Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Fine Dining Pedigree with a Beach Soul: Meet Mike and Stephanie Gaines of Glena's

Mike and Stephanie Gaines of Glena's restaurant in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. 
We were eager to try the new Mexican restaurant that had been rumored to take over the space where the Mexican/Salvadorian Restaurant, The New Spot, had been a favorite of residents and workers in the neighborhood on 20th Street at Illinois for more than five years. The restaurant we discovered when Glen'a opened in February 2016 was not a traditional Mexican Restaurant and in fact, is actually more of a California cuisine bar bites and craft cocktail restaurant than a Mexican Restaurant at all.

Glena's has now become one of our favorite places to hang out in Dogpatch and given the increasing crowds, we are not alone in feeling that way.

When you enter the small space it feels well, breezy. And that's not just from the wind that can howl along 20th Street some days.  The small space had been transformed with fresh white paint, green tile, and the a rich dark wood for tables.  A bar now dominates the space. There is no artwork on the walls all lending to the open feeling of the space.  If you look close you can see a small figurine on the bar called Ekeko -- a bringer of good luck and prosperity from Bolivia -- a nod to owner Stephanie Gaines birthplace.

And yes, there are tacos and margaritas but there is also a Fire Dog (beef hotdog) and Fried Chicken Torta sandwich that can be washed down with any number of tasty cocktails.

The space and the food and drink menus reminds us of places we used to frequent when we lived near the beach in Southern California.  It has a distinct beach bar bite vibe and you almost expect to feel the grit of sand under your feet as you take your seat at the bar or one of the tables.

So we weren't surprised to hear that chef owner Michael Gaines grew up in Southern California. He and wife and co-owner, Stephanie, have many years of fine dining and start up restaurant experience between then including stints at Gary Danko, Manresa, Delfina, Central Kitchen, Plow and Kin Khao.

But they have always had the shared goal of wanting to someday open their own restaurant.

Stephanie Gaines
Why do you do what you do?
It is gratifying when a customer gets what we are trying to do -- we want customers to have a happy time and eat food made with good quality ingredients.  Go ahead -- stay awhile -- have another drink. Relax with your friends.

I've always loved cooking but certainly didn't get that from my parents who didn't cook at all! I mostly watched cooking shows and then tried out various recipes.  And I have been working in restaurants for most of my adult life.

I was born in Bolivia but moved to California when I was four years old. My dad is from Kansas and my mom from Tennessee.  My dad grew up in Bolivia -- his parents were missionaries.  My mom was an artist and was studying textile weaving techniques in Bolivia when they met.

My dad got a job teaching middle school in Martinez and my mom was a professor at Cal State Hayward so we settled in Berkeley.  But I never spent any summers in California as my mom was awarded grants to go to Peru and Bolivia every summer on archaeological digs. I have a vivid childhood memory of her describing to someone in great detail the right way to unwrap a mummy! I actually got to go on a dig with her when I was a teenager.

I went to college at U.C. Santa Cruz to study environmental studies and art history.  While I was in college I worked at Love Apple Farms in the Santa Cruz mountains. Love Apple Farms uses biodynamic and organic techniques to grow fruits and vegetables. It was there that I met David Kinch -- the chef and owner of Manresa Restaurant. The farm had a partnership with Kinch to provide his restaurant with fruits and vegetables. I actually also met Mike there but we didn't date until later.

I didn't know any better so I asked David for a hostess job at Manresa! Of course they don't have that type of job there but he did hire me and I was front of the house and worked there through college.  I graduated in 2008 which of course was a terrible time to be looking for a job so I did a bunch of restaurant gigs while I decided what my next step would be.

I wanted a place of my own but needed an affordable place to live so with the help of my step father who knew a lot about sailing I bought a 27 foot Coronado sailboat and docked it in the Berkeley Marina. Mike and I had started dating in 2011 and he thought it was pretty cool I had a boat and he actually knew how to sail it.

Mike was hired to work at Central Kitchen but the summer before he was to start he was offered a job as a chef on a mega yacht docked in Chicago.  I went with him -- we had been dating all of two weeks.  When we moved back to San Francisco I worked at several restaurants including Delfina and Four + Water before ending up at Plow -- the popular brunch spot in Potrero Hill.

