Part of the idea was because it’s going to be relatively low-priced and high-volume, the kitchen has to be able to run itself, even without very minute oversight.
DUBNER: What about the sausage-making itself? That’s a big component. Can you just talk about how involved you were in the design and execution, and maybe experimentation, and figuring out how to not only make the sausages that you wanted, but how they were going to be prepared?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Yeah, from the start, we knew that we weren’t going to be able to make the sausages in-house, because we didn’t have the facilities. So in order to make a large volume of sausage, you need to have a dedicated refrigerated room, where you can grind and mix and stuff and everything, because if sausage mixture gets too warm while you’re forming it, it doesn’t bind properly, and your sausages end up crumbly and dry. It was literally physically impossible for us to make sausages in-house. So very early on we decided, “All right, we’re going to have to find some partners to work with who can execute our ideas at a level of quality and volume that we’re happy with.”
DUBNER: Is it an easy thing to find, someone who can handle that kind of quality and especially volume?
LÓPEZ-ALT: No. I mean the sausage part was mainly me going to every single sausage maker I could find in the Bay Area. We did want to keep it local. We visited many, many butchers and sausage makers, and there are many, many bad sausages around. Sausage-making is a non-trivial skill. You think, “Okay it’s just meat and fat, spiced, ground up, stuffed into a casing. How hard could it be?” But it’s one of these things where the minutiae of the technique can make a huge difference in the quality of the final product. It mainly comes down to the binding element, making sure that you have the right level of salt, and that the meat has been salted long enough that the proteins start to dissolve before you mix it. Making sure that you mix it right, and that you have the right ratio of fat to lean. And then also making sure that it stays chilled through the entire process.
And if any one of those things is off, your sausage doesn’t bind properly. And that’s what you find is the problem with most mediocre sausages. They could be flavored very well, they could be crazy and interesting, but if they’re not mixed properly they crumble instead of having that nice, juicy, snappy texture that I look for in a sausage. And so finding someone who can do that was hard.
There was also the consideration of creating a sausage restaurant that could be vegan-friendly.
LÓPEZ-ALT: So one of my goals from the beginning was: vegan items on the menu that aren’t vegan by omission, they’re just vegan by default, and they’re delicious. So we have a number of things like that, but the one that I was really excited about is a vegan doner kebab. And for that I worked with a company called Impossible Meats, they make a vegan ground-meat blend mostly out of wheat protein, but they add heme, which is a lot of what gives red meat its irony, bloody flavor. But it can also be derived from plant sources. It’s by far the best faux meat available. And so what we do is we spice it with Turkish spices — so cumin, urfa biber chilies, sumac.
And then we serve it as a — well, initially we were reforming it into a cylinder and doing it in front of one of those doner kebab spits that spins around, and you shave it off. But the fat in this stuff is coconut oil, and coconut oil melts at a slightly lower temperature than animal fat does, so the fat would end up melting out of it, and it would eventually just crumble off the spit. So that didn’t end up working. It would’ve been so cool if we could get that to work. Now we’re just forming it straight into hamburger-style patties, so all the flavor is there.
DUBNER: Okay, so you talked about the food and the building, etc. What about the people? How involved were you in hiring and training up the kitchen and front of house?
LÓPEZ-ALT: I was very involved in back of the house, and finding good people is by far the hardest thing. So, when you’re living in a place like New York or San Francisco, where the cost of living is so high, finding great people is very hard. Even finding remotely reliable people. Even before we opened, when we were training staff, we must have lost probably 50 percent over the course of a few weeks.
LÓPEZ-ALT: Which is not abnormal. One day we’re there and two of our cooks don’t show up. What do we do? One of them was on a bender and the other one was just a no-show. But then, luckily, the restaurant down the street, all the cooks there showed up that morning and the manager said, “We’re closing, and you don’t have a job anymore.” So, suddenly we had 12 cooks just walk up to the front door saying, “Hey, can we have a job?” So there’s never really a shortage of résumés and applicants, it’s finding reliable people that’s hard. What I’ve discovered in my years as a cook — and it played out exactly as expected here — was that it’s much better to hire people who give a s—, even if they have no previous experience or skills, than to hire someone who has a great résumé who doesn’t really understand the concept.
