Monday, August 8, 2016

Where Hospitality is Top Priority: Meet Jason Alonzo, Jordan Keao and Cheryl Liew of ‘āina

The owners of ‘āina in Dogpatch created an innovative Hawaiian themed menu of food and drink. They include Cheryl Liew, Jason Alonzo and Jordan Keao (Standing).
A change in ownership or concept in the restaurant business is not unusual but we were sad to see Joshua Shertz's hard fought efforts to convert his Cup of Blues cafe into Ensoleille Restaurant not work out after only a few months.

When the official SF notification of a change in owners was posted on the closed restaurant door in September 2015, we were excited to learn more about their plans.  The corner of 22nd and Minnesota is such a prime spot in Dogpatch that it seemed a waste not to have a business there.

Cheryl Liew, Jordan Keao and Jason Alonzo might be the new tenants but they are not new to the restaurant business.  They were the force behind the pop-up, ‘āina (, the weekend-only Hawaiian inspired brunch spot that had a successful but short run in the Bernal Heights neighborhood.  ‘āina was so successful they decided to shut down and put their efforts behind searching for a permanent spot -- they couldn't stand having to turn people away. Their dream was to have a restaurant that could be open for both brunch and dinner for more than two days at a time.

The offering at ‘āina includes Kalua Pork Belly (front),  Kalbi Loco Moco and Breakfast potatoes.
To say the last few months has been a whirlwind for them would be an understatement -- not only did they find the restaurant space, work through the usual SF red tape, and then build out the restaurant doing much of the work themselves, they did it while holding down full-time jobs. In addition, married couple Liew and Keao who already have one young child, welcomed their second child to the world.

Life isn't slowing down since they opened their doors to the hungry public in April -- the sidewalk in front of their restaurant is frequently crowded with folks hoping to get one of the tables that they keep open for walk-ins. (neighborhood tip -- early spots during the week are often available without a wait).  The ‘āina team hopes to start dinner service in the Fall and also has a few other creative ideas they are working on to make sure we all have our fill of malasadas and more.

We have dined at ‘āina numerous times and were impressed not only with the food and innovative bar program, but also by the warmth of everyone there.  They genuinely seemed like they were having a good time amid the chaos of a busy restaurant.  We often felt like they would sit down and join us for a leisurely chat despite the evidence of a packed restaurant and a line out the door that would prevent such an act. True hospitality seems to fuel the ‘āina experience.

Jordan Keao, Chef and Owner
Why do you do what you do?

I love the instant gratification I get when I see that a customer has been changed by something that we have done -- by creating this great meal and experience for them.  When we see a customer's smile then we get to see the real benefits of what we do -- why we work so many hours. When a customer is enjoying themselves in a space we created with food we created that is a powerful thing to us.

I grew up in Hawaii but moved to Boston when I was 13.  You might say I'm a balance of city and country.  I returned to Hawaii when I was 18.  I did a lot of fishing and thinking and decided to focus on becoming a chef.  I went to culinary school in San Diego -- it was a more affordable place to live while going to school.  The goal was always to move to the SF Bay area.  I wanted to be part of what was happening in the food and restaurant scene here.  After culinary school I moved to this area -- to the East Bay where I helped to open a sushi restaurant.  From there I dove into a more serious food and restaurant environment when I joined La Folie.  I was there for three years where I learned to prepare high quality food in a fast paced environment.  That's where I met Jason Alonzo who was in charge of the bar program there.
Don't miss the Malasadas - Portuguese style donuts - filled with guava custard at ‘āina in Dogpatch.

I then joined a restaurant management group who managed the food service for Google.  I learned so much there -- I realized that there are many different skill sets needed in the restaurant world in addition to having a great chef.  Marketing, finance and more are needed to run and manage a large team.

Eventually I left Google for Airbnb -- we had a newborn and the commute from where we lived in SF to Google became just too much. I was still interested in working with a technology company but wanted to work with a smaller company so that I could really be involved in building and growing their food program.  I really liked that Airbnb didn't contract out their food program but made it part of their company culture.

While at Airbnb we got the idea to do a brunch pop up on the weekends.  Jason and I had always talked about doing a side project together.

We called our project, ‘āina, which is a Hawaiian word which means "the land that feeds us." The name reflects how we approach our work.  To be mindful and to take just what you need.

