A few weeks ago, a new pop up venue announced it’s debut to the public. There, on the corner of 12th and Howard Street, stands a minimalistic charcoal building, bare of all frills, the signage strictly points to only thing– the Window. What once was the home to What’s Up Dog now lays new groundwork for 1 of 7 Coffee Bars cafes and a place for chefs to slang some signature street fare. In the midst of opening day and working around the clock to get this baby running, Nathan Downs, let’s me peep behind the scenes for a more intimate look at how it all got started!
Why Nathan rocks: pop up chef event program manager at the Window
Who is Nathan? What’s you’re story?
Once upon a time I was that person… I went from every level… from having no money, nobody knew me, to being pretty well established.
I grew up in upstate New York, in a city called Rochester. I lived there until I was about 20 and then realized I wanted to get into food. Rochester is not a food mecca by any means… it’s kind of a medium size city. I decided I wanted to come to California. So I came here and went to culinary school. As soon as I got out of school, I started a catering company. I had like $400 dollars.
When I started the company, I was cooking out of a fraternity at UC Berkeley. It was the only way I could cook out of a commercial kitchen. I went to every fraternity and sorority and said, “If you give me rights to your kitchen and I will cook you really good food at dirt-cheap prices!” That way, I’d have a legitimate kitchen and become legitimate from that kitchen. Prior to that, the year before, I was going to school here at California Culinary Academy (CCA). I was working at Aqua, which was one of the best restaurants in the city at that time. So I went from working at Aqua to cooking for fraternity boys… I had to bury my pride and be in a small business owner and entrepreneur like mindset and that set in really quick. Cooking for these boys, you’d wake up and there’s an inflatable doll in the kitchen. It’s a lot different environment than high-end fine dining. But I had no means, so I had to suck it up. I was cooking for this one fraternity and then a couple years later I had like 7 or 8 I was cooking for.
When did you get your big break?
As time went on and became more legitimate… I was approached by Ed Mud, it’s a water utility company in the East Bay. They said, “We want you to put together a RFP together to take over our corporate cafes,” which was a massive opportunity! So I go to this meeting— I was 23 and was really intimidated. All these companies… there was like 15 national companies. So suffice to say I put my all into the proposal and they accepted it. I had to start a month later. I went from myself and one other guy and 2 part-time employees to a month later, having 17 full-time employees! I had a high school diploma and a culinary degree. I made every mistake in the book and learned things the hard way. But it was a great experience and I did that for 7 years.
How did you establish your network?
I was establishing a network with people who worked in the industry. I was kind of all over the place, because we were catering along the bay and then I had the two cafes in downtown Oakland and then I worked at the Bohemian Club. Then I was working at UC Berkeley for the chancellor doing diplomatic dinners and fundraising events. I was in the total chef/workaholic/small business owner stage and juggling all these different things.
How did you become a part of Coffee Bar team?
After 7 years, I sold the cafes. Then I started little consulting jobs and Coffee Bar was one my clients. One of my good friends is the owner. About year ago my position at UC Berkeley was eliminated due to budget cuts and then 5 months after that my position was eliminated due to budget cuts at the Bohemian Club. I found myself in this limbo phase where at first it was kind of intimidating. What am I doing to do? I had all these side catering gigs and consulting gigs… so it wasn’t based on money. But it was like, what did I want to do with my career? It was one of those defining moments.
I started taking over Coffee Bar’s events and started doing all their pop up chef events. Then I started to create these food throw downs… then all of a sudden new ownership came into play and an infusion of investors. They were gonna open up 5 more locations in the next 7 months. All of a sudden they needed a lot more help and it felt good because it was one of my friends and his business was growing. So it’s just been spiraling and snowballing. It’s been a really good scenario and now I find myself with all these public events… working with chefs.. managing all these chefs. I can anticipate the needs of chefs and what they are looking to get into and combine those things.. but bringing it out to the public is a new challenge for me. I’m learning a lot and that’s kind how I ended up here.
What is your current role with Coffee Bar?
I handle all their public events: pop up chef events, fundraisers, food throw downs and all their private events that happen at their Bryant Street location. I’m also their liaison to the community. Anything that happens to do with building a connection with the community, I have my hands in that one way or another. As of recently, in December they asked me to oversee their food program from one 1 location to 6 locations. As that is what my background is… I’m not necessarily a chef for them, I’m in the kitchen, but I help with arrange and coordinate their people. There’s chefs I’m working with but its more about logistics and arrangements… essentially I’m there’s program manager for all their food programs.
So in between the Coffee Bar build up stage, the Window seemed to be a good idea?
Two months ago we decided that, Coffee Bar, with this massive expansion, needed to have this commissary kitchen. Essentially [the kitchen] would facilitate having all the soups being made in one place (having the economy of scale) and the convenience, like all the grab-and-go sandwiches being made in one place for all the locations. We got into this space and then started getting that up and running. In restaurants it’s typical to say that it will take 3 months or 6 months. That’s just how it goes when you put a lot of attention to detail.