Our No. 1 kitchen hire is this guy Erik Drobey, who is a career changer, he was in his 40’s, he worked in an office job, always loved cooking on the side, was a Food Lab follower. He stopped by my house once to give me some sausages and sauerkraut he made because he was so proud of them. And they were great, I thought they were great. And then he said, “Hey, I think I’ve decided I want to be a cook. Would you give me a shot?” I’m like, “Absolutely.” Finding people who really care. That’s the key. Because you can always teach people skills, but you can’t teach people to give a s—.
DUBNER: And what about front of the house?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Front of the house is actually probably even a little bit harder at the start, because you have to really dangle this carrot in front of them because during training and during the first month that we were doing friends and family meals, people are working and they’re getting paid, but they’re not getting the same tips that they would. And so they have to realize, “Okay, I’m putting in this work now. So in a month I’ll be making much more money.” But it’s hard to find people who are willing to think about that.
DUBNER: So shortly before opening, you tweeted — in all caps, by the way — “Opening a restaurant is insane. And I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would choose to do it.” So what’s going on in the weeks and days just before opening?
LÓPEZ-ALT: I can tell you what was in my head when that tweet went out. It was not actually related directly to the restaurant itself, it was more about its toll on my personal life, and particularly my family life and my marriage, because a restaurant is a harsh mistress. During those three months I was in there, I would wake up, take my daughter to daycare, go to the restaurant from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., go pick up my daughter from daycare, bring her home, put her to bed, and then go back to the restaurant from 8:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. It had been two-and-a-half months where I had been basically never at home. I saw my daughter for a few hours a day, but I basically never saw my wife.
We lost the chance to sit down and talk together. The only time I ever saw her was when we were with our daughter, so we never really had any alone time, which is very difficult when you’re raising a child, to not be able to talk to your partner, not even have the time to talk about things related to raising the child. And the worst part of it was that no matter how well you plan, and you think to yourself, “Right, this is the amount of work I’m going to have to put into this restaurant, and I’m just going to say no after that,” it’s really hard to say no when there’s 40 people whose jobs rely on you making this a success.
Finally, Wursthall was ready for its soft opening — investors, friends and family.
LÓPEZ-ALT: About 100 people, and everything was great. We had completely gutted the old bathrooms, retiled them in this beautiful blue tile, really nice wallpaper with these hand pen-and-ink-drawn animals and stuff. It was a really nice bathroom. And the first night we had 100 people in, the toilets backed up, stopped working. And we had to shut down the bathrooms. And as it turns out, the waste line leaving one of the toilets had never been repaired or replaced in probably decades and decades and had a huge sag in it. So we had to close for two weeks so that they can rip out all the tile we just put in, dig into the foundation, replace that. All of a sudden, we thought we were going to be ready to open the next week and now it’s like another two weeks and another 30 grand to fix the bathroom that we had never even considered might be a problem.
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Kenji López-Alt, rock star of the food-writing world, decided after years on the sidelines to get back into the restaurant business with a place called Wursthall, in San Mateo, California, which started out as a simple concept: a German beer hall serving nouveau-ish sausages.
LÓPEZ-ALT: I was always one of these “I’d rather have influence and bring joy to people than have a lot of money” type-of-career people, you know? And if the money comes along with it, then that’s great as well. But I’d rather just be doing something I love.
DUBNER: Okay, so walk us through opening night, and I’m sure everything went exactly as it was planned, and everybody was thrilled, and it was perfect. Yes?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well, we had a sizable number of people in there and we were cooking food, people were ordering food, tickets were coming in, we were firing it. It was a disaster. Major, major disaster. Some people were waiting over an hour for their food. Some people never got their food. It’s the kind of night where we’re like, “These problems are insurmountable, how the f— are we going to fix this?” But we decided, “All right, we’ll focus on a couple of the big problems first.” When I tell them to you, they’re going to seem like stupid, small things. It’s like, “Well, why couldn’t you just do that?”
