The Story of Fat Angel
Fat Angel is one of my absolute favorite hangout spots and wine bars in the city of San Francisco. They have a fantastic wine and beer selection along with a very warm & cozy interior and a vibrant exterior. If you live in the vicinity of San Francisco or happen to visit the bay area, Fat Angel is a must not miss gem.
So, when I chanced upon the opportunity to meet the men behind Fat Angel - of course I jumped on it!
Below I share a very fun, honest and inspiring conversation with them on a typical San Francisco evening - outside their fabulous establishment.
Without further delay, I share below my interview with the owners of Fat Angel, Cyrick Hia and Jason Kirmse.
1) I have followed the journey of Fat Angel from its very early days. And I know there were a lot of hurdles for you but you successfully got through them and opened this awesome space. What was the most difficult problem(s) before Fat Angel opened and what would you do differently if you could get a do over?
Cyrick: Retaining the knowledge that we have now, for me personally, I would say that finding a general contractor that fits our personalities... that would the biggest thing I would have done.
Jason: This is an interesting question because, I am a firm believer that what happens, happens for a reason. Looking back, all the dysfunction was a huge learning and growing experience. That said, I would say that we were on a tight budget. We bootstrapped this (Fat Angel) ourselves, we took no investors and did it all on our own. We did not have a choice or someone to call for a $60,000 check to write to someone who could work on this space, exactly the way we wanted and finish up on time. So when this contractor came in with the lowest bid we thought 'Wow! that’s really cheap'. So that is why now I tell everyone, get 3 bids – don’t take the first one that’s the cheapest, but the one that makes most sense and then keep your fingers crossed.
2) Before Fat angel you had no restaurant background, correct?
Jason: I worked as a server in restaurants in college, but I had no experience managing restaurants. So waiting tables is all the experience I had with restaurants.
Did that matter? How important is it to have prior knowledge in the day to day operations of an establishment like yours to be successful?
Jason: No, its all about passion. What interests me is wine, what interests Cyrick is hospitality, what interests both of us is food. It is more about taking up the passion for something, taking up the vision with courage and stepping in to actually do it. People then see that, people feel that passion; they understand and even give you some room to mess up if you are not perfect. What we learned we had to learn quickly and we ran it ourselves for 2 years. Cyrick had a history of hospitality and he was all smiles when people came in and they felt that. That is what did it for us. People saw us and go ‘Wow these 2 guys are here every time we come here' and you don’t see that a lot.
Cyrick: It also helped when we told everybody that came in, we don’t actually have a lot of experience, this is the first time we are doing something like this. And a lot of people had a lot fun with us too! I let people know that I might be doing something wrong and with that we built a foundation for regulars and friends and actually built a community.
3) Other than these pre-open troubles, I have heard of one story - about how you tried to recruit a chef from Asia and build this space just for his food, but that did not pan out. Is this a true story? If yes, how did you deal with pivoting from your original plan that was so dear to you?
Jason: Yeah, it was going to be a hand stretched noodle shop – nobody had done it in San Francisco and it was well ahead of its time. Well, we walk in to everything with a plan B, right? There needs to be a contingency plan. I think smart people always have that. You are spending your own money and you have to think to yourself ‘If this does not work then what happens?’ If nobody walks in to the door, can we pay rent?
Your head just starts going about the ‘what-ifs’. Definitely there is an emotional aspect to things, but there is a fear of being able to pay your rent and the fear of failure that just trumps everything else. So we said, we are opening a wine bar – and that was our plan B.
Cyrick: I actually went to China, getting recipes and visiting all these chefs. So plan A, part 2 would have been for me to learn the set of skills to hand stretch noodles and bring it back here if we cannot get the chef. And I would be the one doing all that work, but this chef had been doing this for 16 years and I had 3 and a half weeks to learn what he had for a decade and half of experience. So quickly we realized plan A part 2 was not feasible.
That said, we still have plans to do something like the hand stretched noodle shop in the future.
4) There are so many wine and beer places in the city - several of them just barely get by or worse, they fail. What is the secret to your success of Fat Angel? Can you attribute (preferably) to ONE major factor? Location? Quality of food/drinks? Service? Anything else?
Jason: You are just missing one thing. You hit all three of what we call the 4 pistons of power, except one. And that is value. Most people are able to do one or two of those four things. But my humble, not-so-humble opinion is people cannot hit on all of 4 of those.
5) What do you mean by value?
Jason: For instance, our salads - they are as big as your head. When people get a salad, they go ‘wow! that is a huge salad. That is real.’ You are not getting a plate that is $12 that you can finish in 4 bites. Portion size is something that I am very adamant about We are not going to under portion. We want people to walk out of here feeling like, I am full, I have a buzz and had a great time. We can save money with smaller portions, serving lesser wines & beers and employer less staff. But, that is not what we want. So that’s it.
6) I have visited several wine/beer hangouts in the city; especially with wine/beer, the list is so similar across so many bars. Fat Angel has a great list. Is it so hard to source some amazing wines from Portugal, Spain and Northern Italy that are not to be seen in California? Or beers for that matter?
Jason: We are very fortunate in San Francisco with so many options that we have with wine reps and wine distributors. That said, there is a tremendous amount of wine out there in places like Europe that don’t even get here. And even the ones that do hit the States, get to the east coast first. It does not go through the Panama Canal and get to the west coast. It gets to New York, Boston and what’s remaining gets sourced to the west coast. Likewise you don’t see many Californian wines in New York for instance. That said, everyone has access to the same kinds of wine, but it is a tremendous amount of work to bring in wines that are not easily accessible to our bars here in San Francisco.
