Greg Medow was bit by the hospitality bug at an early age. A native of New York City, Greg says food and wine first became a passion because his parents enjoyed them and passed their appreciation on to him while he was growing up in one of the best food cities in the world.
“In New York you eat out a lot because the apartments aren’t the biggest,” he said. “I was always going out with my mom and my dad and always had a passion for food. I tried wine at a young age and really liked it.”
And then there was—as is often the case—a girl.
When a girl he had a high school crush on got a job at a cookie store, he decided to get a job there too so he could work with her. Through working at the cookie store, Greg quickly realized that he really enjoyed serving people. When someone had a bad day and needed a pick-me-up, he was there with a cookie. When someone wanted to buy a gift tin for family or friends, he was there. Sharing in others’ lives and getting to know regular customers resonated with him on a deep level. Not only was it fun, it was rewarding.
That sense of service led Greg to consider studying hospitality management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. After visiting the school, he thought the program would not only be a fun way to spend four years but would also allow him to continue to do work he really enjoyed. “I just thought, ‘What a great way to go through school,’” he said.
And the program would provide him with practical skills that he could take into the job world afterward.
“My high school sent a lot of kids to Cornell each year so I would go and visit and a couple of them that I knew were in the hotel school and they would tell me ‘Today I cooked lobster thermidor. Today I drank wine at 10 a.m. and did a marketing plan for the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta and we flew to a convention in New Orleans.’ It was very social—I’m a very social person—but it’s also very creative. And operations—there’s something tangible. There’s a location and you have to operate—You open at 10 am. What happens?”
At Cornell, things clicked for Greg. He discovered his service bug developing into a real passion for the hospitality industry. Unlike many people who are unsure of the career path they should take after graduation, Greg found that his major led him to exactly where he wanted to be.
“When you go to college you think you know what you want to do, but you don’t always know. So I was really lucky that what I thought I wanted to do was what I really wanted to do,” he said.
After Cornell, Greg moved back to New York City where he got a job with another Cornell alum, Drew Nieporent, owner of the Myriad Restaurant Group. One of New York’s most successful and lauded restaurateurs, Nieporent is owner of such restaurants as Montrachet, Bâtard, Tribeca Grill (along with partner Robert DeNiro—yes, that Robert DeNiro) and the famed sushi restaurant Nobu, with partners Nobu Matsuhisa and DeNiro. (Nieporent was also owner of the former Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco.)
Working for Nieporent, the graduate found himself becoming, quite literally, a “Greg of all trades.”
“I basically did everything. I had a hundred keys. I would drive a forklift in the basement for deliveries at 6 a.m. I would bartend at night for private events. I would do payroll. I would order tunas from Japan. It was 6 a.m. to midnight everyday,” he said.
It was about a year after going to work for Nieporent that Greg got a call from an old friend who was living in San Francisco. The friend wanted to open a restaurant and was hoping Greg would help. Already feeling a bit burnt out by the schedule he was keeping, Greg decided to move to San Francisco where, in 1997, he opened the Indigo restaurant in Hayes Valley. After gaining success with Indigo, Greg decided to branch out into bar ownership, when Hobson’s Choice, a Victorian punch house, in the Haight became available in 1998. He later opened another bar, Jade, in the space now occupied by Smuggler’s Cove, also in Hayes Valley.
As Greg began buying bars, he realized that, although he had a passion for restaurants, he enjoyed operating bars much more. Greg says this is in part due to the burgeoning craft cocktail movement. He’s been inspired by the shift toward more complex drinks and the artisan spirits being developed both in the Bay Area and throughout the country. It’s also helped him develop a new appreciation for spirits and cocktails in addition to wine.
“Beverages can be more complicated, they can be more fun and there’s more thought going into them. There’s more nuance and playing to your palate and layering and those kind of things going on now,” he said.
Transitioning to bar ownership has also helped Greg fulfill what he calls a “void of needing to do something new” that he says happens to him every few years. He says he’s someone that needs to take on new projects to keep his creative juices flowing. Since switching his primarily focus to bars, Greg has acquired two other venues, Flanahan’s in the Outer Sunset and Swell in Alameda, both of which he describes as “neighborhood pubs.”
Greg says his philosophy for both places has been to “keep the heart and soul and make it operate better.” Flanahan’s, in particular, has given Greg an opportunity to really get involved in the surrounding neighborhood and make the business a central part of the Outer Sunset. Since taking over, Greg has been instrumental in putting together a number of events in the area, such as a street fair and an annual blood drive. He also applied for a grant to help install a sidewalk garden in the area, and he’s helped recreated a local merchant’s association in the ‘hood.
“It’s been super fun and very rewarding on a level that I didn’t think would happen, to be really engaged in a neighborhood,” he said.
In addition to bar ownership, Greg has maintained a foot in the restaurant world by continuing to invest in restaurants although he admits his focus has shifted away from restaurants over the past 17 years. As an investor, Greg says he looks specifically for places being run by people who are far more skilled at restaurant ownership than he feels he was. He is currently an investor in restaurants such as Foreign Cinema, Mission Bowling Club and the Pizzeria Delfina branches in Burlingame and Palo Alto. He also has an investment in a friend’s restaurant that is based in Beverly, Mass.
“Life is short, you should love everything you do. It’s not realistic that you’re going to love everything all the time, but when you show up you should commit 100 percent and give 100 percent,” he said.
Around the time that he invested in Flanahan’s, Greg began thinking about an idea for a mobile bar. The food truck craze was beginning to really take off, Greg says, and he figured a traveling bar concept would be just as fun as a food truck if not more so.
The only problem? He wasn’t particularly thrilled about the trucks themselves and their aesthetic—or rather, lack of aesthetic.
“A typical food truck is boxy and boring, and every food truck looks the same. They just get wrapped differently. Without differentiation people wouldn’t know it was a beverage truck,” he said.
Inspired to look into the idea anyway, Greg began doing some research and hit upon the idea of using an Airstream trailer instead of a food truck. He liked the fact that Airstreams typically have no engines, which give them a more peaceful, idyllic and permanent feel than a food truck, which typically has a constantly running motor, Greg says.
“When you tow something and de-hitch it, it exists there on its own and it can’t go anywhere without help. There’s something sort of stable about that, meaning that it’s yours. If you’re doing private event, it’s yours versus a food truck, where when they put the key in, then they drive away. It’s a cerebral thing I came up with,” he says.
After looking into Airstream fabricators, he found an operation in upstate New York that restored vintage Airstream trailers. He found a shell for a 1965 Caravel model, designed the inside and had it made.
“What I love about that year—that timeframe—is looking at it today it’s definitely retro but it’s also sort of futuristic and modern. It’s cool, it’s modern, it’s futuristic, it’s post – whereas in the 70s and 80s Airstream had its duds – they’re not as cool.”
Thus the BarCar—a mobile party in an Airstream—was born. Although it’s taken Greg about a year to take care of all of his licensing requirements, the BarCar officially launched in November and is currently available for rental.
BarCar is available for any kind of private event, from weddings and tailgates to birthday partners or corporate events. Greg offers four custom packages for clients, based on the quality of alcohol the client wants to serve. In addition to a full well, draft beer and wine are also available. Party packages also include a few high-top tables and chairs, as well as games such as ping-pong and a bean-bag toss to help entertain guests.
One of the biggest advantages of the BarCar, Greg says, is that he takes care of pretty much everything for the client. “One of the biggest selling points is that we’re a one-stop shop. We do it all for you,” he said. Once he’s discussed what the client is looking for, Greg takes care of the rest, including obtaining liquor licenses and local permits if necessary.
“As far as party planning goes, you just make one phone call, and I do the rest,” he said. “It should be seamless and easy. When we pull up the ‘wow factor’ should start with the host and then translate into the guests.”
BarCar also fits into Greg’s philosophy that serving is all about making people happy. Although he still finds restuarant work rewarding, it’s not without it’s challenges, he says, and he’s found that its far easier to make more people happy in a bar setting.
“Bars are just way more fun,” he said.
What drew you to the food and beverage industries?