I think it was 6 weeks ago when I came up with the idea…what if I take all these chef contacts I’ve made and then take this commissary kitchen where we are only using it 30-40 hrs a week (there’s a block of hours there)? The reason why I thought this idea would work well with this whole chef concept is because with pop up dinners, it’s a tremendous amount of work. Chefs have to worry about reservations and décor and wait staff and all these things at deter from focusing on the food. If I was strongly passionate about food… trying to build a company… this is the kind of opportunity I wish had when I was cooking out of those fraternities. It’s just a great way to get exposure and minimum amount of headache from the chef’s standpoint. It’s also a fun whimsical angle to do it, where it’s like street food; it’s simple, fun and fast.
So I pitched the idea to the owners of Coffee Bar and they said yeah sounds great. I felt really great that they trusted me in that regard and chefs were equally welcoming. Then I put the idea to the media and they equally embraced it. It’s all really worked well together. So the foundation of it has really been the mindset of the ownership, to the chefs, to the media, to the food community in San Francisco that has been so welcoming and open. Even down to the health department who has really helped me and making sure that we can kind of retool some things. It’s a unique entity but not putting road blocks up, and just saying, let’s structure this together in the way that takes care of the interest of the public health.
So with such positive feedback, have you been reaching out to chefs or vice versa?
At first, Jonathan Kauffman put out an article about 5-6 weeks ago, saying Coffee Bar will be doing some pop up chefs stuff (very vague). I think I had eight or ten people get in touch with me. I already knew some contacts from before, so I took some of the new people and the people I knew and opened up. We have this 18 day schedule with 30 pop ups. In San Francisco, we’ve had 20 mentions or write ups. We’ve had a good amount of press embrace us.. and since then, I’ve had 35 chefs get in touch with me… couple of chefs from LA and a couple of chefs from NY. For me, it’s been really humbling.. like wow.. I felt really fortunate to be in the right place in the right time to have this fly.
Do you think that the pop up will continue to live on when the café opens?
I think it would be silly and short sighted of us, if we didn’t embrace the momentum that we have. I felt that the pop up scene in SF started to become a little stagnant. It wasn’t this cool trendy thing as it used to be. I felt like this was reinventing that a little a bit and the sheer volume of chefs we have coming through here is like pop up on steroids. So I think it would be silly for us to not embrace that as long as it seems to make sense… because when the café opens, it will be open during café hours. Which is how the pop up culture started, chefs weren’t getting money from banks, weren’t getting enough money to open their own places, and everybody needed more income with the struggling economy. It was cafes and other places that were willing to share their space.. so we’re already set up to operate as café hours and off hours. So if we’re already set up with this program in place there’s no reason to not to continue. I mean, we will need to tailor it a bit when open the space, but we’ll definitely move forward with it.
You touched base on media and being a public figure, do you think this aspect has been the most challenging?
The hardest part has been coordinating with these many chefs. Chefs are very strong mind, independent and trying bringing all these different concepts and logistics together and make it cohesive and work well.. its been a lot of work for past month and a half.
So how are you balancing that work load with life?
I guess ever since I had that small business growth, you get to the point where you realize it’s not work. It’s your life. It’s fully integrated into your life and if you don’t enjoy what your doing, then you cant be in the food business. Because it does dictate so much of your life. So to me, the owners of the company are my friends, the chef who runs the commissary kitchen are my friends, some of the cooks here have even worked in my cafés years ago. These are all people that are my friends and are my family. Technically am I working a ton of hours? Yes. But I’m technically surrounded the by people who are my friends and family all the time. It really depends your vantage point is and mine is the ladder.
So given that you’ve been in the food industry for 15 years, do you have any advice for people who are interested in going to culinary school or interested in starting their own food business? Or people who are just debating between the two?
That’s the 50 thousand dollar question and I’m really glad you asked that. Well, what it boils down to… San Francisco is very pro-food culture driven, and when you look at the United States in general– food is pop culture. Food is cool thing to do; it’s the fun thing to do. I think that one big thing I frequently have people ask me, “Oh you went to chef school and oh how is that? Should I go to City College versus the private school?” There is a couple things to be learned there. I usually tell people in retrospect, if they are looking to get into the food industry, pick out what your niche is. Do you want to be a Italian chef? Do you want to be pastry chef? Do you want to do fine dining? Do you like casual dining? Do you want to go corporate? Or do you want to work in a mom and pop? Figure out what resonates with you. Go work there for a year and if you still like it, still think it’s your vibe.. then go into the best community college program you can find and work another year at different place in that same vein while you are going to school. So go to school full-time and work full-time. You need to build up that endurance. I think a lot people don’t realize… the school I went to is about 52-54 thousand a year. If you have student loans a lot higher than a lot of ivy league schools (with the amount of time your going there) and you come out making $10.50 an hour… umm it really puts a lot of things in perspective when you’re working 70-80hrs a week and you’re struggling.. a lot of people don’t get that’s the reality of the food industry. To get to the point when you’re really successful and comfortable and living a comfortable life by American standards.. you really have to pay your dues big time and catch some breaks and be pretty special at what you do. A lot of people dive into culinary school blindly and don’t realize it until, oh wow.. this is not necessarily what I thought I was getting into.
1599 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA