Area restaurant refuses Steve Jobs—and it’s good for business

Published August 26, 2010
Last modified August 26, 2010

Residents of San Francisco know that if you don't have a reservation at Flour + Water, one of the city's hottest new restaurants, you're probably not going to get a seat, especially on a Saturday night. And even a reservation isn't easy to come by—you'll have to make one now for a table in October. Regardless, a few hopefuls line up each night trying to snag one of a handful of available tables, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who showed up at the restaurant earlier this month (without a reservation).

That's a major celebrity sighting at a popular spot in the tech-oriented Bay Area. So imagine the flurry of tweets and iPhone photos that ensued when Jobs simply showed up at Flour + Water. And imagine what followed when Flour + Water turned Mr. Jobs away.

It's actually a pretty blase story. Jobs purportedly waited for a table for more than an hour. Flour + Water seated the couple ahead of him, and then said they were done seating for the evening. His response: he left. No major uproar, no big scene, but the "incident" still made the news in a couple of San Francisco papers and hundreds of blogs.

And while the story has nearly faded from the spotlight, the impact on patrons and the world at large stands to be incredibly long lasting. The big takeaway: Flour + Water’s food and service is so awesome, they don't need to curry favor with celebrities to draw patrons to its tables.

“I think the key statement being made by Flour + Water is that they have confidence in the quality of their food and/or service, and they are willing to stand on that quality alone. It is great publicity because it's almost a reverse snobbism…’we're so good that we don't have to let anybody go to the head of the line,’" says Joe Calloway, an expert on developing customer-focused teams and author of Becoming a Category of One. He’s also a restaurant owner.

It is true this restaurant has established a solid reputation for its Italian cuisine, winning a prestigious James Beard Award in May. No wonder Jobs wanted to check it out. Its good food and ambiance has garnered it the kind of buzz that draws diners to its tables regardless of who they might see there. And at the end of the day, that is exactly the kind of message restaurants want to be sending to its current and future clientele.

"The weakness of staking your business on hipness is that 'hip' has a very limited shelf life. No matter how hip you are, there will always be a restaurant tomorrow that's more hip. If, on the other hand, you stake your business on quality, and can sustain that quality, then you have a much better shot at being around for a long time." Calloway says.

But the real crowning achievement:

“It's cool to have celebrities eat at your restaurant, but WAY cooler to turn them away. And, if you are turning celebrities away because you don't need it, because your restaurant just happens to be a truly great restaurant, then you've got lasting brand value,” Calloway says.