We lived in Hayes Valley for about a year but eventually moved to Potrero Hill in 2013, married in 2014 and still live in Potrero Hill with our two little girls.

I've always been a front of the house person in a restaurant -- even if I wasn't hired from the beginning to be in that role! I think it is because I'm a great multitasker and I truly care about the restaurant and the customer experience.

Mike Gaines speeds by the nicely stocked bar at Glena's in Dogpatch. 
Mike Gaines
Why do you do what you do?
I enjoy providing a fun, approachable dining experience for your friends and family. I like that I can be creative and make changes to the food or drinks on a whim. That's a bit more difficult to do in the fine-dining world that I came from.

The type of food we are doing is really just bar food -- California cuisine. But it is good quality bar food and our bar program is solid. This is food I grew up on. I grew up on Balboa Island -- a small beach town located in Orange County in Southern California.

My grandmother -- Glena -- taught me how to cook. She grew up in the Midwest and her mom was from Louisiana so her cooking was of the eggs in bacon fat type of food. Kind of a southern Midwestern style.  Glena and my grandfather were great entertainers as well. She was a life long cocktail waitress so that is the sort of world they lived in.  They had great cocktail parties and their house was perfect for that type of entertaining.

She lived in Reno but she would often come and stay with us when we were growing up while my mom was at work.  My mom worked in finance and my dad was a contractor.

I was all set to go to U.C. Santa Barbara for college to become a teacher.  But Santa Barbara is on the quarter system so I wasn't going to start until October.  I got a job at a restaurant while I waited for school to start and was hooked.  I had always wanted to cook but didn't realize you could actually have a career doing it.

I came to San Francisco to go to the California Culinary Academy. My internship at Gary Danko turned into a full time job and I stayed there about four years followed by another four years at Manresa.  I was also the opening chef at Central Kitchen and helped to open Kin Khao.

But all along Stephanie and I wanted to open our own place -- to take all that we had learned from these Michelin starred restaurants about dining, technique and ingredients and create our own customer experience. We held pop ups around town to test the concept and opened Glena's -- named after my Grandmother of course, in 2016.

We continue to adjust as we learn what customers want and how we work best. We started with just counter service now we have table service, for example.  We are really proud of our bar program and customers can look forward to the cocktail menu changing seasonally. Matthew Campbell who made his mark at Comal in Berkeley recently joined as our bar manager. I think our small size and the ability to be creative with the program and make it his own really appealed to him.

We hope to one day soon sell our chips and hot sauce to stores and other restaurants.  Our space is small but we do offer it for private parties. We know customers can be disappointed when we are closed for a private party but that is just the reality of the cost of doing business in San Francisco.  We hope to open more restaurants some day but right now we are just trying to staff this one. Finding and retaining good team members is tough for restaurants and we are no exception. We feel great that we are fully staffed right now and have a great team.

Why Dogpatch?
We started looking in 2015 and looked for a long time in SF before we heard this spot might be available to lease. We were super close to signing a lease in Mission Bay at the corner of Channel and 4th Street across from The Market Hall.  We live in Potrero Hill and would have loved to stay close to our neighborhood.  It was a huge space and we were excited to get started but in the end the lease terms were too unreasonable and we had to pass on the opportunity. That space continues to be available by the way!

So, we kept looking.  Then we heard that the landlord of this space was looking for new tenants so we took a look. Even though it is a small space we were excited to find it.  We know Dogpatch well since we live so close and are happy to be part of this community.  We continue to learn what the neighborhood needs and have adapted since we opened to provide a fun place with good food and cocktails for everyone.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
Stephanie:  I think for both of us this was always the goal to have our own place. So this is it!  If I left the restaurant world I would most certainly be doing something related to art -- perhaps in textiles given my education and from being inspired by my mom's expertise.
Mike:  It's been so long since I have thought of anything else but restaurants but I have always had an interest in Oceanography -- in learning about preservation.

Editor's note:  we interviewed Mike and Stephanie while sipping on Toes in the Sand -- a drink from their secret menu. Ask for one!  And also ask what else is on the secret drink and food menu....)

Ekeko the Bolivian bringer of good luck and prosperity stands watch behind the bar at Glena's in Dogpatch, San Francisco. 

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