From the start the project felt right -- we weren't forcing it to come together.  Cheryl heard about a pop up Ramen spot in the Bernal Heights neighborhood that was open Monday-Friday and they were interested in letting us do our project on the weekends.  It was a lot of fun but a lot of work.  Social media and word-of-mouth made it a success but ultimately we just didn't have time for it so we closed.

We realized that we might as well have a full time restaurant than only a part-time pop-up.  We all agreed on our direction and we all trusted each other.

Cheryl Liew, CFO and Owner
Why do you do what you do?

Well, keep in mind that I work full-time at a recruiting firm and love my work there.  I wanted to support Jordan's dream of owning a restaurant.  I look at the three of us as being the three pillars that will make ‘āina a success -- management, creative bar program and amazing food.  It all comes together in our desire to provide a great experience for our customers.

I have always been a major foodie.  I was born in the U.K. but grew up in Singapore which is a food obsessed country.  Jordan and I first met as foodie friends -- we wanted to try all that the SF Bay Area had to offer.  I went to school for economics and my original goal was to work for the World Health Organization or for the U.N.  I thought I could use my expertise in economics to help developing countries.  I did an internship at an investment banking firm in Singapore.  It was intense but I loved it although I knew I didn't want to do that type of work long term.  I then worked in media including stints at CNBC and ESPN.  All of this experience led me to the recruiting industry -- I love the combination of finance and psychology.  I so enjoy hearing other people's stories.  I moved to SF in 2010 and started working in recruiting for technology positions. Jordan and I were married in 2012.

I knew he wanted to start a restaurant some day.  I met the chef of a Ramen restaurant in Bernal Heights and that's how we found our weekend spot for ‘āina.  At ‘āina I was the server, the host, whatever they needed me to be and almost always with our son strapped on my back!

We started looking around for a full-time space and a friend who lives in Dogpatch told us about Ensoleille and Joshua.  It all started to come together after that.

Jason Alonzo of ‘āina mixes up a great menu of brunch cocktails at the Dogpatch restaurant.

Jason Alonzo, General Manager, Owner
Why do you do what you do?

I like making people happy.  Hospitality is our top priority.  To me, food is love.

I grew up in Boston but didn't meet Jordan there although it turned out that we had friends in common.  We had an immediate trust with each other when we met at La Folie.

I started in the beverage business in Boston when I was 19.  I was a bar back and learned the old school ways.  I then became bar manager.  I also worked at the Liberty Hotel where the chef there, Joseph Margate, was amazing -- he was doing California inspired food in Boston.  I became interested in creating specialty cocktails to complement  the food we were serving and to even use in the drink program some of the same ingredients that the kitchen was using to create their dinner menu.

Boston is a good place to be from but I always felt that I was born on the wrong coast. I had thought about moving to Southern California but moved to San Francisco when my then girlfriend decided to attend the Academy of Art.  I moved here in 2011 and went to work for La Folie.

I took over the bar manager program at La Folie.  I felt strongly that what the chef is doing with ingredients should also influence the beverage program and they supported my passion for crafting that type of bar program.

At ‘āina we have a low-ABV license which means I get to be creative with low proof alcohol like lillet and sparkling wine and use herbs, fruit and other seasonal ingredients to create drinks to complement our menu.

Why Dogpatch?
We were looking for a neighborhood where we felt we could make our own mark -- that wasn't yet too well known.  We looked in the inner Richmond, East Bay and South Bay. We didn't know a lot about Dogpatch but a friend who lives in the neighborhood told us we should look at the Ensoleille space after it closed and we made contact with owner Joshua Shertz.  We liked that it was still a "hidden" neighborhood -- not yet totally discovered but well on its way.  It reminded us of where we had our pop-up restaurant in the Bernal Heights neighborhood.  This neighborhood also feels like an East Coast neighborhood where everyone knows their neighbor and are vocal about what they like and don't like. All the pieces started coming together here. We really felt like we could be part of the changing face of the neighborhood in a good way.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
JA:  I would be a session musician I play guitar, bass, and drums.
JK:  A professional windsurfer.  I did a lot of it as a kid in Hawaii.
CL:  Well, I'm also still working full time at a recruiting firm so I think I would find some balance in my life.  Two jobs, two kids and a husband is plenty for me right now!