The coils of angel-hair pasta are arranged neatly on beds of red lettuce and adorned with gleaming shrimp. Baskets of thickly cut potatoes bubble in the fryer. A plastic container full of fresh jambalaya sits on ice in the sink, along with a smaller container of uncooked chicken breasts. Over on the steam table, the rice and the soup are warming. The coals in the grill glow orange, and blue flames dance atop two of the four burners on the stove. A grandfather clock on a wall outside the kitchen reads 11:26 a.m. “Almost show time,” remarks sous chef Pat Dupree.
Owner and head chef Mike Jackson nods as he makes his way down the narrow kitchen, a towel slung over one broad shoulder. In contrast to Dupree, who is wearing a traditional white chef's hat and shirt, Jackson is wearing faded jeans and a blue sweat shirt. Outwardly expressionless, he glances around the kitchen with such a keen eye . that you can practically hear the conversation going on in his head: “Bacon-sesame sauce? Hot. Clarified butter? On the stove. Saute pans? Four. Burgers? In the fridge,” and so on.
It is almost lunchtime at Jilly's, a small Hillcrest restaurant that specializes in Cajun food, and Jackson and Dupree are preparing to serve lunch to about seventy people in three hours. Things have to be ready.
At 11:32 the first customers walk through the door — an elderly couple dressed in tweed jackets. During the few minutes it takes them to order, you can feel anticipation building in the kitchen the way you can in a desert valley just before a rainstorm. Finally, waitress Maggie Spangler appears at a window between the kitchen and the dining room and calls out, “Order in!” Within a few minutes, other customers have arrived, and Jackson and Dupree are working in fast-forward.
Jackson is cooking two hamburgers and several shrimp on the grill while manning all four burners on the stove at once: burner one, filets of sea bass poaching in a creamy etouffee sauce made with crayfish meat; burner two, a Chinese-like blend of chicken pieces, red Szechwan peppers, peanuts, and green onions sizzling in oil; burner three, shrimp sauteing in butter; burner four, a pan brimming with a colorful mixture of fresh vegetables that will be used to garnish some of the plates. In the oven, mozzarella cheese is melting over a Cajun meatball submarine, a sandwich served on French bread that features spicy meatballs and a tomato sauce.
Meanwhile, Dupree is ladling soup into bowls and arranging salads and side dishes on a row of gleaming white plates. Some of the plates get fried potatoes and a cup of tomato salad made earlier from fresh tomatoes, purple onions, and small cubes of mozzarella cheese in a vinaigrette; others receive the sauteed vegetables and a sprig of fresh thyme. After adding the main courses supplied by Jackson, Dupree carefully wipes unsightly drips and spills off the plates with a towel and then sends the lunches out to waiting customers.
For restaurants in San Diego, the 1980s have turned out to be a decade of opportunity. Never before have so many people here clamored for so many different types of food — reflecting, to some extent, a national trend. Since the late 1970s, consumers have shown an increasing interest in new and more sophisticated types of cuisine, but even so, statistics from the state department of health suggest that in recent years, interest on the part of San Diegans has climbed at a rate well above average. Between 1981 and 1986, 842 new sit-down establishments opened in San Diego County, an increase of nineteen percent. During that same period, the number of restaurants in the county of San Francisco increased by less than twelve percent, while in Los Angeles County the number of restaurants increased by only thirteen percent between 1980 and 1986.
Large, well-established restaurants usually have around fifty or more employees. In contrast, most of the restaurants that have opened in San Diego since 1981 — sixty-eight percent —have fewer than twenty-five employees. Many are ethnic restaurants, reflecting the city’s growing populations of Vietnamese, Chinese, Greeks, Thais, and Ethiopians, but along with them have come independently owned eateries serving trendier cuisines, too: Cajun, California, and various derivatives of Continental.
Some of these new restaurants here simply cater to the county’s increasing population, which has grown by a stupefying average of 150 people every day since 1980. Nevertheless, a lot of local restaurateurs insist that the expansion of business is not simply due to the presence of more mouths in town. “It’s the result of a spread of awareness of what good food is,” said Will Howard, owner and chef at Issimo (formerly the Pasta Place), a small gourmet restaurant in Bird Rock. “San Diegans are beginning to realize that there’s more out there than meat and potatoes and that a good meal doesn't only come wrapped in a package of bamboo walls, short cocktail dresses, iceberg lettuce, and aloha shirts.”
“San Diego lagged behind a little bit as the interest in food got bigger” nationwide, agreed William Magnuson, who opened the La Jolla restaurant Gustaf Anders with partner Ulf Strandberg in 1981. “Now, food has become the ‘in’ thing here,” and local restaurateurs are scrambling to take advantage of it.
