I'm gleeful now I can easily access all the TV I want online, and I don't have to give any money to Comcast, which has taken my checks long enough. Now I mainly watch Hulu, where I've enjoyed marathon sessions of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The show is sort of like Intervention for business owners. The British chef goes into restaurants that are on their last legs and tries to pick them up out of the muck and get them moving in the right direction. Most of the places he visits have similar problems: milquetoast owners who leave the management in the hands of incompetent family members; overbearing but clueless cooks who think they are the bomb; ghastly decor; and reliance on cheap ingredients and microwaves. It almost seems that to have a successful restaurant, you should simply avoid doing any of those things, and the money will roll in.
Of course, it can't be that easy — especially in a town like San Francisco, where there are so many great restaurants and bars. Just creating "good" food or a cozy place to drink is often not enough to pay the bills. So I feel really sad when I see venues with no one inside except the staff. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and I would see "Going out of business" signs and start to cry. I got teary for the people who seemed about to lose everything.
I still get sad about dying businesses. Last week, I decided to go to a place that looked like it was breathing quite shallowly, Bindi Indian Restaurant and Wine Bar. I have passed it a few times. Sometimes there are a respectable number of people inside, usually during the buffet hours, but the dinner services seem pretty tumbleweedy. Of course, it was the wine bar that caught my eye — an afterthought if there ever was one. Bindi has a sandwich board outside, a buffet, a grab-and-go lunch special, and a wine bar: everything a place needs to attract downtown people.
I brought two friends, which meant that the place had three customers total. (Granted, it was a Monday night.) The wine bar itself was tiny, just a few stools. The bulk of the space was taken up by the restaurant. Our server was impeccably maintained — including, unfortunately, the well-placed stick wedged up his rear end. It always burns my chuff when you are the only customer in the place and you get shitty service. He was a bit rude. When we asked whether he had coffee, he said "no" in such a way as to imply that it was a beverage of low-born people.
"Is your food, like, spicy by Indian standards, which is like superduperspicy to white people?" I asked, immediately regretting my word choice. He sort of sneered. I can't say I totally blamed him. "Yes," he responded.
I glanced at the wine list, which, though it is technically supposed to be my job to follow the spirit trade, just looked like a bunch of words and symbols. The choices were mostly Californian and Italian. Bindi was on to something, though — a crisp, cold Prosecco goes nicely with a curry. Still, if the restaurant was trying to attract post-work drinkers, its emptiness wasn't very inviting.
Here's what frugal S.F. business owners need to do. It's what Frank Sinatra reportedly did to hype himself. His handlers hired hordes of screaming girls to follow him around and make it look like he was hot shit. Eventually people caught on, and he became actual hot shit. Places like Bindi need to fill their seats and line the wine bar with "customers" (friends, family members, bums, day laborers) for a month so that the joint looks hoppin'. The food is pretty basic Indian fare, and if we want to have a nice glass of wine, we can go to any number of other places. If Bindi really wants to thrive, it will need to become a bit more exceptional.
But there we sat, and then it came, slowly: that old feeling of sadness that sets in when a business isn't booming. Is there anything lonelier than a barren wine bar in a half-assed Indian restaurant a few blocks from a downtown that closes up at 5 p.m.? Sigh. If it were just a wine bar and nothing else, well, that would be sort of romantic. Bars with no customers are incredibly inviting to me. Why is that?
I began to Gordon Ramsay-ify the place in my head. First, move the wine bar closer to the front of the joint, expand it, and make sure people can see rows and rows of bottles from the street. There is very little bar competition on this stretch of Second Street. Second, warm up the decor. Bindi has throw pillows and some cozy boothlike seating, but it's too bright. It doesn't make you want to drink a glass of wine — it makes you want to grab a chicken tikka to go. Third, lose the attitude; this ain't Gary Danko. Fourth, hire teams of teeming teens to fill the seats until real customers start to stream in, even on a Monday night. If there is a buzz about a place, the suits will go there, even if it ain't that great.
We waited forever for the check. I wanted to leave a bad tip, but I just can't bring myself to do that. Maybe the waiter was simply having a bad night. And I wasn't exactly the best customer, either, with my "white people" comment. I just wanted to get out of there.
On the way out, I looked in the Subway next door. It was packed. Now there's a business model. All it needs is a box-wine bar.