Q&A with Jen Pelka of The Riddler and Une Femme Wines
March 4, 2020
A conversation on her typical workday, how technology has influenced the industry and the importance of a healthy work/life balance.
Jen Pelka is the Founder, CEO and Owner of Magnum PR and Co-Founder of San Francisco and New York City’s The Riddler and recently launched champagne label, Une Femme. With a career that’s had a touchpoint in almost all aspects of the food and beverage industry, Jen is just getting started. Jen and her team adopted the BentoBox platform in 2016, while opening The Riddler in San Francisco. We got in touch to learn a little more about her meteoric rise, her typical workday, technology and the importance of getting away from it all.
Let's take it back to the beginning. You have a really interesting career path that didn’t necessarily start with restaurants. How did you get involved in hospitality and what was it about restaurants that excited you the most?
When I first graduated from Stanford, where I studied philosophy, I moved to New York. I was working at a hedge fund and I had heard that it was possible, on the weekends, to stage at a restaurant—basically working for free in a kitchen.
I really loved restaurants and cooking. I grew up in a family where both dining out and cooking at dinner parties was something that was really, really important to us and was a really a big part of our family culture.
I met the sous chef of DANIEL at the bar of Schiller's one night. I was a regular there. We struck up a conversation somehow and learned a little bit more about what life might be like in the fine-dining world. I offered to do a stage and he said, “Yeah, give me a call next week.” So I called the following week. He said, “Come in on Saturday. Black pants. Black shoes. White shirt. Bring your knives!” That was my entree into the restaurant world.
I ended up working there for about a year and a half on Saturdays and staging in the kitchen. Eventually, I became Daniel Boulud’s research assistant, to help him with all kinds of products, launches, special projects, really anything that was in his very creative mind. I absolutely loved it. I learned so, so much from him.
Then, Daniel and Thomas Keller took over the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition. Since I was helping Daniel with all kinds of special projects, I started working on that as well. I became the competition director for the U.S. for the first year of the competition that Daniel and Thomas were running it. I helped to raise a lot of sponsorship dollars, run the U.S. competition, work with press and more.
Left: Photograph by Kassie Borreson Right: Photograph by Jordan Wise
And then from there, I eventually left and went to the Gilt Groupe, the online shopping site. I joined their team to launch a very high-end food and wine sales site called Gilt Taste. We were really focused on selling high-end wines, caviar, champagne, etc, which is where I fell in love with champagne.
What drew me to the hospitality world really comes from our family's love of hospitality. Restaurants and dining out were a huge part of our lives. They were the social centers of our family.
Is there a typical path to opening or operating a restaurant?
I know a ton of restaurateurs, all of whom have their own unique path. So, I think traditionally a lot of restaurants that you see come from people who've worked their way up the line and who are truly back-of-house people. I think that's a really incredible and an important way to start a restaurant. I think the challenge there is getting enough exposure to the business side, the marketing side and the front-of-house side.
For me, I really don't come from an operations background. I'm really coming from the brand building and marketing side of things. I have to make sure I have people around me who are hardcore operators, who love the daily ins and outs of figuring out things like “Is this service station laid out as efficiently as possible? Are we approaching each table with the specifics around service and hospitality that we need to? Are our labor costs and food costs in line?”
Photograph by Kassie Borreson
At this point, we have a team of people who are specialists in their own areas. And in many ways, I'm really pointing everyone in the direction of where we're going. And the team is focused on executing all of the details with their own teams each day. So I think there are a lot of different ways that you can get into the restaurant world and become a restaurant owner, operator or restaurateur.
But it is a complicated business and so much of it is about building out a team that you trust with people in roles where they're specialists and they're really good at what they do. It’s important to give those people the freedom to execute on their own vision within your brand.
Speaking of having a great team around you. I know you wear a lot of hats yourself, as a founder of Magnum PR, of both restaurants, as well as the founder of Une Femme Wines. How do you balance work with life?
I try not to work when I'm not at work. If I'm not working on the floor of the restaurant, I try to be pretty unplugged at night. I try to take the weekends off. And that's true for my husband, who's also a restaurateur. He founded Souvla, in San Francisco.
When we're at dinner, or when we're out with each other, we generally put our phones away and stay offline as much as we can. We also try to get away whenever we can. We have a cabin in Sonoma County that's very, very off the grid. So we try to get there whenever we can on the weekends. This past year, we didn't get to visit as much since I was in New York opening The Riddler. Up there, we literally have no cell service. We don't even have a landline. It's really wild. And it's in this massive redwood forest and we're truly off the grid and really decompressing. I think that's super important.
Photograph by Kassie Borreson
What other ways do you seek a good work/life balance?
I try every year to do at least one big physically and mentally challenging, off-the-grid trip, which is something kind of new to me. I hiked the Tour de Mont Blanc which is a really important mountain peak in the Alps. It was a 10 day, 120-mile hike, circumnavigating the Mont Blanc.