“I don’t think we would have even been successful here ten years ago,” continued Magnuson, whose restaurant features stylish Continental and California cuisine made with exotic and sometimes astonishingly expensive ingredients from all over the world. “But I can think of fifty restaurants that compete with us now — all of them opened in the last three years.”
Not all are as successful as Gustaf Anders, however. Along with the increase in business has come increasingly fierce competition, and while corporate-owned restaurants can and do go out of business, independent restaurants, often undercapitalized, are particularly vulnerable. Richard’s Restaurant had a typical life span; it opened in the Bay Ho shopping center on Avati Drive in May 1985 and closed sixteen months later. Richard Savitch, the former owner and chef at Richard’s, now works as executive chef at El Crab Catcher in La Jolla. “San Diego is still a tough place for a boutique restaurant,” he said. “At Richard’s, we just didn’t see the [financial] results as quickly as we had hoped. We didn’t do the lunch business I thought we would, because the [new] office buildings near the shopping center didn’t fill up. It became very tough for us to get people in on the weekends, too. We wanted to provide something the city didn’t have — a place where the locals could get a table in the summer and that had California-type cuisine as good as any place in town. But it turned out to be something that San Diego wouldn’t support.”
Savitch, who estimated that he and his wife spent $150,000 decorating, furnishing, and altering the interior of their restaurant before they opened, said they decided to close the doors because ‘‘we didn’t want to accrue any more debts. It still hurts to go back there and pick up our mail,” he added. “I admire anyone who’s still open.”
Other independently owned restaurants aspiring to serve fashionable or Continental-style food have likewise flared up and then disappeared in recent years: La Boheme and Cafe Angelique in Hillcfest, the Creole Gumbo in Bird Rock, and Colombo’s, Ciao Bella, and the Pacific Wine Bar and Bistro downtown, to name only a few. But one that has survived for nearly two years now is Jilly’s, a chic, forty-seat restaurant run by Mike and Jill Jackson. Jill, a tall, thin twenty-five-year-old with wavy black hair and an outwardly easygoing manner, moved to the San Carlos area of San Diego with her parents in 1977 after growing up in New York’s Rockland County. “I was just starting high school then, so I went to Patrick Henry,” she recalled not long ago. “It was kind of a shock for a New Yorker — going to school all of a sudden with 4000 surfers.”
After graduating from Patrick Henry High in 1980, Jill attended UC Santa Cruz, then got fed up with studying art and returned to San Diego in 1984. “I stayed with my folks here, but I was just visiting, thinking about moving to Vancouver and getting involved in a restaurant up there. I had worked as a waitress in Santa Cruz, and I liked the restaurant business. But you know how it is when you stay with your parents — they want you to do something. So I took a course on cooking and restaurant management at Century Schools [a local trade school that teaches restaurant and bartending skills]. I was just biding my time.”
The teacher of the course was Mike Jackson, a big, bearded man with a soft Georgia drawl and a linebacker’s powerful shoulders. Jackson, who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, began cooking in a pizza joint when he was thirteen and went on to become a cook in the kitchens of the Atlanta Marriott and Sheraton hotels when he was barely out of his teens. In the spring of 1983, the Abbey restaurant in Atlanta hired the twenty-three-year-old Jackson as a saucier — a cook in charge of sauces and stocks. “I learned a lot about sauces at the Abbey,” Jackson said with a smile, “but then, I had a lot to learn. What does a white boy from south Georgia know about glaces?”
In the autumn of that same year, the Abbey sent him to work at their new location in San Diego as executive sous chef. But six months after coming to San Diego, Jackson got into a dispute with the Abbey’s general manager and quit. “He’d criticize the way I cut things or how I held a knife,” Mike recalled. “And I’m not good at taking shit from people, not over a long period of time, anyway.” He paused. “Cooking is a high-stress job. I’ve never met a chef who didn’t have a temper, and I’m no exception,” he said matter-of-factly. “With me, it’s because I want everything just so.” He pinched his thumb and forefinger together, as it he were holding a tiny amount of salt.
Soon after leaving the Abbey, and in need of income more or less immediately, he took a job teaching a course on restaurant management at Century Schools. Before the course was over, he and Jill were dating, and when the three-month course ended, the two of them began working at a variety of restaurant jobs around the city. Mike got a position as night chef at George's at the Cove restaurant in La Jolla; Jill prepared desserts and salads at George's for a few months and then took a job as a line cook at Upstart Crow in La Jolla. By the time they were married in March 1985, Jill's father — who runs gift shops at several San Diego hotels, including the U.S. Grant, the Hanalei, and the Holiday Inn at the Embarcadero — had already suggested to the couple that he'd be willing to invest in a restaurant if they would run it. Mike could manage the kitchen, and Jill could be in charge of the dining room. It didn’t take them long to accept the offer. “We were tired of working for other people, basically,” explained Mike.
After a brief honeymoon in Mazatlan, the Jacksons began to look for a suitable place to lease. They found one in an empty building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Hawthorn Street. The previous tenants had run the place as a gay bar, but the owner of the building had evicted them months earlier over nonpayment of rent. It took some imagination to see the interior as a fashionable restaurant: it was filled with scarred wooden booths, and Christmas decorations still adorned the walls. Food from the previous December was rotting in the kitchen. But the lease was affordable, and besides, the Jacksons were feeling a small sense of urgency: Mike had already quit his latest job as executive chef at the Executive Hotel downtown.
Over the next four weeks, the couple had the interior repainted and the carpet removed and replaced. “I took a hammer myself and beat the booths apart,” Mike remembered. “I remember rockin' and tuggin' on the boards to get ’em to come out. And I scraped the tint off the windows, with a razor blade.” Jill bought framed posters from a local gallery to adorn the walls, and the two of them drove to Los Angeles to buy new tables, chairs, track lights, fans, and other accessories from a restaurant supply company. They decided to lease,rather than buy an ice maker and an automatic dishwasher. “I'm not going to spend $6000 on an ice maker and dishwasher for a little place like this,” Mike pointed out. “That would be stupid.” In all they spent about $30,000 (an amount that has doubled since that time as they have added stainless-steel kitchen counters and a small walk-in freezer).
In May of '85, the Jacksons opened their restaurant for lunch, and they stayed open until 7:00 p.m. as a kind of test to see how much dinner business there would be. As they had hoped, customers appeared almost immediately from the nearby office and medical buildings, and a lot of them kept coming back — for lunch. But dinner was a different story. “The first night, there weren’t maybe five people in the restaurant,” Mike recalled with a smile. “And it was like that for maybe a month.” Jill struck bargains with several local radio stations to trade food for on-air advertising, however, and those ads plus two favorable reviews in local newspapers soon helped to give Jilly’s a steady stream of customers.
At 9:00 a.m., Mike Jackson pulls open the door to Jilly's and steps inside. Maggie Spangler is already there, vacuuming the carpets, and Pat Dupree is in the kitchen washing lettuce, peeling shrimp, and performing myriad other tasks in preparation for lunch. Jill is back at the Jackson's two-bedroom condominium on the corner of Maple and Front streets in Hillcrest, taking care of their fourteen-month-old daughter Carly.
It is largely because of Carly that the Jacksons have worked out a complicated work schedule that begins when Mike comes into the restaurant six mornings a week to place orders and prepare food for both lunch and dinner. During lunch hours, which begin at 11:30 a.m., he serves as head chef; by about 1:00 p.m., Jill has arrived — with Carly in tow — to greet customers and help serve food and drinks. When lunch ends at 2:30, Jill takes Carly back to the condominium while Mike spends an hour or so picking up food or supplies and sometimes helping the night chef, Bruce Zimmerman, prepare for dinner. Then Mike returns to the condo, and he and Jill have about an hour together before Jill takes off for the restaurant again to work as a manager and hostess for dinner, which is served from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. Mike babysits Carly all evening but usually returns to the restaurant around midnight to count the day's receipts and check to see that the kitchen has been properly cleaned up and closed down.
“If you're not interested in working seven days a week, you don't belong in the restaurant business.” pointed out Magnuson of Gustaf Anders. “The longest vacation I've had in the last three years was a few days I spent at a family wedding in Omaha, Nebraska. So many people think this business is glamorous and lots of fun, but it's more than a job — it’s a lifestyle."
“It is a lifestyle," agreed Jill Jackson.
“As hard as Mike worked before we opened our own place, I think he works harder now. There’s no shutting your eyes to it. I sleep worse than I used to. I wake up three nights a week in a sweat, thinking of restaurant stuff. It’s a lot of work.” But as hectic as their current schedule is, she added, it is still better than the consecutive fourteen-hour days she and her husband worked during the restaurant’s first year.
This morning — a gloomy Thursday in March — Mike pours himself a cup of coffee, stirs a little milk into it, and then picks up the phone to call Tommy’s Quality Meats, a meat wholesaler on nearby Columbia Street. The produce for the day has already been ordered; in fact, it has already been delivered and is stacked near a side door of the restaurant — cardboard boxes full of lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, squash, and others. Jackson placed his produce order at midnight the previous night in order to get the stuff today; produce wholesalers are at work before dawn and often complete their deliveries by late morning.
“This is Mike at Jilly’s,” Jackson says into the phone. “Is Tony in?” A pause. “Tony, how you doin’? I just need a few things today. I need two packages of beef tenderloin, okay? And I need twenty pounds of ground chuck and one case of pork tenderloins. I’ll pick that up this afternoon, all right? Bye.” A few minutes later, he calls the Chesapeake Fish Company at the Embarcadero to order fish. “Ready, Jim? I need five pounds of red snapper.... And you got any catfish in today? Okay, give me five pounds of that. And five pounds of salmon — how much is it? Is that the cheapest you have? Well, all right. Got any green lips? Okay, give me three pounds of green-lip mussels. What else you got that’s good today?”
After adding fifteen pounds of shrimp and five pounds each of sea bass and spearfish to his order, Jackson hangs up the phone and steps into his kitchen. “That’s just enough to cover today through dinner tomorrow,” he notes as he ties on an apron. “I order almost every single day, because I don’t have the storage space to store much more than that. Which is a problem, because I pay every-single-day prices, too.” Discounts are available to those who order fifty or one hundred pounds of a single type of fish at a time, but the chef at Jilly’s, catering to a relatively small clientele and hampered by a shortage of refrigerated storage space, is not among them.
Dupree is sauteeing chopped celery and onions in a huge stock pot on the stove; these will flavor the soup of the day, a shrimp-and-corn concoction that will be thickened with butter, flour, and cream and spiced with cayenne pepper. “I let him make the soup according to however he wants,” Jackson says of Dupree. “If it tastes a little off, I’ll tell him what I think it needs.” Meanwhile, Angel Serrano, a young dishwasher and kitchen helper, is preparing half a dozen grilled chicken-breast salads for lunch. Jackson glances at him as he passes by, then stops. “You got to marinate those first before putting them on the lettuce,” he tells Angel, pointing at the cooked chicken breasts. Angel nods and starts over.
On a wooden table in a corner, Jackson begins making a marinara sauce by peeling and dicing four large yellow onions. After ladling several tablespoons of melted butter into a pot, he adds the onions and lets them simmer over a hot flame while he chops a handful of fresh basil. “This is an ‘eyeball’ kitchen,” he notes as he works.
“I almost never measure anything — I pretty much know how much I want to make.” Jackson adds the finely chopped basil to the pot along with chopped garlic, then pours in a liberal amount of Fetzer ’84 Gamay, a red wine. Grabbing a wooden spoon, he stirs the mixture rapidly for a moment, then bangs the spoon on the side of the pot. “We’ll let that reduce,” he says, explaining that in a half-hour or so, he’ll add purged tomatoes to the pot and let the sauce simmer for several hours. The thick, pungent marinara sauce will be served over an appetizer of fried mozzarella cheese the restaurant offers at dinner;
in addition, some of the sauce will be spiced with cayenne pepper and spooned over the Cajun meatball sandwiches served at lunch.
Two years ago, when the Jacksons were inventing a menu for their restaurant, they decided to feature the type of food Mike had the most experience making — regional Southern, including Cajun. Cajun food happened to be in vogue at the time, and the Jacksons figured that would help attract customers. But they decided to play it safe by fleshing out the menu with a variety of dishes aimed at satisfying almost any taste. “You can get just about anything you want here,” claims Mike. “We got a little Chinese food on the menu. Salads? We got a lot of salads. We got Italian food. You want steak? There’s filet mignon on the menu. We even serve marinated tofu at lunch, and when I moved here four years ago, I didn’t even know what tofu was.”
The resulting list of offerings reads like the menu at a United Nations conference, but as it turns out, playing it safe is a smart business practice for a restaurant here. According to a number of local restaurateurs, San Diegans tend to be as conservative in choosing what to put on their forks as they are at the polls. When the Souplantation, a locally owned soup-and-salad-bar chain, tried to phase out its time-honored Waldorf salad in favor of fresh fruit, customers complained so vigorously that the restaurant scrapped the experiment. And even Gustaf Anders — which features five different kinds of caviar and prepares raviolis filled with duck foie gras, and loin of lamb with black truffles and sherry sauce — lists hamburgers and potato salad on its luncheon menu.
