Less is More: In Conversation with Jamie Boatner
Community Voices is a series shining a spotlight on Black-owned, small businesses in the Bay Area. We talk about the COVID-19 crisis, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and how living simply and empathetically is our future.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your inspiration for opening a restaurant?
My name is Jamie Boatner, I was born and raised in Cheyenne Wyoming, it's a small town, 60,000 people. I have a degree in marketing and public relations and I started out in the industry doing marketing and PR for bars, clubs, restaurants, boutique hotels and I've always enjoyed the bar business, whether it be on this side drinking or on the other side interacting with people.
My mother owned a bar when I was young. I would watch the way she was with her customers, it was always an experience and something that I really wanted to be a part of. Her bar was one of the oldest standing Black patron bars in the state of Wyoming. There's a military base in Cheyenne and so a lot of the military personnel that were of color had nowhere else to go and so the American Legion opened this place.
There was Post 6 and Post 83. When you talk to people from Wyoming from back in those days they say Post 6 is where the white folk go, Post 83 is where the Black folk go.
My uncle kind of ran it and took care of it and then when my uncle got sick my mother took over. It was there for a very long time and finally it just got to a point where the majority of the regulars had either passed or moved on and a new breed came in, and it just wasn't that safe anymore.
When did you first develop an interest in cooking?
My mother taught me how to cook. I don't honestly remember when. I'm the youngest by seven years and my mom worked all the time. My father was gone every Sunday through Friday, he worked construction. And so I was left often to fend for myself and I would just always watch my mom whenever she was cooking and I think probably first or second grade was when I was actually allowed to touch the stove, and start using the heat and started burning things.
There were several times a year that my mom would just cook and it would just be madness. Obviously, the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas which was collard greens, and mac & cheese, and all the southern staples, my mother being from the South. My mom and my sister’s birthdays fall in June and they would usually invite all the family and friends over and have a huge party. My dad would light up the grill and it was a free-for-all. I would just love to sit there in the kitchen with my mom and watch her cook and create these dishes. The ultimate reward is watching everybody eat and drink and be merry and have a good time and that's always been my favorite. I love to cook because of that.
How did you decide to focus on Southern Food at Hazel?
Southern food. It's just what I know. It's what I grew up with. My mom's from a very small town outside of Atlanta called Shady Dale, Georgia. She was born and raised there. It wasn't until Food Network that I really noticed that there was a different style of cooking. Everything is fried chicken, fried pork chops, everything was fried. Lots of butter, lots of oil. One item my mom still makes to this day and I never will, just because I can't take it, is chitlins. That was a very long process, it would be days and the house would just reek and my mom would be cleaning them for hours and then they soaked and she would clean them again and they're on the stove for hours. And it was just the most disgusting thing. But watching how much she cared about what she was doing and the people that enjoyed it, I was like “Oh, that's cool.” As long as someone's enjoying it, I guess it's worth it.
How did you come to name your restaurant Hazel?
I had always wanted my own bar. I never really wanted to mess with food, that came much later, but I wanted my own bar. I think why everyone in the very beginning wants their own bar, because you just want a place where you and your friends can hang out. Then you see there really is a financial side to things and there's a legal side to things and you learn very quickly that that's only going to be fun for the first week, you know, then you're going to get tired of your friends.
Going back to my roots, there was a nightclub called The Cellar. At the time, it was one of the hottest places in the city to go to and above The Cellar was this new little cafe called Sugar Café, cafe by day, cocktail lounge by night. They had this tiny kitchen and would put out little plates, Tapas. I just fell in love with the place, fell in love with everything about it. After a couple of years of managing that I realized I was getting to that age where I was a little too old for the nightclub.
I had I had been working on the concept of Hazel off to the side. I wanted to do something that kind of showcased my mom and her food and the silliness that is our family.
