Veteran Restauranteur Dishes up Recipe to Success

by Sarah Henry on September 24, 2010 · 18 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,restaurant food

The restaurant game is notoriously tough. Profit margins are thin, the dining public fickle, feeding people day in and day out is bloody hard work. The life span of a typical eatery: a few years, tops.

When a place survives — thrives even — for 35 years, attention should be paid.

Michael Wild. Photo: David Johnson

Michael Wild, 70, has been at the helm of BayWolf since 1975 when the doors of his chef-owner operation opened on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California.

The place has won critical acclaim — it’s routinely on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list — and weathered recessions.

BayWolf has stayed open long after flavors of the month, some with meteoric climbs and just as stunning crashes, have come and gone.

Never mind that the New York Times recently dubbed Oakland a new culinary capital, for years BayWolf has consistently turned out unfussy, seasonal California fare with a nod to Mediterranean, French, and Italian cuisine, in a charming converted Craftsman.  Local media man Sedge Thomson characterized BayWolf as “the Berkeley restaurant I was most drawn to…in Oakland.”

There’s speculation Wild, who still works the floor a few evenings a week, and longtime business partner Larry Goldman may be considering calling it a night. But for now, this self-taught chef remains a true restaurant man. He loves to eat good food and he loves to feed people. And, he says, he totally “digs” everything about a restaurant experience.

This former college English teacher grew up in a family of cooks who thought nothing of spending a Sunday in the then-farm friendly San Fernando Valley finding fresh produce and other local food.

He’s penned the popular BayWolf Restaurant Cookbook, but he’s more apt to talk about an upcoming publication What the Wild Things Ate (Magnolia Editions).

It’s a slim, photographic travelogue chronicling his edible adventures in Europe this year with his wife, Jill, and 14-year-old son David (who, his proud dad is quick to point out, deserves all the credit for the gourmet guide.) Some folks visit churches and museums, this food family embark on gastronomical tours.

I spoke with Wild in the kitchen, of course, of his home in the Claremont neighborhood of Berkeley, during the week of the iconic restaurant’s anniversary.

What’s the recipe to your restaurant’s success?

Good food, served by pleasant people, in a nice place. We’re most definitely a neighborhood restaurant, as opposed to a special occasion or destination dining place, because that’s the kind of place I gravitate to. I don’t have to have the best food of my life at a neighborhood restaurant, but I do want to eat well, be greeted warmly by someone who isn’t a robot, and I want to feel comfortable and that the price makes sense to me for the kind of food that’s served.

Did you set out to build a business that would last for more than three decades?

No, I don’t think like that. We found a place we could afford in a neighborhood that we felt was undeserved and we did everything ourselves — and I mean everything, even things we had no idea how to do, like construction work. For the first 12 years or so we worked really hard, it was pretty brutal. I shopped, cooked, washed the dishes, and swept the floor — all of it.

Were there any restaurateurs who took you under their wing early on?

Alice Waters was incredibly generous from the very beginning. If we ran out of wine glasses or linens, or needed truffles and couldn’t find any, she’d send stuff over. She showed me where to buy food and who to buy from. She introduced me to the cookbooks of Elizabeth David and I fell under her spell. Without Alice Water’s generosity BayWolf would have gotten off to a much slower start.

What are some of the major changes in restaurants that you’ve witnessed?

A shift from cooking with butter and cream to more olive-oil based dishes. A change from having a big chunk of meat at the center of the plate. A more informal ambiance in the dining room: we took our waiters out of white shirts and vests. We have staff with piercings and tattoos now. Also, when I started cooking people didn’t know anything about the chef. For a long time there was literally and physically a wall between diners and the kitchen. And with the increased interest in what’s we’re eating and where it comes from, there’s a greater attention to the quality of what’s served on the plate. These are all good developments.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people interested in opening their own restaurant?