Also, I would make the relationships first, so when you bring the wines that you want to bring, you’ve already established a network.
7) There are a lot of people who say (both in and outside the food/drinks business) that you should absolutely NOT get in to this business because of all the physical, mental and financial turmoil and how unforgiving it can be. What is most rewarding for you about this business? And what would you like to see change?
Cyrick: For me, I have actually met many friends just working at Fat Angel. After college, social groups tend to get smaller, people get married, have kids, some people move away and your circle gets smaller and smaller. But, while working at Fat Angel, I’ve met several regulars on a daily basis, made friends and we hang out. I’ve even brewed beer with some of these people. I’ve never done something like that before and that was a lot of fun. So my circle of friends actually got bigger. And also, I got more in tune with the industry because other folks from the industry come in and my social circle got bigger very quickly. That was the biggest and most rewarding thing for me.
Jason: For me, I like environments, I like space, I like creating a space. What I enjoy is creating an environment for people to come in to. I like worrying about the details, worrying about the kind of flowers we use, the lighting, and the product space, that things are dust free – that’s what keeps me going. I like sitting at Fat Angel, just looking at it, watching people having a good time, and you sit back and go ‘I was part of this and we built this from scratch’. It’s great, and it carries over to other things in life. It’s the feeling you get from being in an atmosphere that speaks to you and resonates with you.
I know we nailed it with Fat Angel, it is a great space – very cozy and warm, soft lights and good colors. That is why it is a great first date spot. People run their e-harmony game out of here all the time and that is fun too (laughs).
8) And what would you like to change with this industry?
Jason: The big topic now is minimum wage, labor, tipping and all that. I will be honest, its just crazy. I just wish we would convert to the European method. Pricing everything on the menu, 'Here’s your check, thank you very much and have a great night'. We want to pay people well, but there is definitely inequality in wages between the front and back of the house. In Fat Angel, our Back of the House also gets tipped because they work the floor-which is great. But, with all the increase in wages there is going to be backlash, prices are going to be increased and you are kind of back where you are at. So we don’t know what the right answer is.
Cyrick: And the worst thing is, that might or might not drive traffic from outside the city. Because, now San Francisco is more expensive and so when we have tourists, they are going to spend a little less.
9) Related to everything you both have said, right now San Francisco is at the most expensive point it’s been from rents, labor etc. to the point where, both resources and establishments are moving outside the city. You own 2 successful restaurants in this city. What is your advice to someone who'd like to start his or her own food/drinks place in this city at a time like now?
Jason: I would say, just do it! Anybody who quits their corporate job and does what they are passionate about, I am their biggest cheerleader. We all have to roll the dice at some point and go big or go home. What is life about if you’re not taking risks and taking chances?
Cyrick and I were making good money doing what we did. We moved in together, ate rice and some Vietnamese meat and we were on a crazy budget. That was a lot of sacrifice. Sometimes you have to get uncomfortable and when you do make it, you look back and you have a lot of amazing stories to tell.
10) A lot of times, running your own business or being an entrepreneur can be nerve wracking - especially the first few years until established and profitable. Any tips on how to stay calm and keep up the right attitude to get through each of those days?
Cyrick: You just have to roll with it.
Jason: I don’t know, life’s hard. And when we do have a tough day we think, 50% of this business is ‘my’ tough day and 50% of it is ‘his’ (pointing to Cyrick) tough day. And it’s a little bit sweeter even on tough days when you’re working your own deal. There is something liberating about that. Today we had an employee not show up, another server call in sick and all these things happen. Four years ago all of this was a big deal, but now everything that used to be a big deal is just a blip on the radar. Someone doesn’t show up, I put an apron on and it is done. Nothing goes per plan and so accepting what is and having the resources to call makes all the difference.
11) Once you're established and profitable, how do you 'let go' of your baby?
Cyrick: It was very hard.
Jason: We had to learn. When we first handed over the keys to our first Front Of the House employee, it was quite difficult. But we had our system, checks and balances - so that helps. And the things that we used to think were big aren’t that big. If you get a bad Yelp review, you say to yourself 'They happen' and you don’t take it personally but try to learn from it and not wreck your world.
12) What would your career look like if not for Fat Angel?
Cyrick: I would probably still be in real estate business. We never thought about doing our own thing, but we came to a point where I had a boss that caused the company culture to shift when he came aboard. And I wanted to do something and Jason & I started talking. That’s how this idea came about. Otherwise, I’d probably still be doing what I used to be doing.
Jason: I always wanted to own my own business. I did the corporate America thing from the time I graduated from college. I would tell my son, you can start your own business, but there is something to be learned from working in a corporate culture and working for a boss. But I would never go back and be in the corporate world but running my own business. We just happened to land on the food business, it was not something we always set out to do. It was just something we thought would be cool and I just wanted to always own my own business.
I then wrapped up my talk thanking Jason & Cyrick for a wonderful chat along with a nice click with both of them in front of beautiful Fat Angel's bar.
Driving back home, I was thinking how it is a huge deal to own one successful food space that is 5 years old along with a second highly raved spot (Stone's Throw) that has completed one year! These are impressive milestones in this industry and in this city. All the way home Jason's words kept ringing in my mind....."It is all about passion. It is about taking up the passion for something, taking up the vision with courage and stepping in to actually do it.".
Words to live by, don't you think?