On any given night, the line of salivating customers waiting to get into flour + water, one of San Francisco's trendiest Mission District restaurants, can stretch out the door and around the corner. The queue hums with excitement and anticipation. The menu doesn't feature rare beluga caviar or bird's-nest soup; no, it's locally grown asparagus and hand-rolled strozzapretti that have everyone abuzz. And if you want in, neither having a big name—even Steve Jobs wasn't allowed to just walk in—nor a reservation may eliminate the typical two-hour wait to be seated.
Three years and several accolades since its launch, flour + water has touched on a trend that is taking the restaurant industry by storm: locally grown and produced foods. According to the National Restaurant Association, 72 percent of adults say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food, while 83 percent of fine-dining restauranteurs and 71 percent of casual-dining operators report that their customers are more interested in locally sourced menu items now than they were just two years ago.
That explains why more than 50 percent of fine-dining restaurants feature locally sourced food and wine on their menus. Another market research firm, Mintel, reports that interest in where food comes from will drive the food industry this year.
When David Steele, David White, and chef Thomas McNaughton opened flour + water in May 2009, they agreed that a menu featuring only locally sourced food was imperative. That's because if the sustainable-is-chic, organic-everything, locavore movement has an epicenter, it's the San Francisco Bay Area, with its produce-friendly year-round warm climate, and culinary icons who have paved the way—including Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, who now grows gardens of organic vegetable in schoolyards.
So the flour + water trio set out to make a statement by fostering close relationships with local farmers and livestock producers, who make several shipments to the establishment each day.
"We fancy ourselves a neighborhood restaurant over and above an internationally known restaurant," says Steele.
To take it a step further, flour + water boasts hyperlocal menu items. Hyperlocal refers to produce grown on site by a commercial establishment, either for use in a menu or to be sold directly to the consumer. The restaurant has a 450-square-foot rooftop garden that provides about 5 percent of the vegetables used in its dishes, including carrots, herbs, and spinach.
Another reason to have your own rooftop garden: bees. The Italian eatery keeps a hive of bees to shine a spotlight on the importance of the insects' role in the maintenance of agriculture. The bees don't just create, ahem, buzz; they also produce honey that is used by the restaurant's chefs.
The chefs, committed to the cause, also go foraging three or four times a week around the San Francisco Bay Area, looking for wild plants to incorporate into their dishes. "It's the ultimate local, right?" says Steele. "It's a way for the chefs to stay connected to the earth, and it makes the process of putting food in front of people a more three-dimensional experience."
Steele had designs on opening a restaurant for seven years—even drafting a business plan—before the opportunity presented itself. The key was finding the right partners. Working on Wall Street for 20 years, Steele was savvy enough to realize that he needed partners that had experience in running a restaurant and cooking. He found the rest of his trifecta in White, who handles operations, and McNaughton, the executive chef.
"My theory was, you put three people together from different perspectives to have a symbiotic partnership,” he explains. That formula worked; Steele says the restaurant has been profitable from Day 1.
Steele funded 50 percent of the $600,000 needed to start up, while nine other investors provided the rest. Last year, the restaurant earned $3.2 million in revenue and 7 percent profitability.
As local and organic is solidifying its place in the mainstream and is growing as a culinary movement, so is this business. The partners opened Central Kitchen—a full-service restaurant—on May 10, and they will open Salumeria (an Italian delicatessen) at the end of the month. Both are located in the same building, only one block away from flour + water. Central Kitchen seats 49 guests, has a rooftop garden, and also houses bees. Salumeria will sell a variety of homemade products, including pastas by the pound, olive oil, and pickles.
"The new restaurant, Central Kitchen, will not just be a continuation of our philosophy of the hyperlocal, sustainable, seasonal, and neighborhood ethos, but we’re actually going even further beyond that," Steele says.