Zagat logo


The True Cost of Flaking On Reservations At SF’s Nightbird

Kim Alter is CEO and chef of San Francisco’s Nightbird restaurant and its adjacent cocktail bar, Linden Room. She earned a James Beard Award nomination in 2018 and is known for sustainable practices such as whole animal cookery and supporting local farms. Previously, she worked in the kitchens of Bay Area mainstays such as Manresa and Acquerello.

As cooks, we’ve always been aware of what sustainability is. That just grew when I started working on farms. I’m always so bummed out when I’m at a farmer’s market, and I hear somebody arguing or trying to bargain with a farmer about two dollars for a bunch of carrots. I’m like, “Have you ever grown a carrot? The soil that takes, the water, the time, the picking, the putting it together and bringing it here? That is nothing for those carrots.” You don’t want to throw away the radish tip. You want to figure out a way to work with that green because it took weeks to get there.

At Nightbird, our tasting menu just evolved. We started what we call reflection courses that utilize what maybe would have been the waste from the prior course and turn it into a delicious bite. It gives the servers a minute to take a breath between their next course where they would get wine and utensils. It gives the kitchen a minute to get the next course ready. It obviously helps a little bit with food costs. And it creates a little bit of a narrative. I don’t want to beat someone over the head and have a climate conversation with them in the middle of their birthday celebration. But if somebody is interested in what we’re doing, this is a great moment to say, “Hey, don’t throw those carrot tops away. This is what you could do with them.” Or it’s just a delicious bite and you move on and you enjoy your birthday dinner. It could be both those things.

Chef Kim Alter works in her restaurant kitchen.
Photo: Erin Ng.

From day one of the pandemic, we were cooking for hospitals. A week into the pandemic is when the SF New Deal started. I was one of the first people to start cooking for unhoused folks.

Once we opened up again, we were still doing about 300 meals a week. During the height of the pandemic, we were doing about 1,000, 2,000 meals a week, which is insanity if you’ve ever seen my kitchen. It’s about 300 square feet. We’re used to cooking in six-inch pans. I had to go buy bus tubs because we were cooking hundreds of pounds of food a day.

In the very beginning, we were going a little bit more fancy. But they wanted comforting food. They wanted pizza and burgers and hot dogs and things they were used to. We had to alter our thought process and be like, “Okay, what is a healthy alternative that people will want to eat?” They’re not given a choice of what they can eat, so you really have to think broadly. It’s a little bit more basic, like chicken and biscuits and rice. We were cooking for the senior program, where people couldn’t leave their homes, and they would have very specific things they wanted. It was hard running them side by side because you have to get into this weird thing like, “Okay, we are going to cook for 40 people in the restaurant tonight, a total of 500 plates, all of them done with tweezers. But at the same time, we need to prep meals for 200 people to be picked up tomorrow morning that have hot dogs with potato salad and some side vegetables.”

My eyes were opened wide about what a food desert could look like inside a city like San Francisco. Obviously, there’s an unhoused problem, and there has been for a long time, and everyone has an opinion on how it should be fixed. Unfortunately, when you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t necessarily have access to organic, Whole Foods-style stuff. In the past, with a different nonprofit, I’ve gone in and taught kids how to cook a meal for four for $10. A lot of it was by getting a whole chicken, making a stock for the next day, and using the meat from this part to do this. How could we shop smart and make something delicious and healthy for one to two days for a family? Unfortunately, so many places are giving these people processed food and canned food and not taking into consideration that teaching somebody could lead them out of this food desert.

I can’t even imagine what the government has to deal with on a day to day basis, whether it is the unhoused crisis, the drug crisis—now you throw in a pandemic. I got some grants from the state of California and private companies. I got PPP. I’m really lucky to have been a part of coalitions and was able to jump on all of the RRF funds that came people’s way.

But when it comes to decision making, I feel very lost. Now at least I’ve got a little bit of a game plan from looking back on what has happened over the last two years, but in the beginning, I was lucky enough to get into all these nonprofits, whether it was SF New Deal or SF Dine11 or Frontline Foods or World Central Kitchen. That sustained me to have all my staff stay on board and pay their health insurance. We weren’t making money, necessarily, but we were at least surviving. We did 137,000 meals for these nonprofits. Moving forward in this round, I’m just exhausted. I’m just going to see what happens and take our time and make sure that we don’t lose our staff. That’s what I’m most scared of.

Kim Alter slices a piece of chicken in her kitchen.
Photo: Erin Ng.

