On this episode of Extra Spicy, co-host Justin Phillips talks to Anthony Strong, the chef and owner of San Francisco’s Prairie, about his restaurant’s quick pivot to a general store at the onset of the pandemic. Hang on to the end to hear some nonsense about Hot Pot Panic, co-host Soleil Ho’s new favorite computer game made by a Bay Area local.
Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, and scroll down to read a transcript of Phillips’s full conversation with Strong.
Here is a full transcript of Justin Phillip’s interview with Anthony Strong, lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The interview was conducted on July 13, 2020.
I feel like there’s a hundred things to talk about. One of the things I want to talk about from the beginning is… Can you give me an idea of how Prairie has transformed during the pandemic.
Wow. Yeah, well, we basically converted it into a general store about two days before shelter-in-place went into effect in March. It’s kind of nuts how it came about. We had been planning a really small renovation upgrade to the space to put in a semi-private room to host nightly family-style dinners off of our charcoal grills. And we did that. We shut down for four days at the end of February to do that renovation — hammered it out as fast as we could.
It was while we were literally doing the construction for that, that we had this moment where we’re like, “Oh, it’s getting real over in Wuhan right now. I wonder what’s going to happen to our family-style dinners with strangers component that we’re putting together if this hits the states.” And yeah, it was a bit of a “ha ha” moment at the time. Then I started to think pretty seriously about it because we spent a little bit of money on the upgrade.
I didn’t have as much of a cushion and needed to get a plan together, so I just kind of put my head down and started to think about what people might be needing, started to watch what was happening outside of the country. We figured people wouldn’t be needing a restaurant and a dining room possibly as much in the future, and that what we are providing would need to change to fit their needs.
And if that was going to be toilet paper and hand sanitizer and cans of beans and tinned fish, then we could absolutely do that and would be thrilled for the opportunity to change and provide for the community like that.
So, instead of boarding up… Of course, we saw our reservations just completely plummet the first week of March, and I was putting my head down, trying to find out what dried pastas to get and pasta sauces. Dude, I’ve never bought pasta sauce in my life.
Now, I geek out on, you know, Lidia’s Chunky Eggplant Sauce. We started getting all these things I never purchased before and started selling them.
We put on an online store because I wanted it to be safe for our employees. At this point, we don’t even allow anybody in the store. It’s all online orders. You can walk up to the store. So far, it’s been keeping us afloat. We’ve been able to retain two-thirds of the staff and keep some of our bills paid.
Yeah, a neighborhood restaurant is supposed to be one of those places that caters to the neighborhood, right? Like, you have your regulars and people that you know personally, and you were one of the first places to switch over to doing the general store marketplace. What was that first week like? I imagine that had to be just a crazy experience.
Yeah, the first week was a trip, man.
After playing restaurant for so long and after seeing people come in and order things that they might have heard about that are on the menu and go through that experience…
After doing that for so long, it was actually amazing to see people light up that they could get their hands on canned sardines and paper towels. It was such a simple but heartwarming thing to be able to do.
When people are just, “Can we buy some flour off you?” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah. You guys need flour? We can get flour. We got 50-pound bags… Nothing fancy, but we can get good flour and rebag it into four-pound bags.” And people are so thrilled.
It’s been amazing to be able to provide this that is just in so many ways, a much simpler thing.
But yeah, in that first week, it was kind of going off and people were really stocking up. Like really stocking up. And at one point, I remember on that first Friday, we had a giant order of dried pastas, sauce, tinned fish, and olive oil and all these things showing up, and I was literally on the phone with the vendor as the product was being delivered to try and get a second round of the same order out.
And meanwhile, just trying to figure out how to play grocer for the first time ever. I’ve never done this.
Well, you know, I just love to see the transformation because it was what people needed in the moment. As a chef, having the normal chef experience stripped from you… Did it take you back to the beginning of why you got into this stuff in the first place? Or was there anything about that experience that you feel like turns you back in time a little bit?
Yeah, that spoke to my chef heart? Yeah. It’s kind of nuts. Absolutely. Our role is to give hospitality to people. And I got into this because I love cooking for people and I love doing things for people. And this entire time, we’ve been able to get things people need in the neighborhood and keep our employees on the payroll, and take care of the vendors, and farmers and whatnot that I’ve been using for over a decade here in the Bay Area.
Being able to continue my role in being part of that ecosystem has just really gotten me back to why I do this to begin with.
The second component… I still get to geek out on food. It’s just a lot different now. Now I’m finding myself nerding out on totally different things.