Conservative eating habits are cited by many local restaurateurs as a prime reason for the prevalence of chain restaurants here. “San Diego is the prototype for a chain market,” said Will Howard. “People come here for the lifestyle... They spend money on tennis courts and longer cars, not dinner or a new painting. They’re more interested in atmosphere than they are in food. That lends itself to the chain concept perfectly” Magnuson added that “San Diego is a tourist town, and chains can offer a low-cost, fun-type meal that tourists are often looking for.”
Even so, as restaurateur Stephen Zolezzi has pointed out, the city has absorbed more and more people in recent years who appreciate new directions in cooking and have the money to indulge their interest. “There has been a tremendous influx of people to San Diego who are more cosmopolitan... who are wealthier, better traveled, who have more disposable income,” said Zolezzi, who first opened his Hillcrest restaurant, Stefano’s, in 1961 and has revamped it regularly to keep up with the dining public’s changing demands. These people are relatively knowledgeable about food “and want to satisfy the taste requirements they’ve brought with them,” he explained. “Many are couples who both work. They’re making $75,000 a year between them, and they don’t want to cook. For them, dining out is entertainment. It’s their reward."
To compete for these lucrative diners, many of the fashionable new restaurants here emphasize fresh ingredients and a new spirit of adventurousness in their food. For example, the Harbor House, which served mesquite-grilled fish almost exclusively when it opened in Seaport Village in 1981, is now offering such dishes as venison and pizzas topped with barbecued chicken. Likewise, Zolezzi’s restaurant, which eight years ago served two or three kinds of pre-made pasta, now serves half a dozen pastas that are all made fresh in the restaurant’s kitchen. Tomato sauce is still on the menu, but so is pesto sauce, made with fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, and romano cheese. “A few years ago, almost no one knew what pesto sauce was,” Zolezzi pointed out. And Jilly’s runs through two pounds of cayenne pepper a week in preparing its various Cajun dishes, raising its food to a degree of hotness that would send diners at most of the coffee shops around town fleeing to the nearest fire hydrant.
Naturally, food that can be described with adjectives such as “fresh,” “novel,” and “hard-to-get” costs more than food that is frozen, prepackaged or mass-produced. “But people are more and more willing to pay for quality,” said Magnuson. “For instance, we’re able to get white truffles from Italy once a year. They cost $600 to $700 a pound, and we make them up into an appetizer that sells for thirty or forty dollars.” Each serving has only a small amount of truffles in it, “but we sell out of one or two pounds in a week. People like that kind of thing” these days.
Jackson is aware that many of his customers are “yuppie types who know, nine times out of ten, what kind of attention went into preparing the food.” For that reason, the quality of his dishes has to be high. You might not think the food at Jilly’s is the best in town, but it is among the freshest. Jackson buys fish, meat, and produce daily and in quantities that ensure they are on customers’ plates by the following day. He and his cooks make all their own sauces (storing leftovers in the refrigerator for a maximum of a day or two), and fresh herbs, butter, and cream are the rule.
Nevertheless, in order to hold his prices down, he makes a few compromises. “We garnish our Cajun plates with fresh crayfish, but the ones that go into the etouffee sauce are frozen,” he said. “For a while, I was buying nothing but fresh crayfish every week from some guy in Louisiana, but with air-freight charges and everything, the cost came to twelve or thirteen dollars a pound, and I can get frozen crayfish here in town for nine dollars a pound.”
In addition, Jackson uses a powdered stock to flavor some of his soups and sauces, although he insists it is a high-quality product made without MSG. He buys garlic that’s already been chopped. “For me, it’s more practical, because it takes a lot of man-hours to peel and chop garlic, and I don’t have a bunch of people standing around who could do it.” Canned tomatoes go into his marinara sauce,along with a smaller amount of fresh ones, because the canned variety “is so much cheaper you practically have to use them.” Bread and pasta are delivered several times a week by local suppliers, and the rice, as it is in most of the restaurants around San Diego, is Uncle Ben’s.
In comparison, soups and sauces at Gustaf Anders are made from stocks that are boiled and reduced over a period of several days to the desired strength and consistency. The restaurant makes its own bread and uses only fresh tomatoes — even for ketchup, which is made from scratch. But a meal for two at Gustaf Anders with soup or salad and a bottle of wine can easily cost one hundred dollars or more. At Jilly’s, a typical meal for two with soup or salad and wine is about thirty dollars. “People don’t realize how expensive it is to run a restaurant,” said Magnuson. “Labor is the biggest cost, and it’s not dining-room labor, it’s kitchen labor.”