So, one of them was that we have sausages and you get your choice of topping. One of the problems was communicating to the cooks on the line. In case you’re not aware of how restaurant kitchens work, there’s a line, which is where all the stoves are, where the counters with the little cutting boards are, it’s where the cooks, the guys and girls are actually making the food. And then there’s a station called “expo,” the expediter, and the expediter’s job is to first of all act as a liaison between the front of the house and the back of the house. But, more importantly, the expediter’s job is to coordinate everybody in the back of the house so that dishes come out at the same time, so that everyone in the back of the house knows what they’re doing. So, essentially, they’re the general managing the army back there.
On opening night, we had all the toppings back on the line, and I was expediting, and I was just calling out, saying, “All right, hot Italian with speck and cherry-pepper relish. One bratwurst with sauerkraut.” And it’s a lot of information to take in when you have a full restaurant, there’s 100 people there, and you’re cooking say, 25, 30 sausages at a time, and each one has their own designated topping. It’s a lot of information for the person on the line actually cooking it and plating it to take in. And so every single sausage had this huge delay, where they maybe go out with the wrong topping on it and we’d have to re-fire it, or they would yell out and everything is really noisy, and we can’t hear each other.
And once you have these tiny little problems, that can lead to huge, huge backups, because the customers — they don’t care what problems you have back there. Once they’re seated, they want to start ordering food. And they don’t care that you already have a full board of tickets and that the grill is completely full. They don’t care that you screwed up one order and you have to re-fire it. Those tickets are just going to keep coming and coming and coming. So you have the ticket printer machine that’s spitting out these tickets constantly, and you’re constantly struggling to try and catch up with it. And that puts more and more stress on you. So you make more mistakes, the people on the line make more mistakes. And it can be these tiny little things that add to the likelihood of making a mistake that can throw a wrench in the entire operation, and that’s essentially what happened that first night.
So, the second night, what we did was we took those toppings, we took them off the line, and put them next to the expediter’s station, next to my station, so that all they had to remember was which sausages they were cooking. They would pass the sausages to me, right before I handed it to the server, I would put the topping on. I had the ticket right in front of me, it was easy for me to read it. And that smoothed things over unbelievably so. A couple of seconds of extra work on the cook’s part, it translated from a sausage taking over an hour to get to a customer, because there was this huge backlog of tickets, to customers getting their sausages in about eight minutes.
There was another major problem they discovered only on opening night.
LÓPEZ-ALT: And it’s one that we didn’t resolve until relatively recently.
It had to do with the pretzels.
LÓPEZ-ALT: So, I’m also partner at a bakery called Backhaus and they make all of our pretzels and all of our bread. Really wonderful pretzels, but we serve them hot. So we were trying to figure out, “How do we get these pretzels that were baked that morning and delivered to us, how do we serve them hot and fresh?” And the obvious thing is, “All right, well, when someone orders a pretzel, put it in the oven, let it get hot, and then we serve it.”
This was a problem in a couple different ways: one of them was that Backhaus, they were salting their pretzels before they came to us. And what happens with pretzel salt is that it draws out moisture from the pretzels, so after eight hours or so, some of the moisture from the pretzels beads up on the surface of the pretzels and then it leaves kind of a splotchy wet marks, which is not good, and the salt is all gone. So we’re like, “Okay, so we have to salt our pretzels,” so that’s adding another layer of stuff we have to do. And the only oven that we have back on the line is next to the fry station, and the fryer is extremely busy with potatoes and we also do a chicken schnitzel sandwich. Adding pretzels on top of that to him became very difficult. So, for the early nights, we were firing pretzels to-order in the oven. And that was another one of those things that seemed like it’s a thing that takes two seconds, but it just piled onto the likelihood that we were going to screw something up.
So what was the pretzel-salting solution?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well, we found a much more efficient way of salting them. So, one of the cooks had this idea to take a squeeze bottle, cut off the top until it was big enough that pretzel salt could flow through it. Now what we do is we just spray the pretzels and draw a line, trace the outline with the squeeze bottle, and that clears up all the space.