When I grew up in New York, we were always going out and my dad was always drinking wine at home. You’d always read these labels—especially the French wine labels that made no sense to me—and I was like ‘What? I don’t even know what’s going on.’ Then California wines started to gain prominence in the 80s and those labels are much simpler. Napa? I know where that is, I know what the grape is, I know who made it—so that was sort of a light bulb moment of ‘OK, this makes sense now.’ Eventually I figured out French wines and European wines, but once California wines came on the marketplace it made more sense. And then you know when you grow up and you go to family events and the adults are always having a beverage?
I started working at a cookie place called David’s Cookies in New York when I was in high school. There was a very cute girl that I kind of had a crush on—she was working there, that’s why I got a job there! And even at the cookie job, you learn operations, you learn how to make cookies, you learn how to serve people, cash register. People would buy tins—cookie tins—for people. There’s a lot of emotion in that. You could be buying cookies for someone to say thank you to them, buying cookies for a sad event in their lives—so you’re involved in people’s lives in a process of remedy, healing, thanks. It’s pretty cool—it’s tangible. When someone would come back to see you and say ‘Hey, Greg, how’re you doing?’ I fell for that like a sucker. ‘Hey good to see you again.’ A light bulb went off—this is fun, I love it.
Then I bussed tables at restaurants, did dishes. I got a real taste of how things work behind the scenes. It’s amazing—it’s pretty easy to be a bad dishwasher. You have to learn how to do it right. Some of the veteran workers showed me—I think I was young enough, I was still in high school—but if they’d hired me as a 20-something that couldn’t do dishes, I would have been fired. But being a young kid, I had multiple opportunities to get it right, and it took a few weeks to get it down, but once you get it down, it’s this system—how you stack ‘em, how you pre-rinse them. Of course, if you’re doing over 100 loads a week in a dish machine, compared to 10 loads—it matters. It makes your life that much easier. Garbage? Filling it up so it’s not too heavy, but filling it up so it’s efficient, so you’re not doing two runs versus one—all of that. All the little nuances of that.
All that stuff was a lot of behind the scenes work—and then I went to college for that. And in college that’s where the passion came in. And obviously in college you drink a bit. So the passion for beverages started. I lived above a bar in college. Living above a bar, just going to bars and eating and drinking my whole life, I developed a passion.
Luckily a friend of mine—who grew up across the street from me—he’d moved out here many years later, he called me up and was like ‘You really know what you’re doing. Fly out to California, let’s do a restaurant together.’ So he—my friend Jeff—he really was the impetus for launching, at a young age, into ownership. Typically you don’t get that opportunity, or many people don’t get that opportunity, so I’m always thankful for that.
Why a mobile bar?
I’d just sold Indigo and I’d sold Jade, and I was looking for something else to do. The food truck craze was coming about, and I was sort of sick of dealing with landlords also. So I said, ‘Let’s look into this. I think we can do it.’ I think maybe one or two people are doing the same thing now, but at the time, no one was doing a mobile bar. It just clicked. I did the research on it, I found the fabricator, I found the shell. What happened was I’d found the shell, and I didn’t buy it. Then the fabricator said to me, ‘Greg, someone else wants to buy the shell.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ And I looked at my wife and said ‘Listen the shell that I want is for sale and somebody wants it—are we doing this or not?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Why not?’
So once you buy you’re shell, you’re doing it—that’s your commitment! So I was like ‘This is great – this is very cool!’ I’m very excited, very excited.
That’s a great question. I think I have a creative element to myself that’s always being mildly suppressed. If you think about when you open a place, all your creativity goes into opening it. Then it goes into operations. And, yeah, it’s creativity, but most of the creativity, to me, is in the starting of it, when you open, that’s the creativity. So if you operate a spot for 15 years and the creativity’s at the beginning, you have to keep it fresh. There’s different levels of creativity along the way for operations.
I think there’s just an internal muse in me that needs to come out every few years, creating something new and different. If you look at me, I’ve done a bunch of spots. And even investing in spots—even if I’m not dealing with it—is creative because I’m involved in the process to a degree. I think operations and running a business can seem to not be creative, so I need to balance that every few years with a new project.
And that can take a year or two to get going, so it takes a lot of bandwidth. You start with nothing. You start with an idea. Think of it—I had the idea of doing an Airstream trailer and now it exists. That whole process is creativity.