When I found this space in particular, it felt right and it's odd because I actually was going to cancel my meeting to see this place because I wasn't sure that I was ready to get back into it, and that morning I was like “I'm going to cancel” and my other half said No, you made the appointment, go. Literally as soon as I walked in I was like this is it and it was very different in here at the time. I just saw what I wanted it to be. The menu was something that I’d had for years. The hardest part was taking it off paper and putting it into the space.
What challenges have you faced as a small business owner in SF?
Oh man, where do I begin? You know, what's crazy about it is you get so excited about the outcome, you don't think about all the little things and so I would say the biggest challenge with this entire business has been the unknown. San Francisco is a very hard city to be in business in. As much as they open the door and embrace small business, the permit process is a difficult one. Getting the fire department to sign off on anything is a very difficult thing to do
There's so many little things just dealing with the city. We walked through this space so many times, and so many times it was like “you have to do this” and “you have to do this” and it was really just a lot of running in circles. It was just like can I just open my business, please? Because this is costing me a lot of money and if I don't open soon, we're not going to open. A lot of money went into this place and for every month that I wasn't open it was like I'm paying rent, I'm paying staff, and you just find that you get very challenged very quickly and it doesn't matter how much money you have in the bank. When you say I'm going to spend this much to open this place, you need to multiply that times 3 because you just don't know the unforeseen.
What do you love about having a small business?
I love that I answer to me. I feel like even though I own it and it's mine, that I still work for the neighborhood and the people, you know. Like if someone doesn't like our fried chicken, I can go into the kitchen season it differently and be like, how's this one?
I got to put my mom's name on it and that’s like one of my biggest accomplishments. You know, being able to show my mother how much I love and appreciate her. There's times that I'll come in here when no one else is here and I just kind of walk around like, this is mine. This is cool. And it's on Market Street. Not an easy street to put a business on. We’ve been lucky with the neighborhood, they really embraced us.
And then at the same time, I think wow, I must be crazy. What did I get myself into? Why am I doing this on Market Street in San Francisco? With this rent? As long as you're passionate about what you're doing, you can be a fun business. I enjoy this business. I enjoy that I was able to bring on my best friend to be my GM, and his fiancee who is also a friend of mine that I've known from The Cellar days. She's actually how I met him and then a lot of our crew that work here, are people that worked with me before you know, or worked with him before.
It's nice being able to have a place where you can be like, all right, we built this.
How are you staying connected with your community during this time of corona virus?
I will tell you this, staying connected with the community when it first started. I did it wrong. I shut down. I was overwhelmed by the past year that we had. I was tired. We started seeing the effects of COVID back in December, our busiest time of year is the holiday season with parties and everything and we did half the business that we had done the prior two years. January was terrible. February was awful. And then finally March 16th was like, okay, it's a serious problem. So literally the last two weeks of March, the first two weeks of shelter in place, I didn't talk to anybody.
The unknowns were so great that I couldn't wrap my head around it. And it literally took me it took me a good three-four weeks to just kind of say, okay, “What are we going to do? Are we going to shut down? Am I going to bring everybody back and then they were like, hey, we've got these PPP loans and I was like, oh, that's great. But what's the purpose of giving me this loan when I can't guarantee anything to anybody?
That's when I was like, let's test out some Fridays and let's hit up the people that we know. We have 100 Van Ness over here, Argento right here, NEMA. Unfortunately, the theaters were all closed, the Bill Graham, which is a huge source for us is gone. So we're like, well, we have the neighborhood and honestly, the neighbors were the first ones that lifted us when we opened. Our friend Don is the head concierge at NEMA and we said, You hungry? Anybody else in the building hungry? And the great thing about all of the people in this neighborhood was they all were like sweet, Hazel's offering food. Let's go get some food.
I've got friends that come help us out every Friday. We’ve been feeding the nurses at Kaiser and it’s all ambulance parking behind our building, so the NorCal people will stop by and we’ll throw them a couple of sandwiches.
What is your business philosophy?
