When Sarah and Evan Rich met in Manhattan 18 years ago, they hardly could have imagined that they would someday be running a small empire of restaurants in San Francisco. In fact, if it weren’t for the need to change clothing before and after service, the wife-and-husband chef duo might never have met at all. Their first meeting, which took place while they were both working for the fine-dining chef David Bouley (she at Bouley, he at Danube, the sister restaurant next door), occurred in—of all places—the shared locker room.
They got to know one another in the confines of the kitchen. “I moved over to Bouley, on the fish station, and I worked for her,” Evan explains to me. He pauses for a second, then glances at Sarah. “You gonna say it?”
“Still do!” they belted out in unison.
A knack for well-timed humor is just one of Evan and Sarah’s shared qualities, which also include, among other things, intense culinary ambition, an unrelenting work ethic, and a passion for serving sophisticated cuisine without the requisite pretentiousness. In part, it’s the combination of all these mutual commonalities that make them an unstoppable restaurant power couple.
Not long following Bouley, the two moved out West, lured by San Francisco’s burgeoning fine-dining scene. After working in some of the city’s top-rated restaurants, including Michael Mina (Sarah), Quince (Evan), and Coi (both), the couple opened Rich Table, their Michelin-starred flagship restaurant, in Hayes Valley in 2012. And in 2017, they opened the doors to RT Rotisserie, a fast-casual restaurant focused on vegetable-centric dishes and rotisserie offerings. Today they oversee four restaurants—Rich Table, two RT Rotisserie restaurants in San Francisco, and in a recent venture with DoorDash Kitchens, a new RT Rotisserie location in Redwood City.
On an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, I stopped into one of their restaurants to chat with the two of them about the genesis of Rich Table, the unique challenges of takeout and delivery, and their new partnership with DoorDash Kitchens. Evan and Sarah reflected on some of their humorous early missteps and shared how a weekend family ritual inspired RT Rotisserie.
Editor’s Note: Mere days later, COVID-19 began ravaging America, and cities across the country—San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area included—hastily shut down all but their most vital operations. Restaurant dining as we know it ceased to exist, and many local favorites made the difficult decision to close, either temporarily or permanently. We’ve shared an update from the chefs at the conclusion of this story.
Sarah: We had been talking about opening a restaurant together for a long time. We did pop-ups for a while. It helped us introduce ourselves to the city and think about what kind of menu we wanted to put together, what our food was, what our perspective was.
Evan: Originally, we kind of envisioned it as a tasting menu, except a la carte, where portions were much smaller and more affordable. But people were like, “Why are the portions so small?” We focused in, listened to what people thought, and started adjusting—not changing our vision, but changing to meet people’s expectations. Three months in, we got a glowing review from the Chronicle. That weekend, we got 2,500 reservations. Ever since that day, it hasn’t stopped.
Evan: At that point, we had a great team and were thinking about expanding. When we’d opened Rich Table, it was exactly the way we had wanted to eat, the style of who we were at the time. Five years later, we had two kids, we were doing a lot of takeout at the time, and we just wanted some delicious food.
One of my favorite things was that we’d go skiing on the weekend, and on the Bay Bridge on our way back home, we’d call a restaurant and order a chicken and sides. We’d sprawl out in the living room in front of the coffee table. We thought, This is something we could put together. This could work with that salad we make at home, that roast chicken, Nanny’s barbecue sauce.
Sarah: The way we approach food is no different from the way we approach the food at Rich Table. Take the RTR Salad: You’ve got this bright dressing, really fresh greens, but then you also have something sweet and tart to cut through that. The seed mixture is crunchy and adds a nice textural element. You’ve got the sharp onions and the fresh herbs that kind of lighten it up and bring it all together. We’re still putting the same thought behind it.
Evan: [Fast-casual] restaurants aren’t really known for healthy, vegetable-focused options.
Sarah: Everybody is grinding all day long, and people want an option that they don’t necessarily have to cook but can still bring home that feels like they cooked it, that feels like food they would cook for themselves. They’re just not having to do that.
Sarah: We always wanted to incorporate catering, delivery, and takeout. But the thing that is laughable to me at this point is how we envisioned it to be kind of like a Zuni Café, only more fast casual. When we first opened, we offered oysters on the half shell—
Evan: —and a fresh fruit bowl.
Sarah: Because we loved to go to Zuni. We kind of saw [RT Rotisserie] as a place for people to do that. But in order for something like this to work, you need a lot of volume. You don’t have time to shuck oysters, and you can’t cater to that experience of “Let’s just lounge around and order a chicken and some oysters and a bottle of wine and hang out for three hours.” I don’t know why we thought that would work, but we immediately realized that it wouldn’t.
Sarah: Because he’s thinking about all the oyster trays we have in storage right now. [Laughs]
Sarah: In the beginning, you would check in just like at a regular restaurant, and we’d go to the table and be like, “Can I get you anything else? Let me open the wine for you,” and people were so dumbfounded by you coming by. They just wanted to get their sandwich, have their iced tea, and sit off to themselves.
Evan: Now we work really hard at the experience at the register to make sure it’s friendly and open, and while anyone who comes to your table is wanting to help, we also learned to give people their space.