One thing that increases labor costs in many of the new, fashionable restaurants around town is preparing food that is not only tasty but colorful. As Magnuson pointed out, color has become “extremely important” in serving food. “In Swedish there is an expression: ‘You eat with your eyes.’ So we always have a little splash of color with what we serve. My partner draws a picture of each dish we plan to make and goes over it with our cooks. It’s like painting, in a way — or a woman dressing. That little scarf makes the whole outfit” come together. Thus, roasted red bell peppers are garnished with fresh green basil leaves. Avocados are sliced thinly, fanned out, and served with strips of red bell pepper.
Jackson, too, says he tries to make each plate “a work of art.” When strips of grilled and marinated chicken are laid onto lettuce leaves for one of Jilly’s salads, the strips are separated by juliennes of red, yellow, and green bell peppers. The plate is garnished at the last minute by a strawberry sliced and fanned across the top. Likewise, the Cajun dinners served at Jilly’s are garnished with a boiled red crayfish, and the vegetables that come with them are a colorful amalgamation of yellow squash, green string beans, zucchini, and snow peas, brown mushrooms, and orange carrots. Such culinary codicils require extra labor and higher prices, ,but they are part of the “quality” that most customers currently demand when they splurge on a fine meal.
On the other hand, said Jackson, “you also get the type of guy who comes in and wants steak and potatoes and doesn’t care that it comes served with roasted shallots that I’ve put on top, along with fresh tarragon leaves. He just scrapes all that off to the side and eats it.” The chef shakes his head, like a sculptor who has seen his cast-bronze statues being used as towel racks.
As the lunch rush moves into its second hour, Jackson continues to bake, grill, saute, and heat half a dozen entries at once. “Jilly’s Swiss burger comin’ off, and I’ve got a bro’ workin’ after that,” he calls to Dupree, referring in the latter case to a grilled brochette of chicken, shrimp, and beef. At the other end of the kitchen, Dupree is still reading orders and preparing plates, while behind him, Angel Serrano slides another full rack of dirty dishes into the automatic washer to be cleaned and sanitized. By 1:30 p.m., the fried potatoes that are served with a variety of sandwiches are running low, but, as if a faucet somewhere has been turned off, orders stop coming into the kitchen.
A few minutes later, Jackson takes off his apron and steps out a side door to smoke a cigarette. The respite is brief, however; soon he is back in the restaurant, conferring with Jill (who has arrived with Carly) about a new employee. Then he climbs into his Chevy Blazer to pick up the meat and fish he ordered earlier in the day. “We’re big on paying cash to our suppliers” he says as he maneuvers the truck down to Tommy’s Quality Meats. “But I still have to run around a lot because some of the suppliers have minimum orders for deliveries.” If your order is below the minimum, you pick it up yourself.
Only two other men are waiting for orders in the meat wholesaler’s office, so within minutes Jackson has written a check and received his beef and pork tenderloins along with the ground chuck. After pushing aside Carly’s stroller and a softball bat and mitt to make space in the back of his Blazer, he loads the plastic bags full of meat into his truck and drives down to the Embarcadero to pick up his order of fish at Chesapeake. Here, too, things go quickly, but Jackson takes a moment to ask if there is a cheaper type of salmon available than the Norwegian salmon he was told about over the phone. There isn’t, and he somewhat grudgingly pays $8.25 a pound for five pounds of the fish. “Man, that price has gone up since last week,” he grumbles as a worker in Chesapeake’s huge warehouse packs his order into a cardboard box. “It’s sushi quality, but what do I need sushi quality for? I’m going to grill it.”
Like most restaurateurs, Jackson pays close attention to the cost of his food, because it directly determines the prices he charges his customers. Using what he says is a standard method in the restaurant business, he first calculates the precise cost of an individual dinner — salad, dressing, vegetables, meat, sauce, herb garnish, and so forth. “I’ve costed things to the penny, down to the bread and butter, the lemon slice that goes in the water glass, and the salt that goes into every dish. How much is that amount of salt worth? About a third of a cent. A lemon slice is about five cents.” Adding all of these things up, he arrives at a per-dinner cost and then charges triple that cost on his menu. That sounds like a large markup, but consider that it has to cover all of his labor, food, energy, and other costs, as well as — presumably — a decent profit.
In addition, while a restaurant’s food costs actually fluctuate according to what suppliers are charging, Jilly’s prices don’t change nightly. So when Jackson pays more for a particular item, it cuts into his profit margin. That’s why he is concerned about the price of salmon at Chesapeake; to offer a salmon dinner for $12.95 on his menu, he has calculated that salmon will cost him $4.75 a pound, and today he is paying almost double that.