My business philosophy and my personal philosophy go hand in hand, which is You have to be all-encompassing. You have to accept everyone. You have to accept every situation, and you have to be willing to adapt to whatever situation is thrown at you.
What's your philosophy when it comes to making food?
Just have fun with it. Make it good. Everything that we make, there's a recipe for and there's a full-on recipe book but that’s more for costing and for consistency. But I am the king of well, I tasted it, I think it needs a little more this or needs a little more that. I have to dial it back because I love to play but I am by no means a chef. I hardly consider myself to be like a cook. This is the most I've ever been in the kitchen, but that's why I have an executive chef and he has a full staff.
I love to play in the kitchen. One thing that has happened now that I have this time is we've played with some new barbecue sauces that are the bomb that I'm really happy about. We played with rubs for ribs last week. And I made a wild boar and shrimp gumbo.
It's just little things like that. Let's play with this and if it's a success, it goes on the menu. When it comes to food I don't think there's ever anything that's really set in stone. You have your foundation that's been built and there's certain things that you just follow like making a roux, for instance. That's a Louisiana thing, you don't mess with it. And then what you build around that roux, have fun with it and do what you want and try new things. My Philosophy with food is just have fun and keep creating.
What are your favorite dishes to make?
I love to make collard greens. It's my favorite. I don't know why I think because that was like one of the first things that I learned from my mother and when I made our version of it, I took her recipe I played with a little bit. I had her try it and she said, now I need your recipe and so that was like the ultimate like yes, Mom wants my recipe. That's boss.
I love frying anything. I don't care. I would fry a bottle of booze if I could control the outcome, I bread it and fry it and I drink it and I eat it. I just I love frying things. Now I'm really into smoking as well, like smoking ribs and smoking brisket. I've been smoking everything. I smoked some nuts the other day. I'm smoking some sea salt later.
Who do you love to cook for?
Aside from my mom and my family, my friends. Every year I cook for Thanksgiving and it started out cooking for 5 people then 10 people, now it’s between 40 and 60 people.
The most I ever cooked for was 100 people. Then I said I would never do it again. We had three turkeys, two hams, two different types of mac and cheese, four different types of stuffing. Thanksgiving is my favorite time to cook, least favorite time to eat, because by the time I'm done cooking, I don't want to see food for the next month.
What’s your favorite meal that you've ever had that someone else has cooked for you?
Anything by Mom. My favorite that she makes is fried pork chops. Just a simple fried pork chop, white bread, hot sauce. Every time I would like go to Wyoming, especially if I drove, I'd get in usually late at night and she’d say Are you hungry? Yes, Mom, I'm hungry.
Everyone in my family has their thing that they can do, my nephew's on the barbecue now. My father was all about the barbecue so anything he ever put on the grill was just amazing. Outside of family, Town Hall is my favorite restaurant in the city. They make the best biscuits and their jam is so amazing.
I just love food and you put a good cocktail with that or a good whiskey. I'm sold, you have me. It could even be just a smothered hot dog. An nice cold beer. I'm there. good food with booze on the side. I'm good to go.
What do you envision for Hazel when you are able to reopen?
we're going to welcome people when we're able to reopen with socially distanced arms wide open and I don't know exactly what that means just yet, but anyone that comes through that door, I'm honored that out of the 2300 and however many restaurants and bars in this city that you could go to, you chose mine. With re-opening we are going to do everything we can to make people feel comfortable.
What would you like to see from the city of San Francisco and across the nation in terms of supporting Black Lives Matter?
With everything that's been going on lately, it's been nice to see the outpouring of love and support. We've had more support with being a Black owned business now than we have since the day that we opened.
And that's fantastic.
I don't even know that that was a goal. Like I wasn't, you know, hey, I'm Black-owned come visit me. It was just like we're business and we're here and we're here to provide you an experience that you'll enjoy and the fact that being Black-owned is now putting us in the spotlight somewhat is something that I completely embrace.