Slow and steady is probably the healthiest way to grow and build something lasting. We got some good advice from a godfather of mine who was astute in the world of business: never go into debt, pay your bills (pay the people who work for you first, the people you owe money to second, and yourselves last), and never lie or steal. You want to go home at the end of a long day feeling good about the food you’ve served, how you’ve treated your staff and your customers, and how you’ve conducted business. You want to be able to sleep at night. That’s worked pretty well for me.

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie - Wasabimon September 27, 2010 at 7:57 am

You know, I’ve never actually eaten at BayWolf. Sad, I know! Now I’m going to make it a priority to get down there.
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..The Herbfarm’s 100-Mile Dinner

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Sarah Henry September 27, 2010 at 9:33 am

Curious to hear your thoughts after you do, Steph.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart September 27, 2010 at 8:08 am

I wish we had more places like this in my community. There are a couple of really good, family-owned spots with terrific food, but they’ve never quite gotten the ambiance and service part just right for a diner like me. So, we get takeout.

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Sarah Henry September 27, 2010 at 9:34 am

This is a really interesting comment, Roxanne. I’d like to know more about what exactly is missing/wrong on the ambiance and service front. Instructive for folks in the food biz, too.

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MarthaAndMe September 27, 2010 at 8:08 am

This sounds like just the kind of place I am always hoping to find. Comfortable, delicious food that makes you happy.

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Sarah Henry September 27, 2010 at 9:37 am

Exactly, M&Me, and it shouldn’t be that hard, should it? I went out for dinner Saturday night with a writer-chef-cookbook author friend and it was kind of shocking how unfriendly and unhelpful the wait staff were. My friend, a kind and gentle soul, politely commented that she felt much of the food was oversalted (it was) and the waiter was so defensive. Honestly, she was offering real feedback that she hoped would go back to the kitchen. Unlikely. I ordered arincini, lovely Italian comfort food, or so I hoped. Not this time around. A globby mess. We won’t go back.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 27, 2010 at 9:20 am

Sounds like good food and a willingness to change with the times have been the key.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Cheesemaking- Paneer Indian Cheese

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Sarah Henry September 27, 2010 at 9:39 am

Good point, M. Responsive to the zeitgeist without being slavish to food fashions.

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Sheryl September 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

My husband and I ate out this weekend. The place was so noisy and rushed, and it turned out to be such an unpleasant meal. Sometimes no matter how good the food might taste, it gets obliterated by other things like atmosphere and noise level. Any place that has the staying power of over three decades is a success in my book. I really wish I was able to find one that comes close to this!

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Sarah Henry September 27, 2010 at 9:41 am

Noise — and lighting — are big factors for me when I eat out. If I feel on sensory overload while I’m trying to eat, or converse with dining companions, then I don’t go back. As you note, Sheryl, it can ruin even a good restaurant meal.

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Vera Marie Badertscher September 27, 2010 at 4:29 pm

We are blessed with the homey, friendly types of restaurants in Tucson. I can name a dozen without even having to think twice. Just got back form France and one of the most pleasant surprises was that waiters did not live up to their reputation as rude and unhelpful. Everywhere we went, from humble creperie to Michelin one-star, the servers were helpful and friendly.
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..4 MORE DAYS- Comment and Win

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Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 10:53 am

I’ll have to come check out the friendly eateries in Tucson. And I love that your dining experiences in France defied stereotypes, Vera Marie.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm

We try to find family-owned restaurants like this in our neighborhood. Just this weekend we tried out a Polish place, Babushka’s Kitchen. Nothing fancy on the outside–or inside–but the food was so good. Authentic flavors, fresh ingredients. That was a couple days ago and I still feel stuffed. Wild sounds like a great guy.

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Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 10:54 am

Neighborhood joints are usually my favorite places too, MKES.

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Jennifer Margulis September 27, 2010 at 8:05 pm

“Slow and steady is probably the healthiest way to grow and build something lasting.”

This is excellent advice for opening a restaurant and also for so many aspects of life (like marriage…)

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Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 10:56 am

Well, Jennifer, we know where your head was at when you typed your comment;)

You’re right, though. Often the infrastructure isn’t in place in businesses (or relationships) that start strong, only to peter out as time goes by.

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