Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Interview: Homeroom Owners Allison & Erin

Happy Holidays to all my loyal readers!  It’s been so fun to have so many of you share new recipes and ideas since I started this blog earlier this year.

As a holiday treat for you (and me!), I have a very special post to share.  This week, I scored an interview with the owners of Homeroom!  This past Tuesday, I met owners Erin Wade and Allison Arevalo, to sit and chat with them about how Homeroom came to be, what they love about their menu, and what they foresee for the future.

It goes without saying that I was beyond excited for this interview.

Yummiest note-taking session ever
When I arrived, Erin was pretty busy covering as manager due to some pre-holiday lunch rush.  I met her at the new Homeroom To-Go location, located just about a half block down from the main restaurant.  I could tell that business was already picking up for the day, even at the To-Go location.

Homeroom opened in February 2011, so the restaurant's four year anniversary is coming up.  As we walked to sit at the restaurant, I asked Erin about any event plans they might have for the milestone.  She mentioned that they plan to open an event space within the To-Go location soon, but they’re not currently positive if they’ll have it ready in February.  That’s one of the next big events on the horizon for the restaurant.

After sitting at the bar in the busy restaurant and placing an order of the Gilroy Garlic Mac, arguably Homeroom’s signature dish, I asked Erin if she and Allison had ever expected Homeroom to become as popular as it has.  Humbly, Erin replied that they “didn’t know it would be as popular in terms of customer volume or in terms of press interest.”

With owners Allison (left) and Erin (right)
It’s easy to see, however, how popular Homeroom has become in just four short years.  Whether at lunch or at dinner, the place is nearly always packed, a great sign for good food.  Also, the young restaurant has been featured in many popular Bay Area blogs, prominent Bay Area news papers and magazines, as well as some national press such as USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

Yet, Erin and Allison both seem to be very down to earth people.  The success of their restaurant hasn’t appeared to go to their heads.  Erin explained a little bit of their backgrounds to me and how their experiences have helped shape their vision for the restaurant.  Erin completed her undergrad studies at Princeton and Allison had worked as a server in New York.  They had both spent a fair amount of time on the east coast before they eventually met here in California.  Not long after meeting, they decided to open a restaurant. 

Erin described how influential their New York background was as they developed the restaurant.  She explained how every restaurant in New York places a great importance on ambiance and customer service and that focus was something they wanted to bring to the Bay Area.

“We wanted to create a place with affordable food, but could also be a cool place to take a date,” Erin mentioned.

I moved on to talk a little bit about the restaurant’s menu and inquire as to whether there had ever been any flops while experimenting with new combinations.  Erin described a time when she and Allison were developing The Mac and Cheese cookbook, and they wanted to try making something with alpine cheeses to create a kind of fondue taste.  They tried adding bacon and caramelized onions, but soon discovered that fancy cheeses aren’t always very good for making mac and cheese.  “It was kind of a relief to discover that you don’t need fancy, expensive cheese to make a good mac,” Erin revealed.

At this point, Allison joined us at the bar, and I was eager to ask both of them what their favorite dishes were on the Homeroom menu.  Allison said, “It switches depending on my mood.  Right now I like the Maximus…and the current staff pick…we call it the Spicy Crab Roll.”

Erin replied, “I like the Classic Mac.  I grew up on it, and ours is the best version.”

I went on to ask how they choose and develop some of their monthly items, like the staff pick or the monthly special or their seasonal beer selections.  Allison and Erin both explained that for the staff pick, they generally let the staff come up with ideas and then they take a vote.  For monthly specials, anyone might come up with the idea, whether the kitchen manager, another employee, or one of the owners.  Then it’s discussed at a managers’ meeting where they make a decision.

Their holiday season beer selection
 To describe how they choose their beer and wine in more detail, Allison and Erin introduced me to one of their managers, Bryan Wingen, who’s been with Homeroom since they opened in 2011.  “Breweries came to us,” he explained, and then he went on to talk about their First Friday events, which celebrate their Homeroom release of a particular beer.  Personally, I’ve never actually been able to make it to one of these First Friday events, but I know from their website that it’s a pretty cool shindig.  Erin mentioned that for both beer and wine, “[companies] will bring us free things to try and we’ll generally save them to taste in a meeting.”  She continued to say that they get so many different brands and types, but they only have so many taps, so they often have to save them.

The Homeroom To-Go location just recently opened earlier this month, after one and a half years of development and construction.  I asked Erin and Allison how it has affected their restaurant location.  Erin replied, “It alleviated traffic.  It would be crammed here,…hard to hear phones.”  Allison added, “To be able to sit at the bar without people waiting for their pick-up orders is great.”  I had to agree.  At this point in our interview, the lunch crowd had really picked up, yet, we had been undisturbed at the bar.

I asked about any future plans they have for the restaurant.  They’re already incredibly popular, they have a cookbook, and now a to-go location.  What’s next?

“Our plan is to have a good answer to that question,” Erin replied with a bit of a laugh.  “We’re not sure yet.  We’re really lucky.  We love our business and our lives.  It’s hard to up-end that.  It’s not that we haven’t thought of it, but we are so happy right now.  Maybe 5-10 years down the road we might do something, but for right now we love what we’re doing.”

Allison agreed, adding, “We don’t want to become unmanageable.”

Employees busy at the counter and kitchen during the lunch rush
 At this point, I bid my farewell to the owners, who I know had a lot to do.  I was incredibly grateful for the time they took to speak with me.  I stayed at the bar, enjoying my mac and cheese and watching the kitchen employees working away, creating some delicious plates.  I realized that this was my first time sitting at the bar, and I couldn’t help but think how cool it was to watch the cooking and the dance of the busy servers at the cash register and order pick-up.

There are servers at Homeroom that I’ve seen working there for years, not always common at restaurants, so I took a quick moment to ask one of them a question.  Stephen Taylor has been at Homeroom almost two years and when I asked him to describe Homeroom, he said, “The staff is incredible.  The owners treat us very well and that’s why we all get along so well; we’re all very happy.”

Who wouldn’t be happy when you work in a place like Homeroom?  I get the feeling that it’s not just great food being made here.  It’s great memories, whether for the customers or the owners and employees themselves.

With that, I’ll wish you all the best of memories this holiday season!  Cheers and happy eating!

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