Since Jackson sees Jilly’s partly as a relatively inexpensive alternative to swank Continental restaurants in La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo, it’s important for him to keep his costs as low as possible. He and Jill pay $1600 a month to lease the space for their restaurant, far less than equivalent space goes for in La Jolla, and they hire a minimum of employees by doing much of the work for the restaurant themselves. (In addition to Dupree, night chef Zimmerman, dishwasher and kitchen helper Angel Serrano, and waitress Maggie Spangler, the Jacksons employ three other waitresses and another cook and dishwasher.)
As a small restaurant, though, Jilly’s inevitably pays higher rates for its food than the rock-bottom rates paid by chain restaurants and larger independents. For example, Jackson couldn't possibly use ten pounds of fresh herbs every week — the minimum order required by the county’s two main suppliers of fresh herbs — so he buys a pound a week from a middleman who also sells to other small restaurants, paying an extra fifteen percent for the service.
He uses about twenty.-four heads of lettuce and seventy-five pounds of onions a week; in contrast, the five locations of the Souplantation go through nearly 2500 heads of lettuce and 700 pounds of onions in the same period. “We have a volume-discount arrangement with all of our suppliers,” said Michael Mack, the Souplantation’s president. “For instance, we just bought a year’s worth of canned clams, because it’s cheaper to buy them right after they’ve been harvested. The same is true of the blueberries we buy — they get harvested and stored in freezers.” Mack pointed out that chains have marketing advantages over independent restaurants. “With more restaurants, more people see your sign as they drive around, and you create more ‘top-mind awareness’ ” in consumers, he explained. “And with five restaurants or more, you customer base is large enough to justify [costly] TV advertising.”
Top independents fight back by offering more creative dishes. You can get a steak-and-fried-shrimp-combo dinner at Black Angus, the Hungry Hunter, or the Chart House, but none of them serves pecan-breaded salmon sauteed in pecan butter, as Jilly’s does, or the Filet of beef in a shallot sauce with sauteed duck liver that is sometimes offered at Gustaf Anders. At the Souplantation, cooks make the day’s soups using strict recipes and pre-measured amounts of spices, and salad dressings are purchased already made. At Gustaf Anders or Jilly’s, salad dressings are made fresh, and the soup of the day often isn’t decided upon until the chef shows up in the morning. “It’s the individually prepared product versus the assembly-line product,” said Magnuson. “It’s easier for us to be more creative. A local fisherman can come in a few minutes before opening time with something interesting, and we’ll put it on the menu.”
“It’s harder to get away with something creative in a larger restaurant,” conceded John Borg, executive chef at the Harbor House. “You have a lot of seats to fill, and you have to have a greater mass appeal. You aren't honing in on a special group of people” who are willing to eat food that is prepared with, say, truffles or liberal amounts of cayenne pepper.
Still, as Stephen Zolezzi pointed out, “cooking is only part of the business, and it’s getting harder and harder for independents to make a decent return.” Higher minimum wages and energy and insurance costs have made it increasingly expensive to open a restaurant, and growing numbers of governmental regulations haven’t helped, either. With a wry smile, Zolezzi noted that he recently had to install a $7500 elevator to make his new split-level restaurant conform to a state code requiring that dining space be one hundred percent accessible to people in wheelchairs. Such costs are one thing that cause more than ninety percent of all restaurants to fail within the First two years, according to Zolezzi.
“I don’t know why so many people are going into this business,” Jackson comments as he drives back to Jilly’s from the Chesapeake Fish Company. “There’s no money in it. The competition has gotten so stiff.... Most of the time I try not to think about it. We’re just tryin’ to pay our bills and make a livin’.”
After arriving at the restaurant, Jackson helps unload the meat and fish, and he confers with night chef Zimmerman about the specials to be offered that night — monkfish sauteed in a compound butter of rosemary, sage, and lime, and breast of chicken breaded with ground pecans and sauteed in pecan butter. Then he gets back into the Blazer and heads home. It is a little after three in the afternoon; for the time being, his work is done.
From three in the afternoon until Jilly’s opens for dinner at five, the restaurant is deceptively quiet. Hope Woelfel and Jane Holoboff, the two dinner waitresses, fold napkins, prepare salads, answer the phone, and ready trays of butter on shelves where they can be conveniently snatched up for service. Bruce Zimmerman and his assistant, Alfonso Serrano (Angel’s brother), make rice, put containers of raw shrimp and chicken pieces on ice to keep them fresh yet at hand, and boil and slice sweet potatoes, which will be reheated at the last minute in a microwave oven and served as a side dish with the entries.
At 5:00 Holoboff unlocks the front door, and fifteen minutes later, the first customers arrive, two women and a bearded man who all look to be in their forties. “Hi,” says Holoboff, with a smile. “Three for dinner?”