I hope it's working out for other black-owned businesses as well as it's working out for me and I hope that in the future we continue to Spotlight and support Black-owned business and between Black-owned business owners we need to support each other. It's very easy to feel like you're the only one in the race.
It’s really hard as a Black-owned business to see your neighborhood completely pulled out from under you, which happened to a lot of people over in the Fillmore district and it's happening to people in Bayview/Bayshore. Unfortunately, that's just what happens in a city that's growing, the cost of living goes up and gentrification is a thing.
It has just been awful to go down Fillmore and see all the empty spaces and talk to friends and they're like, oh this used to be this place, this used to be that place.
For me personally, my goal as a Black-owned business is to support other Black owned businesses. My goal is to support small business period. We all need to support each other and that's the only way that we're going to survive and that's the only way that we're going to make it in this city and through COVID and who knows what's going to come up next? I mean 2020 has been quite the year. We’ve got to keep each other going.
As a Black man, what does the Black Lives Matter Movement mean to you?
With everything that's been going on with Black Lives Matter Movement, George Floyd, and the countless number of people I could name people for hours… there have been a lot of conversations that have been brought up.
I find what's happening now, to be late.
The extent that people are going to right now, to show that they care and understand what Black Lives Matter means? I'm glad that that's happening. But that's late. It's several years late. It's Colin Kaepernick late. It's Trayvon Martin late. These were all things that happened years ago. That Kaepernick hasn't worked for however many years because of it and everybody's like, “Oh now I get it” and it's like, “Well, why didn't you get it then?” Because there's nothing that happened in the past month that didn't happen years ago.
It's a shame that it takes watching a man take his last breath on camera with a knee in his neck to make people go, “I get it”. When you had the video of the guy that's sitting in the car with his daughter in the backseat that told the policeman that he had a gun on him and that he had a permit and he reached for the permit and told him what he was doing and then got shot and killed in front of his daughter.
Why now are people like “I get it”? It's unfortunate and I've honestly been
tight-lipped on the situation because I’m pissed you know, it's something that I'm really offended by and I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, so I'm not short of racism. I'm 47 years old, I've known it since I was a kid. But there's so many things that have been caught on camera for so many years that although I appreciate everyone that gets it now, it's late.
And how many more people have to die before we really get it? You can say you get it, you can walk up and down Market Street, you can go burn a building. You can graffiti something. You can break a window. You can go steal televisions. But when will we really get it, is the question and I don't know the answer to that. And honestly, as a Black man, there's times that I don't get it, you know. I'm a Black-owned business on Market Street and I haven't had my rent go through the roof and put me out of my space. And that was not one of my family members that died on camera.
It's so easy to turn a blind eye to it, you know, and I'm glad that people have stopped doing that. Well about 80% of the population has stopped. Unfortunately, with the two leaders of the country, the president and the vice-president, the main two who really should get it, they just don't. And that's the most disappointing thing, because if you're going to run a country, such a diverse country, and you can't even say “Black Lives Matter”, it will not leave your lips, shows you don't get it. And all the people that follow you and vote for you, they don't get it and it's a shame. A lot of people say “Well it's not happening in my backyard.” Well, you know what? It is now and if it keeps going, it'll be your house that gets burned up instead of a Wendy's.
And I'm not saying that looting and rioting and all that, I don't even know that I agree with it. But if this is what it takes for people to get it, it’s time to pay attention. People shouldn't have to die for us to embrace each other. Black Lives Matter shouldn't be something that segregates us. When you say Black Lives Matter, I don't need to hear all lives matter, that's a given. It's not all lives that are crying for their mom, with a member of the community that you're supposed to respect and feel comfortable and protected by that’s…. How long was it? Eight minutes 42 seconds…. that's a long time to know that you're going to die.
People are learning and that's all you can ask for. Can't grow till you learn.
The black lives matter movement is at the Forefront of all social issues in the United States. As a Black man what does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?
