Traci Des Jardins Expands Beyond $110 Tasting Menus to $4 Tacos

Chef Traci Des Jardins
Chef Traci Des Jardins is a James Beard Foundation Award winner and the owner of Jardinière in San Francisco. Photographer: Frankie Frankeny

Chef Traci Des Jardins has built a name for herself as a restaurant owner, consultant, and TV star in the highly competitive restaurant industry. A master in French cuisine, the 45-year-old Des Jardins started her budding empire in 1997 by co-founding the exclusive Jardinière, a James Beard Foundation Award winner considered among San Francisco’s finest tables.

Then, in 2004, she went from serving $110 tasting menus of duck and wild boar to selling $4 tacos to the average Joe with the opening of Mijita, a San Francisco taqueria that uses mostly organic ingredients. Over the past two years, Des Jardins’ two restaurants, which employ a total of about 100 people, have had a combined revenue of roughly $6.8 million each year.

Besides running her own restaurants, Des Jardins worked as a consultant to help open Manzanita, a 94-seat establishment, specializing in French-inspired California cuisine, at the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe, Calif., in 2009. Early last year, she assisted in launching the Public House brewpub at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. (She also licenses the Mijita brand to an outpost at the ballpark.) In between restaurant openings, Des Jardins has been building name recognition through TV appearances, including on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” in June.

In the coming months, Des Jardins plans to focus on expansion projects, including taking Mijita to the East Coast next year. “I’m interested in the low end,” she says. Des Jardins spoke recently to contributor Antone Gonsalves about expanding her business. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Antone Gonsalves: Why do you believe Mijita could be successful on the East Coast, given that in San Francisco the restaurant’s revenue has been roughly the same for several years?

Traci Des Jardins: The West Coast is fairly saturated with Mexican food. On the East Coast, I don’t think it’s even begun there yet. If you look at the growth of, say, a Chipotle (CMG) [the Mexican food chain that spun off from McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) in 2006], you can see what the opportunity looks like. I would like to parlay the Mijita concept into some growth in different markets that might have potential beyond California and the West Coast. New York, absolutely, and other cities as well -- Boston, Washington, D.C.

Q: The restaurant industry has declined in revenue every year since 2008. This year, revenue is expected to rise by just over 1 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Why do you believe now is the time to look at expanding Mijita?

A: People are looking for less expensive alternatives to fine dining. It’s the top end that’s going to be most affected [by the economy]. The wealthy are still trying to conserve. We’ve seen [at Jardinière] a real falloff in our average check, trending toward economizing. They’re still coming, but rather than spend $150, $160 on a bottle of wine, they’re looking for that $60 or $70 bottle of wine. The low end has been more consistent.

Q: You built Mijita around your experiences as a child helping your Mexican grandmother in the kitchen. How do you plan to differentiate your business?

A: I grew up with that food as sort of my soul food. What you get in this country primarily is very Americanized. I want to give a little nod to more authentic Mexican street food: tacos and stuff you would actually find in Mexico.

Q: Do you expect business to get a bump from your appearance this year on the Bravo reality TV show “Top Chef Masters?”

A: It’s kind of hard to analyze. We’ll have to see over time. We’re not polling our guests on a regular basis to ask them why they came in, but we can get a sense of it. I talked to several parties last night who had never been in Jardinière before, and they were here because of the TV show.

Q: Would you do more TV appearances?

A: It’s not my great love, but I feel it’s an opportunity to promote my businesses. The power of television can’t be denied.

Q: You opened Jardinière in 1997, in the middle of the dot-com boom. How has the restaurant business changed?

A: During the fat of the ‘90s we all became sloppy operators. You might have 10 waiters at night and four of them would be standing around not really being active. Now we make sure we don’t have any of that fat.

Q: In 1989, you worked in Los Angeles for chef Joachim Splichal, founder of the Patina Restaurant Group, which today includes more than 60 restaurants and cafes around the country. How much of an influence was Splichal?

A: He had such a big mark on how I approach everything that I do. He trained me in most of what I know about business and how you need to focus and pay attention to numbers and make those work. A lot of chefs refuse to take a look at the whole picture and consider the business side of what we do.