We got this mochi spaghetti, and that is just awesome. I never dreamt I would be playing with it. I’m so excited about it, you know.
So there’s still room for exploring, even during all of this?
Totally. You know, I’ve never run an online store, never run a grocery store before. So I kind of don’t really know the rules. And I’ve been writing the descriptions on our online Square site, for instance.
And I was like, “Wow. Descriptions on websites for products are so dry.” So, our team really geeks out on the descriptions. Like we have this yuzu shichimi that we get, and I think our description right now says, “If there is a God, this is the lemon pepper spice she puts on everything.”
I love everything about that. That’s amazing.
I know things are so serious now, so a big part of our motivation is at least to get people a good chuckle and a can of beans.
I mean, that’s what that’s all you can ask for.
And with so much emphasis being placed on concern for the customer, right? Like they’re worried about what they have in their house, like accessibility… You’re thinking about those things. The other element, too, is the idea of indoor dining. I spoke to people before who as much as they want people back at the restaurant, you guys are thinking of the health of the consumer first.
Tell me about that. I won’t call it a struggle — but just that thought process of, “Damn, I want to see you again. But everybody has to stay safe.” And it’s at the expense of business, too.
We were actually kind of relieved that indoor dining got pushed back. As much as I want to get people in here and cooking and eating, it’s so important that we’re keeping things safe. And we have to provide for people in just a different way for a while.
For when we do start indoor dining, we actually figured that we’d make it a little fun and quirky. Now that we need our dining room to function as grocery storage, we are actually in anticipation of someday being able to do inside dining with limited capacity.
We have tables set up between giant shelves of sacks of flour and tinned fish and bottled water. So, someday, when we reopen, we’ll still be doing this grocery thing. What used to be “table twelve” will now be “table baking section.”
It’s the post-pandemic chic look.
Yeah, we’re going for that, for sure.
That’s awesome. I mean, it’s just new things to figure out during all of this. And another one of those elements, too is about delivery apps. Like how restaurants have to use Doordash or Postmates — the fees they get charged. I wrote this story recently about the delivery apps and the 30 percent commission fees they were charging. Then San Francisco put a 15 percent cap in place. But then a couple of apps were still charging over 15. And that’s brutal during a pandemic when nobody’s making any money. But you’ve taken a different approach to that whole concept. What are you doing so you don’t have to rely on those apps?
Yeah. Well those cuts were brutal before the pandemic, too.
And knowing that, I knew from the start that we would want to be doing our own delivery to some capacity here. It’s kind of interesting, after leaving the Delfina Group and before getting this restaurant space, I ran an experimental ghost kitchen. I think it was one of the first standalone concepts built off of third party. I was super interested in the opportunity in that space because I hadn’t seen a concept that was isolated to work off of just that.
I quickly realized that A: I liked cooking for people and seeing them. And kinda needed that.
And B: The margins weren’t great. Working off of a non-hospitality company to provide hospitality is the challenging setup. So what we’ve done here is we just do delivery for baskets over a hundred bucks, and we deliver seven days a week here in the city and twice a week down the peninsula. We want to do East Bay. Once we can get enough requests to do East Bay, we will.
We do it with the restaurant’s Volkswagen. And our line cooks deliver. And our manager delivers. And I deliver. And we have a kit of Clorox wipes and gloves and masks and paper towels. And we hammer it all out on Google Maps and put a route out together every day. It’s definitely the scrappy version of it.
But at least people know that when they buy stuff from us and they’re getting it delivered, that all of it is going right back to a small, independently-owned restaurant that’s just struggling for survival and hustling it out themselves.
Hopefully that part resonates with people. Especially right now, given how vulnerable our industry is, it’s more important than ever. If people want to support restaurants, to do it in the right way and think about where those dollars are being spent.
If you use a delivery app, it might be a bit more convenient than picking up the phone and calling the sushi place. But at the end of the day, if you pick up the phone and order it from the sushi place, and you go out and get some fresh air and pick up from them, the full dollar goes to that local business.
The important thing is, too, is that of the full dollar, 95% of that in the restaurant business goes right into the local economy. Those are local vendors, people that are working, living in the community, and so I think we have an opportunity to hopefully rethink the ethics around third-party delivery.
What’s the impact of third-party delivery apps on society, as well as dining and culture? What does it add? What is it removing?
Well, I think it’s definitely convenience, accessibility and ease of function, right? What it adds is time for people. I can order food quickly, keep my head down in my work or stay with my family at home, and that food just shows up, ready to go. There’s an ease-of-use appeal that I totally get.
