Tyler Florence: Shaking Up the San Francisco Dining Scene

Tyler Florence is more than a popular chef. He's a smart business owner who treats his staff like family, counts his nickels and never misses a day of work.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
April 03, 2013

Only a handful of chefs are as famous and loved as Tyler Florence. Based in Marin County, California, Florence is the head of a culinary and multimedia empire. He owns seven businesses, including restaurants, TV production companies and culinary retail outlets. Outside the Bay Area, he is perhaps most famous for his many Food Network shows, including Food 911, How to Boil Water, Tyler’s Ultimate and The Great Food Truck Race.

His advice for other restaurateurs: “Don’t let your ego get in the way. As a chef, you have to provide the best customer service, period. You have to be willing to take your product and filter it, take your business model and filter it and let a lot of people give you feedback and break it down before you go live.”

Florence started out in the industry at age 15 as a dishwasher at a restaurant owned by his girlfriend’s parents in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. He says he “immediately fell in love with the theatre of the restaurant and the craft of cooking.” After getting an associate's degree in culinary arts and bachelor’s degree in restaurant management, he moved to New York City and worked under acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer. 

It wasn’t long before Florence was approached to do Food Network shows. By the late '90s, Florence quit his career as a chef to work full time in television. His popularity soared thanks to his approachable manner and boyish good looks.

However, in 2006, when he and his wife, Tolan, decided to move west to have a family, that fame threatened to backfire. Florence thought it would be fun to get into the San Francisco restaurant scene, but was met with scorn from locals who favored homegrown talent over big shot TV personalities/chefs. He persevered and today is owner and chef of Wayfare Tavern, one of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants—celebrating its three-year anniversary in June.

What was it like when you got to San Francisco?

People here assumed that I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t know anything about the San Francisco clientele. They were very skeptical. I remember one review where the writer complained that he couldn’t get a reservation for weeks and then eventually got his meal to go, ate it in the alley behind the restaurant and published a picture of his half-eaten chicken. It was a little crazy.

How did you get through that rough time?

I let the food and the restaurant speak for itself, and before long people came around to the fact that we were doing something incredible. Wayfare Tavern really is unlike any other San Francisco restaurant. We wanted to build a restaurant that [looks like it] survived the earthquake of 1906. Nothing in the financial district really did survive the quake, so we did a ton of research and replicated what a restaurant would have looked like back then. We thought the place needed to take you somewhere, needed to be transformative. That, and the food is out of this world.

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How do you manage to juggle all your commitments?

I have a couple hundred employees and I love each and every one of them. My crew is really tight. I manage them from text and emails. I work all the time; success is not easy and it is not free. The second you take a day off, that is the second that the wheels get shaky.

Why do you think restaurants have such a high failure rate?

I think it is because of bad ideas in general. Or that people don’t think through their concepts before raising money. Or a management structure isn’t solid. Or that the restaurant is under-capitalized. There are a lot of variables that make a business succeed or not. An owner may not be a good operations director. Or maybe they can’t pivot on a dime. Or maybe they don’t have enough self-awareness.

Do you have any secrets of success at your restaurants?

I’m onsite a lot and always have a wide peripheral vision to see what is happening every day. The restaurant business is a game of nickels. I will often take two garbage bags and pour them out and bring my staff in to see all the dollar bills that we let go that evening. It is all about refining your strategy, being committed to superior customer service and not being afraid to make a mistake. When you make a mistake, you’ve plugged a hole that you will not go into again.

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What does the future hold for you? Do you see yourself opening dozens of restaurants all over the world?

A lot of my colleagues like Bobby [Flay] have restaurants in New York and the Bahamas and Las Vegas and Atlantic City and other places. There is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think I will ever have my own restaurants in every city in the country.

I’m more interested in creating a balanced company that is diversified and well established in a lot of genres. For example, we are working on television products and plan to start filming our own show in July. I think there will be strong legs to that.

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Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She regularly contributes to Hemispheres, USA Today, Consumers Digest, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Crain’s Chicago Business and others.

Photo: John Lee