The black lives matter movement means for once our voice is heard, and it’s heard by many. I think when black lives matter was established it was misunderstood. It was misinterpreted. It was misrepresented. I still kind of think that there's some ways that it's being misrepresented now.
I've heard black lives matter in so many different contexts and then you see something that just has nothing to do with the movement at all. You're like, that's not what this is about. Like you can't say black lives matter when you're running into Walmart and running out with a television that you didn't pay for. That's not black lives matter. That's you're an idiot. black lives matter is a way of saying, you know for once, we're heard, we’re understood.
And we just want to be equal.
And can we move on now?
Again, we respect each other and not the fake respect. You know, I can say that I respect people all day long and then go home and say something completely different behind closed doors. But a true level of respect is to stand with that person whether they be Black, white, Mexican, Asian, gay, straight, transgender, you know, I think that black lives matter is now becoming all-encompassing and it's showing that you know what, we have a voice and it's a very loud voice. Get on board because it's not going to stop.
Who inspires you and why?
Obviously, my mother is a huge influence and inspiration of my life. It’s just her attitude towards people and everything and how she's just so loving and embracing and accepting and that was always something that I always want to be. Everyone in my family in some way shape or form has laid this foundation for me that I wouldn't trade for the world. When you get us all together, you see that you now have a group of idiots that are feeding off of each other and laughing. Once we all reached a certain age we went from fighting all the time to just enjoying each other. It's the greatest gift anyone could give you.
Outside of my family, and this is going to sound so cliche and I don't care, but President Barack Obama was a major major major turning point in just life and just such an inspiration. To be able to maintain that level of class at all times is something that I will never be able to achieve. But just how brilliant he is. How brilliant his wife is. I respect them so much and there couldn't have been a better pioneer for us. I really take that one to heart, that was such an amazing moment and it's a day that I'm still proud of as a Black man, as a citizen of the United States. I didn't agree with everything that he did and that's another thing that I respect and love about them is I don't agree with a lot of things that my family does and there's no one that will ever hold a candle to them. So, I just appreciate what he did and I appreciate the way that he did it and it was a very classy way to step up to do the job and to step down, and he did it flawlessly.
What does less is more mean to you personally and business-wise?
I will often say less is more, but I am such a more is more person. I fail often on the less is more thing. I'd like to think I'm a really happy person and the happier I am, the more excited I am when I see people that I haven't seen in a long time or like when I meet people for the first time and we're vibing when I get really really excited and a lot of times I can't filter myself.
Like business-wise, design-wise less is more.
Where it does work for me though is personally, for instance the questions about black lives matter and everything that's been going on recently.
Five or 10 years ago, I would have just shot my mouth off. Now I think about what I'm going to say and as much as I've been rambling here today when it comes to really important things that's where I will throw in the less is more like let's not say everything that's on my mind. Let's get to some key points and move on.
Tell us about the Hamilton posters on the walls?
We are very fortunate to have a great relationship with the Hamilton cast and crew. it started with the original cast that was here in San Francisco and their head sound guy came in our grand opening night. He's like, I love this place, I'm going to start bringing everyone in, and he actually did. And we got to a point where we were the before show for the people going to see the show. Then we became the after-show for the cast and crew and we became their favorite place and it was because they got out late we serve food late and they could just come and hang and we got really friendly. For my birthday, they all signed the first poster everyone in the cast. And then that tour left and we got word that they were coming back for a longer stay and a few of the people that were with the first came back with the second and so once again, we became their after-show spot.
Hamilton put us on the map for this neighborhood. Like they were really involved with our popularity and especially right when we first opened. I didn't know what was going to happen in this neighborhood and it was nice to have them in our corner. I miss them dearly and I can't wait till they come back. Those are my babies. I love them so much.
To find out more about Hazel and enjoy delicious Southern Food visit Hazel Southern Bar & Kitchen.