Jen Pelka – Cheers to opportunity
Since this interview, Jen Pelka has opened a second location of The Riddler in the West Village of New York City.
Popping a bottle of champagne seems like the natural thing to do when celebrating life’s milestones and successes. But in the heart of San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, champagne is bringing women together for something really worth celebrating: leadership opportunities for women in the industry. Jen Pelka, owner of the all-women led and funded champagne bar, The Riddler, tells her story and how she believes any woman can be a business owner as long as the have the confidence to make it happen.
Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to open The Riddler?
I have always wanted to open a champagne bar. I really love champagne and I think it’s something that I’ve celebrated a lot of my own personal important moments with. And I also just love drinking champagne; it’s delicious, it’s high acid, it’s sparkling, and it pairs well with all kinds of food. But the celebratory and communal aspect of champagne is fun and really exciting and the more and more I came to learn about champagne, as a consumer, the more I loved it.I’m one of those people who have like, 50 ideas for restaurant concepts and I’ll go into a space and say, “Oh my gosh, it’d be so cool to do this, this, and this”. So, the first Riddler happened because I had fallen in love with this corner space in San Francisco in Hayes Valley. It had all this beautiful woodwork and a backbar and just a lot of history and character to it. And I knew that if it ever became available, I’d really want to take it. And when it came up, I put in an offer and we got the space. It was a little bit of a “dream it and do it” scenario, but it’s been a huge success, and it’s been really fun.
Who are your mentors in the industry and how have they helped you get where you are?
I feel lucky that I’ve had some really great mentors. Most specifically, the first job that I had in New York in the restaurant scene was working for Daniel Boulud. The way that I got that job was, I just met a chef, literally at a bar, and said I had wanted to cook in a kitchen. I knew that you could stage and I got a stage working at Restaurant DANIEL with no experience, which was insane; I was 22 at the time. And I started working every Saturday while I had another full-time job in a hedge fund. I was there every Saturday for a year and a half, absolutely loved it and got to work in many, many positions in the kitchen. I eventually became Daniel’s research assistant and joined the company full time. I was there full time working very closely with Daniel personally, and he is an incredible mentor to me. And then he and Thomas Keller took over the Bocuse d’Or Culinary Competition, which is the most prestigious culinary competition, and I was the competition director for the U.S for the first two years when they first took it over That was one of the places where I first started meeting a lot of other chefs and also amazing people in the media.
Dana Cowin is somebody who is a close mentor; she was also very involved with the Bocuse d’Or, and over a period of 10 years of my career going forward, I had a lot of opportunities to work with her and partner with her teams. She’s always been incredibly supportive and so amazing.
Ruth Reichl is one of my dearest mentors, she’s an investor in the San Francisco location of The Riddler and she, of course, is the former Gourmet editor-in-chief. I feel really lucky that, between the three of these people, I’ve learned so many different things. I mean, from Daniel first and foremost, just getting the opportunity to learn in that kitchen has been so amazing, and he’s so incredibly generous and so creative, so collaborative, that I think the way I think about restaurants is because of him.
We love that The Riddler is led by an all-women team, and it’s so interesting that you raised money from an all-female group of investors as well! What drove you to seek an all-female group of investors, and what were the challenges in doing so?
In San Francisco, we have 33 investors, and all of them are women. They’re in for anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000 in terms of their investment stakes. It happened, I would say, somewhat by accident, but also somewhat on purpose. When I was originally thinking about fundraising for the space, I knew that I wanted to have separate investors from Charles, my husband (owner of Souvla), so I put together a spreadsheet of everybody I knew that might have $5,000 or more. It was 80-90% women – just because those are really my professional relationships or friends. It was very much focused around my network and the people who I meet up with regularly for coffee. Our lead investor is a woman; she is our anchor. She is the first person who I really met with and got a commitment from – she had never invested in a restaurant before. Of our investors in the San Francisco location, only one had ever invested in a restaurant. I think for many of them it was very much an opportunity to support me, which I feel very grateful for, but also an opportunity to say, “Oh yeah, I’m an investor in this champagne bar,” which is really cool.When I started meeting with people, my approach for fundraising was just, “Hey, do you want to meet up for coffee?” – And we’d meet up for coffee, and they wouldn’t even know I was pitching them. We’d be chatting, catching up and talking about what they were working on, and they’re like, “What are you up to?” and I’d mention a bunch of things, and then, “And I’m opening up this champagne bar, and I just found a location.” (And I’d) tell them all these great things, and that we already have (a certain amount) raised, and then I would say, “And I’m only making the investment available to women.” And I would see a literal change in their body language of like, “Oh my gosh, only women? That’s so cool.” A couple beats later (they’d ask how much it costs).My units were $20,000, but I let people split units or come in for less. We will now forever use that model.I think people are really excited about being a part of this all-women backed opportunity. A lot of our guests know about it, and they like supporting that and being a part of it.
How have men reacted to the fact that this is a female-led, female-invested, establishment?
I think they’re really pumped about it. A lot of times people will ask if they can connect me with their mom, their wife, girlfriend, or their sister, which I think is really cool. We haven’t really gotten anyone that is upset about it, which is good. Most of our leadership team is made up of women, but we would love to recruit a few more men, especially on the management side. All of the best candidates we’ve met [on the management side] have been women, and I think that’s because they’re attracted to the company.
I think this past year was a really challenging year for a lot of people with regards to this topic in particular, and I think now that we have moved through it, there is this huge community of men who are all about supporting and being there however they can show up. It’s been great.
We noticed that you have a list of Female Vendors that you order from for The Riddler as well. Was that an accident as well?
No, that was done on purpose! If you look at our champagne list, we have a very high percentage, in comparison to the norm, of women-led champagne brands. There are actually a lot of women who make champagne, because the tradition in Champagne is that most of the houses pass through many generations, so most champagne brands—especially smaller producer brands—are five, six, seven or eight generations. They typically go to the eldest child, which if you’re a woman, then—congratulations!
In addition to our female-led champagne brands, we work with great women who make cheese, our muralist is a woman, and (a) woman did the gold leafing on our ceilings. Even our interior designers are women. I would say quite a bit of that was intentional, but also quite a bit of it was accidental. I knew I wanted to work with a female design team because I do think that women design restaurants differently than men do.
Have any females you’ve led expressed how you and The Riddler opened doors for them?
I get a lot of feedback from our team regularly that they feel that the atmosphere and the vibe of working on our team is very different than a lot of other places they’ve worked. Especially with all of the “Me Too” events of the last year, we have talked very honestly and openly, and very regularly about our policies and how people should report issues—whether it’s with another member of the team or member of management or ownership, or if it’s with a guest. I think, especially in environments where guests are spending so much money, it’s easy to put all of the power in the hand of the guest, and we try really hard to make sure that if we’ve got any guests that are doing anything weird, we have a chain of command of what a server would do and who they would tell in order to pull them out of that environment.
We also talk with our team about their personal goals and how that fits into their time at The Riddler. And I don’t think that’s typical for working in a restaurant, and I don’t know if that has to do with me being a woman or not, but people seem to like that.
Since its opening in 2017, The Riddler has had tremendous success. It was named Eater’s Wine Bar of the Year, one of Tasting Table’s best wine bars in the country…How have you been able to sustain that success in the food industry? Do you have any tips for maintaining that success for the long haul?
I would say for us, right out of the gate, the restaurant was super-hot. We’re really small, so in the beginning, we had really long lines every night for the first three months. And now we’ve sort of stabilized and Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday night we’re packed. Tuesdays and Sundays, those feel a little bit more like for the neighborhood or for the industry.We started using OpenTable® probably a year in because it just allowed us to manage the floor a little bit more strategically than just only walk-ins. We try to get regular press because I think regular press mentions keep you relevant. We try to find new stories to tell – whether it’s stories about members of our team or business-related stories, which are really important, or stories about producers or interesting things about wine. We try to make sure our regular guests always feel welcomed and they know how to get in. But the things that are the most impactful – if you’re on Eater, on the Eater Heat Map, or Eater 38, you’re gold.I think it’s all about constantly looking for ways to improve. (We’re now) at our second year anniversary, and I can tell when looking at the restaurant, it looks old. So we’re now going through the process of refreshing everything. It’s about constantly reinvesting in the team and into the space to keep it fresh.
What advice would you give to women just getting started in this industry or who are facing challenges in getting started?