DUBNER: So what you just described, plainly these are things that most people eating at restaurants would never ever think about.
LÓPEZ-ALT: And they shouldn’t have to think about it.
DUBNER: But you have to think about it! But, as you’re describing it, it strikes me that you being who you are, and the way that you like to work, and the way that you do take an empirical and scientific approach to food and cooking and so on, that you were driven to solve these problems and get it right. Is that often the difference between a restaurant that works and one that doesn’t, which is that you have to be driven to constantly adjust, solve problems like that, that are going to come up? Do most restaurants really try as hard as you just described?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Most restaurants really try as hard. Any good chef cares deeply about the quality, and any good restaurant owner cares deeply about the quality of what they’re putting out. So I don’t think I’m unique in that regard at all. Me and my partners, Tyson and Adam, we have a lot of sit-down meetings where we analyze problems and try and solve them. So, maybe we do that a little bit more than other restaurants, but that’s my skill. I’ve worked for chefs that seem to have an innate skill to just be able to figure things out on the fly, or be able to work harder and faster to be able to solve those problems. People will attack those problems in different ways. But any good restaurant owner is going to recognize those problems and try and solve it in their own way.
DUBNER: I’m curious how much you pay attention to reviews of any sort. If you had opened a restaurant 10, certainly 20 years ago, there’s so much less feedback then, and now, some people feel swamped by it. Some people feel a lot of it is disingenuous. I know you said in the past that Yelp, in fact, this is from a tweet of yours: “Yelp is and has always been the worst place to look for decent reviews. Shady business practices, reviews by people who I know nothing about and have no reason to trust their opinion, even on the off chance they actually dined at the restaurant you’re rating.” So talk about that for a minute, your experience with Yelp and/or other online reviews.
LÓPEZ-ALT: So, it’s difficult to gain value from them for me.
DUBNER: You mean as a consumer or a producer?
LÓPEZ-ALT: As a consumer. To some degree, as a producer there is a little bit of value to it. But, especially if you start looking at trends and see, all right, people that are complaining, what are they complaining about? At the beginning when we opened, it was service. And that was some very legitimate feedback on that.
DUBNER: You didn’t need online reviews to know that was a problem, I gather, right?
LÓPEZ-ALT: There’s very little that I’ve read, I’ve seen in Yelp, that we didn’t already realize was a problem. As a consumer of Yelp, I find Yelp useful as a map of what restaurants are around, but it’s hard to trust opinions. A very good professional review, you don’t necessarily have to agree with the reviewer’s point of view on what is good and what’s not, but if you have an idea of what they think is good, then they tell you whether this restaurant met those expectations, and then you can sort of gauge, “All right, well, do I agree with whether that’s good or not?” And that’s what a good restaurant review will do. Whereas on Yelp, it’s like someone, BasicUser12345, says “this restaurant was terrible, the potatoes sucked.” Well, I don’t know what you define as good potatoes, so how is that helpful to me?
DUBNER: But the problem is that everybody eats, right? So everybody considers themself a legitimate critic, which, you can’t totally discount that fact, can you?
LÓPEZ-ALT: No, no you can’t. But at the end of the day, I’m involved in this project because I want to be, I want to have my name on it. I want to be proud of what we’re putting out. At some point you just have to stick to your guns and say, “This is what I believe is good. And I’m not going to change that just because some people say they disagree that it’s good.” And if your idea of what is good is so far off from what most people think is good, then maybe you’re in trouble and you’re going to go out of business. But I’m of the mind that I’d rather lose a little business and stick to what I believe is true than to just pander to everybody to try and make the most money, which is hard to explain to partners and investors. But at the end of the day, as a food writer, I think I do have a pretty good pulse of what people think is good.
DUBNER: Right. So overall on Yelp, Wursthall is doing pretty well. Averaging about three-and-a-half out of five stars. So let me read you one Yelp review and hear your response.
LÓPEZ-ALT: Ok, I honestly haven’t looked at Yelp reviews since, like, the second month after we opened, so we’ll see, all right.
DUBNER: This is from just over a month ago. This is from Andrew R. He writes, “I was really disappointed. I expected more. Not that I had high expectations. They were modest, honestly. But it fell below that bar as well. For one, the service was not that great. For two, the food just isn’t that good. It’s okay. Like, you would eat it if you were hungry. But another sausage would probably satisfy you more. And I like a split-top bun because you can grill both sides like they do here. But when it’s split only halfway down there’s a lot of bread with no meat at the bottom. And that’s terrible. Cut that bun all the way down. It’ll be better. Trust me.” So, that’s Andrew R. What does Kenji L. say?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well, I’ll start from the end of it and work back. Believe it or not, we tested how far to cut the bun extensively before opening. And trust me when I say it’s not better to cut it too far, because the buns end up falling apart. It doesn’t stand right. That sounds all fair, I mean those seem like legitimate concerns. If I was at the restaurant, I would definitely love to talk to him and get a little more details about exactly what they were disappointed with. What is it about the sausage that you didn’t like? And to his point about sausages being not great: I fully admit sometimes, like any restaurant or any business, we have consistency issues now and then, and we work our best to make sure that those don’t happen. And every day gets better.
DUBNER: Here’s a professional review, this is Peter Lawrence Kane on SF Weekly. He writes, “The quality of the food is high, and it is consistent. The thing is, considering López-Alt’s eminently well-deserved reputation for being a demystifier of culinary techniques, Wursthall falls a little short of the gosh-wow factor longtime fans might clamor for. Maybe that’s not entirely fair. After all, it’s exactly what it claims to be.” What’s your take on that, Kenji?
LÓPEZ-ALT: So, I fully agree with that. This is again one of those things where it’s like what happened to the restaurant between the initial concept and between what customers expect. And, the initial concept was, “All right, we’re going to serve some damn good sausages. We’re going to make our own sauerkraut. It’s going to be good sauerkraut, but it’s still sausages and sauerkraut.” And there’s only so far that can go, as far as gosh-darn-wow factor. This is one of those things where the concept of the restaurant on paper turned out very different from what the restaurant is now. Once my name got attached to it and started bringing the media attention to it, it turns out people are coming there for dinner. They’re not coming there to drink. So, we started as a beer hall, but we’re not really a beer hall anymore. We’re a restaurant. And so that’s been one of the challenges since opening, coming to terms with that and realizing, “You know what? Some of the stuff we initially thought isn’t going to work, because customers are coming in with different expectations.” Any restaurant takes a while to find its legs. I think for us maybe it’s taking a little bit longer just because it was such a big shift from what we had initially planned compared to what customers perceive.
DUBNER: I see that — maybe yesterday, or within the last little while, you tweeted — a new menu item that’s starting soon. Maybe maybe it’s already started by now.
LÓPEZ-ALT: Starting today. I was at the restaurant all morning training the staff and making making sure the cooks knew how it worked.
DUBNER: So, this is tomato mayo toast with grilled corn vinaigrette and a corn soup, paprika oil and shishito peppers. So that’s not what I think of as beer-hall food. Was it the clientele who drove it primarily? In other words, were people confused when they came originally because they know your name and they think it was going to be more of a sit-down, knife-and-fork situation?
LÓPEZ-ALT: I think that’s part of it. I definitely saw comments saying, like, “I expected the menu to be a little more Kenji than what it is.” Because it’s sausages, and I don’t write that much about sausages. I don’t eat that many sausages. I like them. And we cook them well, but it doesn’t exactly scream “Kenji” or “Food Lab” or whatever. So, yes, part of this revamping process has been, “How do we make this menu more me?”
DUBNER: So from what I’ve read, you own 12 percent of the restaurant and 20 percent of anything else with these partners?
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s something like that. That’s ballpark correct.
DUBNER: Would you have had the same share of ownership had you just acted as a sort of consulting-founding chef, as opposed to roll up your sleeves fully involved?