I think what it does to the cultural fabric of cities is the thing that we have to take into consideration. Restaurants, you know, are pre-pandemic. We’re barely getting by and we’re oftentimes grasping at delivery as an opportunity that was almost like fake in a lot of ways. It’s something that you jump at the opportunity to do because you want to see the increase in revenue, but meanwhile, you see your margins shrinking. And then you see people going out less. And then you see it become harder to survive as a small independent business.
And so I think we really need to think about those kinds of things moving forward.
Prairie was always a fun place. Like, it was just cool. And you could tell everybody just wanted to kick it there. You’re a chef with fine dining skills, but you like roughing it and being creative. Post-pandemic, what does that fine dining look like?
Wow, yeah. I don’t really know what it looks like for the rest of the world.
I mean, I know what it looks like for us and what I want it to be. And I know that a lot of that is driven by things that have been important to me from the start. I’m a kid from the Midwest. Fine dining for me feels like faking it. I’d rather just grill some stuff and land it in front of people and if kids draw on the chairs with crayons, that’s cool. You know. I did that.
Looking forward, I’m concerned that because we’re all going to have to be operating in limited capacity and under just intense pressure in order to be able to keep these businesses alive. I’m concerned that pricing will just skyrocket in restaurants. And so we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure it’s something that’s accessible for everybody. I mean, we don’t do fine dining to begin with, but we’re just gonna try and make it fun and casual and grill some stuff and play the music a little bit too loud.
Looking ahead, once the local emergency ordinances are done and we’re just living post pandemic, what are restaurants going to look like? Like, is it going to be a thing where those tiny hole-in-the-wall spots where the seats are crammed together are just going be a thing of the past? Like what’s it gonna look like visually?
I don’t know. An amuse bouche of hand sanitizer?
Locally-sourced and everything.
Yeah. Right. I don’t know. It’s kind of… I don’t want it to look aseptic, whatever we have to do. I have… I have literally no idea.
It’s hard to guess. I mean, we’ve already been through so much stuff that was unprecedented. It’s hard to see what’s down the line, but at the same time, you have to exist outside of your restaurant. So, what is life like for a chef who, you know, is under the same restrictions? Like, you can’t go explore other restaurants if you’re curious about them. You have to shelter in place as well. What’s home life like? What’s life like outside of the kitchen? How do you stay sane?
Well, you know, what’s weird is I actually have one now. Like, the silver lining to this whole damn crazy thing: My girlfriend and I had dinner for like 95 out of the past hundred nights.
I think our previous record was probably like two nights a week in a restaurant.
You know, I’m always in dinner service and so, that’s actually been amazing. I feel normal. Like the weird thing for me is I feel like some semblance of normal that I’d imagine touches on what non-restaurant industry people have. We have a refrigerator that’s marked up with our menu for the week. And I’m cooking for two. It’s so cool, you know. It’s gotten me spending a little bit of time at home.
I’m having to wrap my head around the challenges of figuring this out — using very different challenges than I’ve been used to — and it’s been rewarding and a good exercise. But also just brutal.
You think a lot of chefs see this as a chance to step back and be like, “Hope that I can have dinner with my family now? Everything sucks, but at least I can build up home life.” Do you think that’s something that the industry is starting to enjoy?
Definitely. It seems like a lot of us are going to be rethinking the role that work plays in our lives moving forward. We’re known for doing everything that we can to give everybody this amazing experience — almost to our own detriment at times. It’s like a masochistic thing at times. We work 12, 15-hour days in a business with paper thin-margins and try to promise the world to everybody in a highly competitive, highly saturated space.
I think if it’s one thing that this is provided for me and a lot of chefs that I know, it’s a bit of a values reset and a forced reckoning with what this means to us, where we should be applying our attention.
I will tell you one thing, after getting people cans of beans and flour and getting them ecstatic about it, at this point, I definitely know I never want a super artsy fartsy restaurant. This is such a purity in that exchange that seems pretty important to me.
Well, that sounds perfect. Where can people find you? Like, where is Anthony Strong these days?
Well, I’m here at the restaurant all the time. We’re on 19th between Mission and Valencia in the Mission.
And you can check out our website, prairiesf.com. Or we’re also on Instagram, which apparently I need to get better about using more frequently and stuff. But you know, whatever. I’m a cook from Iowa, so… Our Instagram handle is @Prairie.
Awesome. Thanks for doing this.
Thank you, man.