Sarah: One of the most unique things that can be a challenge is that you're used to having a system where somebody orders the food, you make the food, and you put the food on a plate as soon as it's made and serve it to the guest. There’s no variable that’s going to change how that food is once you’ve given it to the customer. Whereas with takeout or delivery, who knows? Who knows how long it’s going to take that person to get back to their house? Maybe it’s going to sit in the car for two hours. Maybe by the time the customer opens it, the sauce has melted. So much restaurant food is not designed for that. We know that it’s a big part of our business model. We have to make sure that we’re putting the food [at RT Rotisserie] together in a way that can be deliverable.
Evan: For the first six months, I worked on the line every day. Our chicken sandwich changed 15 times in a month. Sarah would bring food home, or we would deliver it to ourselves to test.
Sarah: I delivered to my house all the time. We live so far that we couldn’t get it delivered, and I contacted them and said, “You have to change the system because I need to be able to get it and see if stuff’s getting screwed up.”
Evan: We learned to put dressing on the side.
Sarah: When we first were open, we were dressing the salads because we know if we put the optimal amount of dressing on it, it’s going to taste the best that it can taste. The problem is that once it got to the person, it was no longer the best it could be. That’s also why we don’t close our French fry boxes anymore; we leave them [slightly] open, because they were garbage by the time they were getting to our house.
Evan: There’s been a big push about delivery-only kitchens, and I know a lot of people have been asking: Is this a good thing? I’ll be honest; I wasn’t too sold on it. But when we talked to DoorDash and saw how easy they made it to set up shop, it just all kind of fell into place. This is an important part of our business, [but] to have drivers deliver to all the apartments we want to go to is unrealistic, so the system that they’ve set up helps us reach a bunch of people. At Rich Table, we get a bunch of people who work at all the tech companies [on the Peninsula], and recently I’ve been getting a bunch of messages like, “We just got RT Rotisserie here, and it’s amazing!”
Sarah: One of the trickiest things is how to have a vision that you stand behind, but also at the same time be able to make compromises based on what you see is not working and what you’re getting from the guest.
Evan: You’re nothing without your guests. We’re in the hospitality business, and there’s a fine balance between being hospitable and staying true to who you are.
Sarah: One of Evan’s greatest assets is that he’s always thinking about how to make things better. It’s easy to be like, “This is working! We don’t need to change,” but that’s where you get into trouble. You need to anticipate problems before they even happen. You need to have the vision to see the potential of the business and not just be comfortable with the status quo. That’s how you stay relevant, important, and in people’s minds. They appreciate those changes.
One of the trickiest things is how to have a vision that you stand behind, but also at the same time be able to make compromises based on what you see is not working and what you’re getting from the guest.
Editor’s Note: Three months after initial lockdown efforts, I checked in with the Riches to see how they were faring. Evan shared the couple’s biggest challenges and adaptations amidst the continuing pandemic, and his predictions on the future of dining.
Evan: We closed RT Rotisserie Hayes and Rich Table and had to lay off a bunch of the staff. We moved all of the operations to RT Rotisserie Nopa and kept on as many people as we could. I think everyone’s general expectation was the world was gonna end.
Me, my co-owner Jonny, and our sous chefs worked every day, thinking day to day. Then, slowly we started thinking two days ahead, then three days ahead. We finally got to a point where we’d hired back so many people that there were too many people in one location. So we reopened our commissary kitchen in RT Rotisserie Hayes and Redwood City. About 6 weeks ago, we reopened Rich Table, doing takeout and delivery three times a week.
It’s been sustaining us—and we have hired 70 percent of our staff back. Monday we’re going to reopen RT Rotisserie Hayes Valley, which will bring us back to having everything open.
Evan: You’re trying to make decisions for a week, a month, two months that are going to directly affect you in the future—and right now, it’s so hard to make those decisions because there’s just so much unknown. [The city of San Francisco’s] saying we can reopen in July, but are we going to be able to? Are we going to have to roll it back? Are people going to feel comfortable going out? We really want to make great choices for the people we work with—I consider them family. I don’t want to tell them, “Yeah, you can get off unemployment and get back to work,” but then “You’re laid off again.”
Evan: You have the opportunity to restart, make things more efficient, tear apart the model and rebuild it to be better than ever.
Evan: We have to be scrappy and rethink it. Right now, we’re not doing the numbers we used to do, but we’re making it work. The expectation that we used to have no longer exists. We’re creating a new model that’s totally different from what we did before. A restaurant like Rich Table is going to have to be put on hold for a while. The experience we delivered is a detriment to society at this point—I never thought I would say that. So it’s not thinking, “How can we make Rich Table survive?” but “How do we maintain and pay our bills and have enough money in the bank so that we can reopen when we have that ability to?”
A restaurant like a rotisserie delivering something to go is the name of the game for the foreseeable future. A [finer] restaurant like Rich Table, right now, is just not a thing. Trying to fight to make it happen again right at this particular moment is wasting your energy. In the future, I definitely see it coming back and being stronger than ever, but it’s a matter of setting yourself up for that success to come back and be stronger than ever.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
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