LÓPEZ-ALT: No. My partners are actually very understanding of the entire situation and the fact that I’ve now got more involved than I was planning on. Initially it was it was going to be basically just a fee plus a smaller percentage of ownership.
DUBNER: The big question I have then really is, so far, do you feel overall that it’s worth it? Another way of putting that is, if I came to you tomorrow, Kenji, with an idea that you liked, an idea for a restaurant, maybe a site for a restaurant, and a potentially worthwhile partnership, what do you do? Do you succumb? Or do you refrain this time?
LÓPEZ-ALT: I would say the restaurant on its own, in a bubble, detached from every other part of my life, was absolutely worth it. I don’t mind putting in hours and hours and hours of work even for little to no — I haven’t made any money off this restaurant yet, and I don’t plan on making any money for a while, until we pay off our investors. But we don’t live in a vacuum. So if someone came to me right now and asked me if I want to do this restaurant again, I would probably say no. Only because it cost me three months of being with my daughter. And that was a price that I wasn’t expecting to have to pay at the beginning, and one that made me deeply sad as it was happening, and also in retrospect. I don’t regret anything I did with the restaurant. I do regret how it affected my personal life and my family. But we learned those lessons.
DUBNER: Okay, final question. Let’s say that — maybe this is when your daughter is in school, when your daughter is in college even — but let’s say I come to you and I want you to work with me to open a new restaurant. What is the dream concept? Whether it’s cuisine or style or location. What is the restaurant that you absolutely would sacrifice again almost your entire life to do?
LÓPEZ-ALT: It would be something much smaller than Wursthall. So, we’re opening a couple more Wursthalls in the coming years, but we’ve talked about other restaurant concepts as well, and if we were to work on something together again, we would do something much smaller. The idea I’ve been throwing out at them is a Korean fried chicken sandwich place, which is a recipe that I’ve done at a number of pop-ups, I think is extremely delicious, but it’s essentially chicken brined in kimchi juice and then done Nashville hot chicken style. But instead of the Nashville hot chicken oil that goes on there, we make a sauce with Korean chili flakes and a bunch of Korean flavors, and it’s super delicious and the kind of thing that I think would do well as a fast-casual thing. That would basically be it for me. I want to feed a lot of people and make them happy. I don’t want to open an ego restaurant. I don’t want people to come to worship at the altar of Kenji López-Alt, come for this experience. I want a place that people say, “Hey, that’s a f—ing good sandwich. I’m going to have that once a week.”
We had that conversation with Kenji López-Alt back in July. And we caught up with him again a few weeks ago, for an update.
DUBNER: So first of all, I’m just curious: how is life?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Life is great now. At home I found a much better balance between restaurant and home life after that sort of craziness of opening. We’ve hired some more people in to help fill some management voids in the restaurant, which means that I get to spend a lot more time with my daughter and working on my other projects without having to freak out about what’s going on at the restaurant.
DUBNER: Did your marriage recover from the stress of opening?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Yeah it’s definitely in much better shape. And I have a much better understanding of what it means to overcommit myself to things. Yes, everything on that front is going much better.
DUBNER: Okay, and then importantly: how’s Wursthall going?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Wursthall is going well. I think the last time we talked, we were in this position where it was having a little bit of an identity crisis, because we had planned for it one way at the beginning, and then people were coming and expecting something different, and so we’ve been slowly trying to push it in that direction. And we’ll have completely transitioned our menu into a more sit-down experience, fork-and-knife, all that. But things are going well. We’ve never had trouble getting people in the door. We’ve never had trouble with revenue per se — the trouble has always been with profit. Maybe that’s true with most businesses. So, that’s been our concern for the last six months or so: all right, we’re making this money, we get people in the door — how do we actually turn that into profit so that we can actually start breaking even and making money and paying back our investors and all that?
