At San Francisco’s Spruce, a reverence for the past and for breaking new ground is evident from the two cocktail lists, Classic and House, to the decor. Spruce is housed in a former 1930s auto barn with a tall entrance arch to accommodate Model-T cars. On one side is a small gourmet take-out shop, Caffe at Spruce, which also houses the espresso service. Across the entrance, a smallish library room serves as a waiting area or private party lounge.
Inside, to the right of the reception desk, the bar beckons with a white marble counter and mirrored shelves holding 400-plus spirits. Elegant, hand-rubbed, white gold frames border the shelves. Along the chocolate mohair walls of the 70-seat dining room, short sheaths of curtain create more intimate seating areas that are fitted with saddle-leather chairs. A focal point is the glass-and-steel skylight from the original structure, which bathes the room with natural daylight or romantic evening glow.
Spruce is the third concept of Tim Stannard’s Bacchus Management Group. Following the success of the bar and menu at Village Pub in Woodside, California, and four Pizza Antica locations in the Bay Area, Stannard’s decision in August 2007 to locate Spruce in the Presidio Heights neighborhood, a mix of residential and upscale boutique shopping and 20 minutes by cab from downtown San Francisco, was a risky one.
But within a few weeks, the combination of Euro-American ambience, artisan cocktails, thoughtful wine list, and exciting food engendered an unexpected headache for Stannard. “The biggest challenge was how popular the restaurant became as soon as the doors opened,” he recalls. “We just were not prepared for the volume of business and had to retool some basic things.”
The initial crowds provided the cash flow, which was positive in 30 days, and the $2.5 million investment has been substantially repaid. The overall customer mix is about half neighborhood patrons, 30 percent from greater San Francisco, and 20 percent tourist trade.
A consistent and successful operating philosophy helped Spruce flourish after the early success. “We remind ourselves constantly that we are a neighborhood restaurant, being sure to serve all of the needs of our neighbors, whatever they may be—from luxury dinners for birthdays and anniversaries, to casual dinners in the bar, and even recreating Spruce at our guests’ homes with on-premise catering if the need arises,” says Stannard.
The hospitality of the bar staff generates much of the positive vibes at Spruce. “My job behind the bar involves technical knowledge and skill, but I’m really like the host of the party at my house,” remarks manager Clements. “I may know about the 20 bourbons and dozen-plus rare Madeiras, yet I’m not here to lecture.”
Though considered among the elite of Bay Area bartenders, Clements gladly crafts a Long Island iced tea or recommends a Barbeito 1863 Bual Madeira. He conjures drinks such as the Hierba Dulce with Corazon Blanco, Dimmi, Aqua Perfecta, agave syrup, and lemon bitters, rimmed and garnished with a rosemary sprig. The Spruce Goose (the restaurant is named for nearby Spruce Street) features Grey Goose vodka, Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, Roger Groult Calvados, maple syrup, and lemon bitters.
With an eye on what Executive Chef Mark Sullivan orders fresh, Clements makes his own syrups, infusions, and juices. The duo creates cocktail pairing menus for spirits dinners and on request. Clements may pair his Kentucky Sidecar with Maker’s Mark bourbon to summer corn and sorrel soup. He sets up his Country Cobbler—vanilla infused bourbon, Monteverdi <i>Nocino della Cristina</i> Walnut Liqueur, peach, lemon, and molasses—with Sullivan’s Berkshire, maple-brined pork tenderloin.
Clements takes his martini production seriously, from storing his Sicilian Castel Patrono olives in dry vermouth to preparing his best-selling classic cocktail, the East Side, with Martin Miller’s gin for its refreshing vegetal notes which enhance the drink’s cucumber, mint, and lime.
The bar manager takes his staff-training responsibilities equally to heart. All new recruits undergo a two-week bar training program, and everyone engages in regular sessions at which Clements reviews new spirits and trains his team on cocktail techniques and recipes.
Though revenue and profits are balanced between food, wine, and cocktails, the bar contributes strongly to the bottom line due to lower labor costs from an efficient five-person crew. Eschewing bar promotions and well brands, seasonal bar menu changes (e.g., Violet Beauregarde, a springtime offering) ramp up profits.
With a seven percent decline in business due to the recession, Stannard maintains “nothing fancy” cost-control strategies at the bar. He remarks, “We do solid monthly inventories and maintain a perpetual inventory, which allows us to calculate estimated theoretical monthly costs and compare those versus actual costs to look for areas of discrepancy. We watch prices from our vendors on each and every invoice, and we ensure that we are buying in the most cost-effective manner. Plus, we work hard to train our staff on accurate and consistent pours.”
“We strive for balance in the mixture of base spirits, a balance of classic and contemporary cocktails, and a balance of prices,” Stannard continues. “Many of the cocktails are very reasonably priced, but some of the more labor-intensive cocktails may cost a little bit more.”
Stannard has kept staff levels, salaries, and benefits steady. He and his team run a rigorous selection process to select employees who can adapt to the mix of clientele and dining experiences at Spruce. He honors his staff by striving to promote from within. The team has reduced operating costs with economies of scale from the company-owned bakery, a partnership with a farm located 45 minutes from The Village Pub and Stannard’s opening of ROAST Coffee Company in Oakland to procure beans and blends. The co-owner observes, “Our response to the recession was not to focus on cost-cutting techniques, but instead to focus on marketing and building business.”
Above all, Stannard sees Spruce as a high-end neighborhood bar and restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “You can come in for caviar and Champagne, a cold beer and a cheeseburger, or a seasonal cocktail with grilled bavette steak. Each experience needs to feel genuine and appropriate, and the bar staff at Spruce is very adept at understanding each guest’s spoken (or unspoken) needs and meeting and exceeding them.”