I think the simplest advice that I’ve always had for operations is ‘Make people happy.’ If you want your business to do well, you make people happy and everything else will fall into place. It’s such a simple phrase and such a simple thing to say; it’s very hard to do. And there’s many ways to skin that cat, but I’m really a firm believer in, if we open the doors or do an event, and everyone there has a good time, things are going to be OK. Things will take care of themselves—i.e. you’ll get word of mouth, you’ll get positive reviews, you’ll be able to book another event, you’ll be able to open another restaurant. That’s the simplest thing.
I think just also being fair in everything you do—everyday you’re presented with a new problem or a new thing, but how you deal with it is important, too—being fair and reasonable. And making people happy is the simplest mantra that I try to live by.
And coming full closure, I find that easier in a bar environment than in a restaurant environment. I just find that I can make more people happy in a bar environment than in a restaurant—I think that’s true of every restaurant. That’s my point of view. I just think expectations in a restaurant environment are so different. It’s hard to meet them.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Finding great people to work with is always the challenge—whether it’s business partners or employees. You have to have the same kind of people who buy into your philosophy and what you’re trying to accomplish. They have your hand, as they say—they act on your behalf.
Also San Francisco is the most challenging business environment in the country. I got a notification the other day—I tried to put up an A-frame side, a sandwich board—three pages of rules and regulations on the sandwich board. Part of me gets it, but there’s a lot of bandwidth—the city pays a lot to deal with that process, then they bust my chops about the process—it just doesn’t seem like a good use of resources and funds. And there’s a thousand examples of that. If graffiti happens to be on my building, I get fined. The small business person is not embraced as they should be.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I think just the flexibility you have in your day to day. When you work for yourself, you dictate how you want your day to go. I don’t have balance in my personal life but I have the ability to be flexible at times when others don’t. I’d like to spend more time with the kids at home—that being said—if there’s a doctor’s appointment or something unforeseen, I can go to it, I don’t have to get permission to go do those things.
The downside is, it’s a lot of hours. You’re always on.
What’s your favorite item on the BarCar menu?
We really rotate through on a seasonal basis. I really love stuff right now like we did a rum persimmon punch the other day with apple bitters and elderflower liquor. It had a very aromatic, very seasonal, very tasty—the whole thing was just off-the-charts.
Are there others in the local food/beverage industry that you admire and why?
I think my friends over at the Mission Bowling Club—Molly [Bradshaw] and Sommer [Peterson]. They’re two women who had the idea of doing a bowling alley with a bar and restaurant. They took a raw space, it was nothing, in a great location—and it being a good location, but you never know right? —that was a big risk and they executed it flawlessly. I think they just did a great, ballsy job of gettin’ in there are doing it.
And then the people that I always like, too, are Greg [Lindgren] and John [Gasparini]—they own Rye and 15 Romolo and Rosewood. They’ve just been able to do multiple brands under the same umbrella and execute well and be consistent. Those are two groups of people that I think just do a solid job—a consistently solid job. There’s plenty of spots that pop up here and there that are the darling of the month, but they just don’t have the staying power that these people do.
I love braised meats. Braised pork shoulder or short rib—anything that kind of falls off the bone with deep, deep flavor. That’s a good question drink-wise. Sipping on a great bourbon perhaps. Or I’m always a big Cabernet guy, too. Actually an aged California Cabernet is always a lot of fun.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I’m not trying to bring it full circle, but I do like what Craig and Ann Stoll do—from Delfina. Locanda is great, and Delfina is great as well. Also Range—that’s a classic. They’ve stayed true to what they are the whole time and are great at what they do. I like those sort of medium-sized local spots that—obviously farm to table is always helpful—that commit to a level and they don’t try to waiver from it. Chez Panisse does that too—that’s an easy answer, but I had a tour of the kitchen once and got the background story of—they spend more money on olive oil in a year than I spend on my meats. It was one of those things that was like crazy. It was eye-opening what their approach was—I was mesmerized. That’s why they’re a really great restaurant—because they’ve stayed true to what they are. I think once you have a great recipe and you’ve figured it out and it works and you stick to it, people will honor you for that.
Photos courtesy of Greg Medow and Angie Silvy.