DUBNER: So a lot of economists would say, “Well, the first and probably second and third and fourth steps toward bridging the revenue-profit gap would be very, very, very, very, simple, especially since you said that the demand is really strong. Right? You’re not having any trouble filling it, just raise prices.” So why not do that?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well part of it is our goal is to make sure that families and neighborhood people can come in and feel good about coming in. And as it is right now, I would say among our top three complaints is price already, so part of our goal especially with these new menu changes, is how do we give people an experience that they are willing to pay a little bit more for that they still see value in? And, originally with the menu the problem was everything came on a bun. And there is a limit to what people will pay for a sandwich and what people feel comfortable paying for a sandwich. Despite the quality of the ingredients inside, despite the amount of labor that goes into all that, there’s a certain amount you can charge for a sandwich and people will not pay any more. That’s not the case with fork-and-knife plates. People see more value in a fork-and-knife plate. We do this chicken schnitzel sandwich. We could just take off the bun and serve the exact same plate and charge $4 more for it, and people wouldn’t bat an eye.
The restaurant’s original concept, you’ll recall, was German-beer-hall-goes-to-California.
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s still a California beer hall. We still have sausages and German-themed things.
But customers who were fans of Kenji López-Alt’s food writing were expecting a menu that was more Kenji-fied. And so it has become more Kenji-fied. They’re serving a cacio e pepe …
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s like a quick Roman version of macaroni and cheese.
But with Germanic noodles rather than Italian.
LÓPEZ-ALT: So it’s our house spaetzle that we pan fry in brown butter, which is the traditional way to do spaetzle.
Also: smash-burgers and Korean-style fried chicken.
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s something we resisted at the beginning: should we do a burger? People know me for the burger, but do we need another place that serves a burger? And then we just decided, “Yeah, people want a burger. It’s good. People are going to order it, let’s just do it.” That and the fried chicken are probably our two top sellers. Once we got past that mental hurdle of being like, we don’t have to be strictly German, it was a pretty easy call at that point. Like, fried chicken and burgers — people love making them, they’re easy to prep, and they’ll help with this profit problem because both of them are high-profit dishes, compared to sausage, which are among are lowest-profit dishes because they take so much more work.
DUBNER: So you mentioned that one of the biggest problems is just personnel and turnover, both in the kitchen and front of the house, and I’m just curious to hear how you’re doing on that front with retention.
LÓPEZ-ALT: We have a number of people have been around since the very beginning. There was a bit of turnover when we changed executive chefs. I recently hired a new executive chef, and so when that management change happened, there was turnover. But we were expecting it because people are loyal to their bosses. But things seem to be settling down again.
DUBNER: Why did you need a new one?
LÓPEZ-ALT: It’s not that our previous chef was bad at his job. It’s just that the needs that we had in terms of efficiency and really managing the volume that we were doing was just something that he didn’t have experience at. Oh, one thing I should mention that actually really helped with our staff morale when these changes were happening is that we hired a translator, which I think is good advice for any business that has a lot of employees that aren’t very fluent in English. So we hired someone to come in for an entire day and we scheduled every Spanish-speaking employee to come in and sit down.
DUBNER: So it was really about communication to understand the flow of work and so on?
LOPEZ-ALT: No, it was less about the flow of work and more about the management change, the new chef, and the transition in menu. But a lot of it is also to get their feedback and to find out what they needed from us in order to be happy in their work.
DUBNER: Okay, really important question: how are the toilets holding up now?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Toilet situation’s fine. We put in the money to do the big fix, and it’s all it’s all fine.
DUBNER: So I understand that you’ve also, in the midst of all this, put yourself and the restaurant in the middle of a MAGA controversy. You tweeted, in response to public events in D.C., you tweeted, “It hasn’t happened yet, but if you come to my restaurant wearing a MAGA cap, you aren’t getting served. Same as if you come in wearing a swastika, white hood, or any other symbol of intolerance and hate.” So, that’s what you tweeted. What happened next?