It is nearly six before Jill arrives, dressed in high heels, a black skirt, and a silver-and-black embroidered top. She immediately visits a few tables, exchanging small talk with people she knows, as well as those she has never seen before. “You’re having a baby?” she asks a woman who is terrifically pregnant. “It’s any minute now?” The woman nods, and Jill touches her gently on her shoulder. “Well, eat good tonight.”
Stepping over to the kitchen doorway, she tells Zimmerman to ready several loaves of bread. “As people come in, we tell the kitchen to warm the bread,” she explains. “That way the chefs have an idea of how many people are in the restaurant” and can gear up for rushes. It also gives the chefs a chance to test their baseball skills, however, as Zimmerman pulls the hot loaves out of the oven and playfully tosses them the length of the kitchen to Serrano, who plucks them out of the air and places them on wooden boards for serving.
The Jacksons say they regularly serve sixty to eighty people for lunch but only fifty or sixty for dinner during the week, with weekend dinner business somewhat higher. Unfortunately for them, it’s at dinner that most restaurants make their profit, because customers buy bigger, more expensive meals in addition to extras such as wine, appetizers, and dessert. Mike figures a restaurant the size of Jilly’s should serve dinner to eighty to one hundred people every night to be truly profitable, but he adds that he and Jill can get by serving less because their overhead is relatively low. Still, he worries that the Hillcrest location is bad for dinner, since the surrounding office buildings empty at 5:00 p.m. and there is no real nightlife for a mile in either direction along Fifth Avenue.
This evening’s business is steady but not overwhelming. At a little after seven, Jill has to turn away a couple that arrives without reservations — all the restaurant’s tables are either full or reserved. Only minutes later she fields a phone call from a customer who reserved a table for eight people and is calling now to explain that only half her party will be showing up. Jill accepts this turn of events with only a hint of exasperation, but she is clearly pleased when two men walk in the door without reservations a quarter of an hour later and fill the table opened up by the cancellation. “Being such a small place can drive you crazy,” she remarks in a spare moment. “To a big restaurant, it’s nothing when three tables don’t show up. To us it’s a hundred dollars.”
At around 8:00 p.m., Mike reappears, relieved of babysitting Carly for a few hours by Jill’s father, and he nods when she tells him about the cancellation. “We piss a lot of people off who show up at seven without reservations, thinkin' they can get a table,” he says. “At that hour, we’re mostly full. It’s nights like that you wish you had a hundred seats. But then Monday night comes, and you look around and say, ‘Damn, I’m glad we don’t have a hundred seats to fill.’ But in a way I’d rather have a few tables open and have everyone getting served fast. Because then they’ll have a good dinner experience and they’ll go home and tell their friends about it.”
By 9:30, although a few orders are still coming in, Zimmerman is putting some of the leftover sauces and uncooked meat and fish into refrigerator trays for overnight storage. By 9:45 things have quieted enough that Jill can sit at the bar to eat her nightly plate of jambalaya and romaine salad. In a few more moments, the front door is locked, and — while the last few customers linger over their dessert — the staff begins folding napkins and resetting tables for tomorrow’s lunch crowd.
Jill says she and Mike don’t worry that Cajun food could go out of fashion, damaging their business, because the menu at Jilly's is so varied that the restaurant isn't known exclusively as a place to get Cajun food. That variety — along with relatively low prices and business expenses — is a key reason why Jilly’s has survived so tar. “We still go into the red part of every month, although hopefully we’re in the black again by the end of the month as business picks up,” Jill notes. “I mean, we eat well, and we have a nice condominium, and we lease a couple of nice cars. But as far as saving money.... We still sit around on Sundays and talk about doing other things [other than run a restaurant). I can’t ever see making a lot of money in this business, and I wonder if we’ll be doing this the rest of our lives....’’
Mike seems more committed to sticking with the restaurant until it’s highly successful, but even he talks about the high “burnout” rate among chefs. “The first year, it was a struggle” to run the restaurant, he says. “Then it got better, and now it’s cruisin’. By this time next year, maybe I can take a day off.
“I’d love to see a line around the corner waiting to get in at lunch. I’d like to see this place booked solid every night — that will take another five years, at least — and then maybe we’ll move to a bigger location. Once we got a bigger restaurant, we could raise our prices a little and have a little bit nicer surroundings. Although even then I’d like to keep this place. I really like it. I feel comfortable here.
“There are a lot of headaches to this business, but there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from it, too,” he continues. “On several occasions. I’ve walked out of the kitchen and been applauded by the customers.” He smiles at the memory. “There’s no feeling like that, anywhere, anytime.”