If somebody is early in their career, start to find the best possible operator you can work for and put in like, 10 years to get a really good foundation. That can’t be underestimated. Work for really, really great operators and learn as much as possible. Put together a list of the top 10 operators in your city and relentlessly email them until they give you an opportunity to help out on the weekends or help out with special events and then once you do, you get your foot in the door.There’s not a quick way to get into the industry; I would say the people that I see, especially from doing the PR work for a lot of restaurants, what we consistently see is that, it’s pretty hard to run a restaurant successfully, and the ones who do it are the ones who are fully committed and have a really strong team, but also have a really strong background. And for people who are first-time operators, if they’ve really never worked in the industry or they’ve only worked for a couple years or only in one job, it’s pretty rough.If somebody wants to open a business, they have to understand the technical business financials, managing and running a P&L for multiple years is really important, and understanding costing, labor, and all of those things. But there are also tons of resources online, so I’m constantly listening to podcasts. Podcasts are a huge resource. There are so many free resources now, and if somebody is feeling a little bit lost those are all really great places to start. I would also say it’s really important to be deeply embedded important (in) your restaurant community and (get) inspiration from the people around you. It’s important to travel and to go to other people’s restaurants and see what’s really good. You just have to be fully immersed and deeply obsessed.
Have you encountered any challenges in the industry because of your gender? If so, can you speak to some of those and how you addressed them?
To be honest, no. I think about this a lot because I go to a lot of conferences with women and I hear a lot of women saying how hard it is for them to raise money or to run a business or to understand the business side of things or to speak up or to advocate for themselves; and those are frankly not challenges that I’ve ever dealt with. But I think it’s to our advantage at this point. I think there’s something interesting, and editorial, and exciting about people who stand out. And it’s just a matter of advocating for yourself.
What are your favorite parts of the food and beverage industry?
The food and the wine! Getting people together to commemorate important moments in their lives around the table; I don’t think there’s anything better than that. And I also really love traveling for food or through the lens of food, through the lens of restaurants; you can learn so much about someone’s culture because of it. Food is something that can really unify people and it’s exciting. It’s also an area where we can make significant impacts on environmental change and social change. It’s a good business!
Anything about the industry you wish you could change?
It is not easy out there for a business owner. The financials are really challenging, especially in expensive cities like San Francisco and New York. And there’s a lot of localized bureaucracy that can be very debilitating that doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose.Very explicitly, I would love to see more women in positions of power and more people of color in positions of power. But it’s not something that I go through my life on a day-to-day basis lamenting because, what’s the point? I think it was Ghandi that said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and instead of sitting there feeling like “woe is me,” I try and forge ahead and be one of those people. But I know there are some people who are business owners who are women and would say that it’s a huge problem and it’s debilitating.I’m lucky because the fundraising has been straightforward for me and I know that fundraising can be really challenging for a lot of people. But it’s hard for anyone to raise money, and you must be confident and know what you’re talking about. And I think that’s why people say it’s so easy for men to fundraise, because they’re so confident; but I don’t understand why women can’t be. I know lot of women who can and should be business owners. I don’t think it has to be gendered, I just think that there is a misconception that it is. And I think the only way that we can disprove that is for more women to get out there and to just start owning things.
About Jen Pelka
Jen Pelka oversees The Riddler, guiding design, menu, beverage list, service style, development, and training of the team. Pelka is also the Principal and Founder of Magnum PR, leading publicity for such powerhouse brands as Brandon Jew’s Mister Jiu’s, AL’s Place, Mourad, Rich Table & RT Rotisserie, Souvla, Barzotto, Traci Des Jardins’ restaurants and Tawla. Pelka’s career in restaurants began at Chef Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant DANIEL, where she served for 5 years across a broad range of roles—kitchen stagier, Chef Boulud’s Research Assistant, and the US Competition Director for the Bocuse d’Or under Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. She went on to lead influencer marketing, content strategy, and media relations in-house at OpenTable, Gilt Taste, and Tumblr. She has been named Forbes “30 Under 30” for Food & Wine, Details “Digital Maverick, and a Cherry Bombe “It Girl.” She was a recurring guest as a secret diner of Bravo TV’s “Best New Restaurant”, and a guest on Season 6 of “Top Chef.” Pelka won an IACP Award Winner for Best Culinary or Brand Site in 2012 for Gilt Taste, and was a James Beard Award nominee for Best Food Coverage in a Food Focused Publication.
Photo credit: The Riddler SF