LÓPEZ-ALT: What happened next was — well, nothing for a few days and then it got picked up by some newspapers and then went around national news. And that’s when trouble happened. It was a mistake on a number of fronts for me to say that. The first one and the one that I was really concerned about was, it was a mistake the way I treated my staff and my partners, because that’s my personal Twitter account. It was something I said off the cuff and I never talked to my partners about it. And I realized afterwards that I just put my partners and especially my staff in a really tough position. Because now there’s all this anger being directed at them, and they had nothing to do with it. It was just me shooting off my mouth.
The other thing I want to say is that people very fairly read that as an attack on individuals, and as an attack on themselves after reading it, an attack on Republicans. And I can understand why it was read that way. And all I can say is that in my head it was really not about individuals. It is about the symbol, the symbol of the hat. I very admittedly live in a liberal bubble, I live in the Bay Area. I obviously I get exposed to a lot of people from around the country, including my family. And if you go just outside the Bay Area, of course there’s lots of right-wing people, lots of Republicans. And I get along fine with everyone. But, when you see that hat at rallies where there’s hateful things being said, or you see that hat being worn by people who are doing hateful things, it comes on to take a specific meaning that makes me uncomfortable. I guess my big regret as it came out in the way that closed down discussion as opposed to opening discussion.
DUBNER: You said it caused a lot of anger. Were people in your restaurant, whether partners or employees, were they angry because it endangered their livelihood, or were they angry on a level beyond that?
LÓPEZ-ALT: To be honest I don’t really want to talk about my partners or my staff — I don’t want to bring any of that up again, because I’ve already put them in an uncomfortable position. It’s been tough. I’ve been realizing that I’m in this position where I want to have my cake and eat it too. I’m a normal guy. I feel just like any other schlub on the Internet. I spend my days doing normal-people things, puttering around the house and fixing things and repairing the furnace. And I’ll just talk the way I talk on the Internet. But then, especially in the last couple of years, I have this platform and it’s my responsibility to use it. And that’s an impulse control thing, and that’s something my wife tells me all the time, like, “You can’t do this, because whether you want it or not, you’re well-known and you can’t just talk like this, because it’s going to get us in trouble. It’s not just about getting you in trouble, it’s going to get our family in trouble.” It is something that I very consciously have been thinking about. This year, I made a New Year’s resolution that if I make any kind of political comments, that I won’t respond back to commenters.
DUBNER: How are you doing with that resolution?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Good. Actually, I’m pretty much zero in terms of responding back. I also promised I wouldn’t make any more ad hominem attacks on social media, which, the one time I broke that was when I made an ad hominem attack against everybody who wears a MAGA hat, and that got me into trouble.
Soon enough, López-Alt will be taking a break from America and its politics.
LÓPEZ-ALT: I’m actually planning with my wife and my daughter — we’re going to be taking three months in Colombia. The idea is researching a book on Colombian cuisine, written for an American audience, which doesn’t really exist right now.
DUBNER: And where does your passion for that cuisine come from?
LÓPEZ-ALT: Well my wife is Colombian, and we spend a lot of time down there and it’s a huge country, hugely varied in terms of geography and culture and cuisine — there’s the Andes, there’s coastal regions, there’s plains, there’s rainforest, there’s deserts — with widely varied cuisine as well, that I think is under-represented and I feel like I have a good inside track on that.
DUBNER: What happens if or when the next time you open a restaurant — how do you come into it thinking differently, knowing now what you know?
LÓPEZ-ALT: I take less on myself. I delegate more. I think I spend more time figuring out the personnel issue as opposed to the fun-concept issue and figure out how do we make this happen where I don’t have to upturn my life and give up everything else to do it. And if I can’t do it, then that just means I won’t do it. I’ve come to this place where — when the first restaurant — when the opportunity came to me it was like, I don’t want to die thinking, “What if? This is an opportunity to do something I’ve always thought about doing, it wasn’t a lifelong dream, but I’ve thought about doing it, I should do it.” And at this point, you know what? I don’t need to do it again. If the opportunity comes up and I can find a way to ensure that I don’t have to upend my life again to do it, then I would. But I’m perfectly content saying no.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
J. Kenji López-Alt, chef, restauranteur, and food writer.
The Food Lab by James Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton & Company 2015).
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