There's another place that I've visited called Rancho La Puerta in Mexico. There's a lot of hiking. There's a lot of activity. You can also do a lot of meditation and sound baths and things like that.
There was a period a couple of years ago where I got super burnt out and I just realized that I needed to take a break. I have learned that those kinds of things, while they're certainly a luxury, are important to carve time out for—especially for us in the restaurant world where we’re eating and drinking, going here and there.
It's basically like a reset function.
Yeah, and the only way that you can do that is if you have a team that you really trust. People that can run the shop while you're away. I'm managing a restaurant in San Francisco and one in New York. Obviously I can't be in two places at one time. And I think it's so much about hiring really smart people who want to have that level of ownership and trust in themselves. And that they don't resent it, but instead, they take it as a cool opportunity.
Photographs by Jordan Wise
What’s an ideal work-day look like?
On typical mornings, I like to wake up without an alarm clock around 8. I check Instagram and I check my emails. I do sleep with my phone in my room, unfortunately. I check the daily logs from the day before, our sales reports as well as our manager reports. Our sommeliers also do report on all the wines that were sold, the VIPs, etc. Then I take a look at my schedule and meetings. My ideal day? I workout in the morning. I’ll go to SoulCycle. I really love a good morning “soul” and then I head to the restaurant.
It's a little tricky because sometimes I'm coming to the San Francisco restaurant and sometimes I’m coming to the New York restaurant. Sometimes I'm going to a workspace. When I’m in New York I’ll go to The Wing, specifically The Wing in SoHo. My ideal day would be, get up, work out, shower at The Wing because they have an amazing shower. Then getting in a couple of hours of work. Then around noon, go to the restaurant, take a bunch of meetings. At 4:15, I’ll be present for the lineup. I’ll chat with the team during family meal and then work on the floor from 5 to 8, splitting time between the floor and the office. And then typically I’ll go and meet with friends for a drink, whether it's a journalist or a fellow restaurateur or just a friend.
On my ideal day, my husband's in town since both of us split our time between San Francisco and New York. We would go to dinner, go home and then go to sleep. That's a pretty typical day.
What does a night out look like for you?
If I'm meeting up with somebody for drinks, they're often in the West Village. So places that I go to regularly are Fedora and Bar Pisellino. For dinner, the usual suspects are I Sodi and King. I love King. It's one of my very, very favorite restaurants. I also like to go to Uncle Boons, Cervo's, Pastis. We also explore all of the restaurants that are hot and new.
How did you come to find BentoBox? What was that process?
I learned about Bentobox from TechTable. I've seen Krystle [Krystle Mobayeni, CEO & Co-Founder of BentoBox] speak on a bunch of panels. Charles and the Souvla team have been using BentoBox for a long time. So when we were launching The Riddler, it was a no brainer to launch using BentoBox. It's so fast and easy and relatively inexpensive. I think it's one of the best restaurant technology products out there. You can always tell when a restaurant uses a BentoBox website. And I feel bad when they don't. I'm like, oh, you probably spent so much money on this.
In what ways are the Riddler and Une Femme a celebration of women in hospitality?
It's a huge part of what we do. It’s something we talk about and think about every day. At The Riddler, all of our investors are women and most of our team is made up of women. We actually now have quite a few more guys on our leadership team, which I'm excited about because it's good to have diversity in the room. I also think it's very powerful for strong, powerful men to be around strong, powerful women in work and in life.
We often will do features of women in wine. We will work with and highlight things such as women oyster farmers and women truffle purveyors. There are just so many cool women out there who we can be collaborating with, partnering with, celebrating, etc. We've got a really, really talented crew across San Francisco and New York and they are all a part of that vision.
Today, technology is increasingly being integrated into the restaurant space. How has technology assisted The Riddler and the industry at large?
We’re definitely all using technology much more than ever before. Particularly, I think, for data management. A really great example is working with a reservation platform like Resy, or OpenTable and using that to track information about your guests. Whether it's information that they share with you or information that you collect as you interact with them.
Photograph by Jordan Wise
We use a lot of other really fun technology. We have a virtual lock on our door that we can control from our phone for safety purposes. We use specialized cameras that are also synced to our phones. We can control the lights and the sound from our phones. There is so much that's mobile-enabled, which is really, really helpful when you’re managing restaurants across two cities and across the country.
What other cities besides San Francisco and New York could you see The Riddler existing?
We would love to do other cities! We would love to do D.C., London, Tokyo and even Champagne, France. We get a lot of requests for Los Angeles. I'm also pretty interested in Philadelphia and Boston. Right now, we are really focused on getting San Francisco and New York right. We’re really trying to build the team in a way that's sustainable and keep everybody focused on the right things, which, culture is number one. Second, I would say that maintaining really great relationships with our top guests and turning new guests into regulars is important.
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