Karen Leibowitz is the co-founder and Director of Communications for The Perennial in San Francisco. Along with her husband and business partner, Anthony Myint, she runs a restaurant dedicated to progressive farming and sustainable design — complete with a fish-filled aquarium, menus made of 100% recycled paper and an energy-efficient, all-LED lighting system.
She is also a partner at Commonwealth, a farm-to-table favorite in San Francisco’s Mission District that donates a portion of each month’s revenue to local non-profits, and at Mission Chinese Food, the Sichuan-inspired cult hit with locations in both SF and NYC. The prolific food writer has written for Lucky Peach, Food & Wine, and The New York Times, among other publications. She has also co-authored two cookbooks: “Atelier Crenn: The Metamorphosis of Taste” with Dominique Crenn (the World’s Best Female Chef 2016) and “Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas From an Improbable Restaurant” with her husband, about their pop-up restaurant which evolved into Mission Chinese Food. We caught up with Karen on the ways restaurateurs can be more eco-friendly while still reducing costs and why telling a value-based story is key to restaurant marketing.
Successful Restaurant Marketing: Top Tips
As a food writer, what’s the secret to getting a restaurant more exposure and visibility?
I think that people really connect with personal stories, and anything you can do to make your restaurant feel more personal or authentic or individual to a particular niche can help people connect with that restaurant and then not only hear about it, but also hopefully keep coming back.
How has your experience in food writing influenced your work as a restaurateur?
I think that we really make our restaurants communicative, not only through the food that we serve and the way that our servers engage with diners but also through all the collateral materials — from the website to the menu to the postcards that we present with the check. There are so many opportunities to make meaning in a restaurant. My other role as a writer, and before that as an English teacher, has been really helpful in thinking about how to tell the story of the restaurant and making the restaurant serve as a form of communication.
What kinds of things can restaurateurs do to get diners excited by their concepts?
For us, it’s been really valuable to make the restaurant an expression of our values. At Mission Chinese Food, we made the restaurant into a kind of fundraiser for the Food Bank. At The Perennial, we are exploring sustainability. We care about that passionately and it’s helped us differentiate ourselves and connect with diners and also attract some media attention.
Why should restaurateurs care about sustainability?
I think everyone should care about sustainability because it will affect all of us and our descendents. More specifically, the food system contributes to up to half of the greenhouse gas emissions globally, and so it’s a huge contributor to the problem– but food is also the only thing we know that actually can help us reverse climate change. Progressive agricultural practices can draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in the ground. And so that’s what we’re really excited about at The Perennial. We’re sourcing our ingredients in ways that are actually good for the planet. In a nutshell, the food system is currently part of the problem, but it’s the only thing we know that could be a real solution.
How are you dealing with your food waste?
We’re approaching it from two directions: one is to reduce food waste by rethinking certain ingredients or parts of ingredients, so we’re really thinking about vegetables in a root-to-stem framework — like blending up cauliflower stems into a puree (that’s completely delicious). Another thing we’re doing is using the scraps from our kitchen to feed worms that we dehydrate and feed to fish, which in turn fertilize water for our greenhouse.
Are there a few easy things restaurateurs can do to be more eco-friendly and also reduce costs?
You can check your electrical use on your appliances and see if they are energy hogs. Sometimes there are things that you need to replace, but you don’t realize it. So that’s generally a cost-saving measure. You can also put in a special lo-flow sprayer on your dishwasher rinse nozzle that makes it much more effective at using a lower volume of water. It’s extremely cheap and saves water and therefore, money.
How can restaurants get the most out of their relationships with their suppliers?
I don’t think there’s any one answer, but for us it’s important to emphasize that even urban restaurants can connect to the sources of their food — whether by growing it themselves or by talking with and visiting the farmers and ranchers, or by just doing more research. To know that there are ways of improving our climate change situation through agriculture is a really highly motivating reason to get involved.
What’s the best part of running a restaurant as a husband-and-wife team?
I think the advantage of being partners in business with one’s life partner is that whatever personal success one has is shared with the partner. We really believe in and root for each other’s success.
What advice would you give to a new restaurateur?
Have some capital reserved when you open. Really research your market and your niche.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? I don’t know that happiness can be perfect, but I do know that love is at the base of happiness, whether that is romantic love or familial love or love of art or humanity. I think that happiness and love are pretty close.
What is your greatest fear? Climate change
Which living person do you most admire? Our bookkeeper, Susan McEvers, who is so funny she makes me look forward to reading emails about bookkeeping stuff.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Like”
If you could change one thing about yourself or your past, what would it be? I would like to be more patient.
Typical breakfast? Eggs
Late night snack? Yogurt
Guilty pleasure? Chocolate
Favorite condiment? Avocado
Food/drink you dislike? Kombucha
Favorite spots in SF for:
1. Coffee – Linea Caffe on 18th Street
2. Brunch – Plow in Potrero Hill
3. People watching – The Ferry Building
4. Cocktails – The Perennial – the Shaddock Rose (Tapatio blanco tequila, grapefruit cordial and bitters)
Top must-eat in SF? Russian tea cake – 20th Century Cafe on Gough St.
First thing you do in the morning? Pour milk for my daughter
Most underappreciated ingredient/one people don’t know about? I feel like people should be using leftover chicken bones to make broth more, and then using that to cook other things.
Fill in the blank:
My favorite word is plum.
My least favorite word is orientate (or other fake words).
If I could be anything other than a restaurateur, I would have been a writer.
One word that describes me is goofy.