Pre-pandemic, it was apparent that this industry was losing folks. A big part of my team is no longer in this business. They went off and started their own businesses. They’re doing arts and crafts, they went back to school, they became coders. Because of the unsustainability that this industry brings sometimes, we try to be thoughtful and not have an environment that is off-putting.

Right when we reopened the first time, back in the summer, we definitely dealt with some labor issues. But when I reopened, I didn’t open the books up, even though the money would have been great. I was like, we will do 15 covers a night until we can do 20 covers a night. And then once we have a staff that’s trained up, we will do 25. And then hopefully one day we will get up to 40 and 50.

We slow-rolled until everyone felt comfortable, because we were starting with a very new team, which we hadn’t really dealt with in the past. Ironically, now I have more staff than ever. I want to make sure that we can sustain the staff levels that we have financially. I’m concerned that we are going to be slower than usual based on Omicron and what’s happening right now. I saw a drop-off in December. People were calling very concerned, asking what we were putting in place to make it safer because of Omicron and Delta. We said, “We’re doing whatever we can with zero guidance.”

Kim Alter poses sitting down in the dining room of her restaurant.
Photo: Erin Ng.

We definitely saw a lot of cancellations. Sometimes we’d have 20 cancellations in a night, and that’s as an entire turn for us. At least twice a week, five minutes before someone’s reservation, they would call me and be like, “I just tested positive for COVID,” and we can’t say anything other than we hope that you will come back in two weeks and just take the loss.

To have 20 reservations drop off when you have 30 people on your books—it’s heartbreaking because you already have that food prepped, you have the bread made, you have the staff there working already for hours to get it ready. We used to have pretty strict cancellation policies. It would be a full charge if you called us 10 minutes before your reservation. We definitely got a lot of pushback because I don’t think that people understand it’s like going to a concert or going to a massage or going to a doctor’s office. They’re not going to give you your money back if you don’t go, and you can’t argue your way out of it.

The discomfort of explaining that to guests when they are trying to get out of a reservation is very difficult because you’re in the hospitality business, and you want to walk this fine line of being hospitable, but you also want to explain to them that we’ve already made this food for them. Since COVID, we have tried to be more understanding. I say, “We are going to make a reservation for you in two weeks. But just so you know, if that reservation gets canceled for any reason, it will be a full charge.”

We try to move the reservations around. We try to be as hospitable as we can be, even though we are already taking a loss. Should we go to Tock? Should we go to a ticketed format? We’re still on OpenTable, and I’m trying to make it work that way. But it’s hard. Definitely one of the hardest parts of the general manager’s job and my job is getting into those uncomfortable conversations with people.

It’s ingrained in a lot of people’s minds that it’s okay to make multiple reservations, or to back out 5 minutes or 10 minutes after your reservation was supposed to be. As restaurateurs, we’re trying to let people know—especially through the pandemic—how much it costs to run a restaurant, how thin the margins are, what it costs to employ somebody and give them health insurance and give them commuter benefits and workers’ comp.

When I was growing up in this business, it was never even thought about. I’ve never had health insurance from any restaurant that I’ve ever worked at. I’ve never been paid for overtime or any of these things. Now people are following the rules. People want to be good owners. There’s such a narrative about restaurants not being good places to work because of the culture, the racism, the sexism. And there are also a lot of good owners that are trying to do the right thing, and it shows in the price. It’s shocking to some people, but they’re not making money hand over fist. They’re just trying to make it so that their employees can survive and that they can pay their rent. It’s definitely becoming more apparent to people now that we’re having conversations besides just putting our heads down and being hospitable.

This past Christmas Eve, I went out. Two, three days later, I was just dead sick. I got COVID. The way the restaurant is, it can’t really run without me, so it was easiest to stay closed. And then it turned out that other folks on my staff got it, and we just needed to be cautious. Today I saw State Bird closed all their restaurants. My friend down in the South Bay is pivoting to to-go. We’re all super panicked. We’ve been living on the edge these past two years and don’t know how to react, so right away we go into survival mode.

COVID hit me hard. It was eight days in bed. It was much, much-needed rest. I didn’t have a fever, and I didn’t lose my smell or taste, which I was so grateful for. From day one of the pandemic, we’ve been running. Me and my partner, Ron Boyd, were running, not taking days off, cooking thousands of meals, driving everywhere. I was on five Zooms a day because I was on all these coalitions. My body was like, “Nope.” It couldn’t fight it. My partner never got it, and I did. I think that it was my body telling me, “You need to kick it for a minute.”

Chef Kim Alter sits in her restaurant dining room with her arms slightly crossed.
Photo: Erin Ng.