Photos by Liz Barclay

InterviewsSan Francisco

Jessica Kapoor of Copas and Saison Hospitality on Leadership (and More!)

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Last year, Saison Hospitality chief of staff Jessica Kapoor opened Copas, a bright restaurant on Market Street that blends the best of Californian, Mexican, and Spanish cuisines. We spoke with her about her career, her leadership style, and what the industry looks like in 2022.

Between Copas, Saison and Angler, you have a prominent hand in a lot of notable San Francisco restaurants. How did you get here?

I grew up in the restaurant industry — my dad is a serial entrepreneur and I think when you grow up with that, there are certain business strategies and discussions you are privy to that many are not.

My dad started in retail and gas stations. But he would always go to this restaurant in Santa Clara named Pedro’s. It was the most happening place — this was in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and one day he saw they were filing for bankruptcy. He was like, “How could this be?” So he took all of his savings and invested in the restaurant. Pedro’s, the brand, has now been going strong for 50 years. We still have team members who work in the restaurant that have been there since I was a child growing up, and many who retired as career Pedro’s employees. It was always this casual, family-like environment. Back then, did I think I would end up in the restaurant industry specifically? No, but I always knew that one day I would come back to work on projects that aligned with the family business.

How did Copas come about, and how do you balance that with your day-to-day at Angler and Saison?

At Copas, I am the founder, and chef Julio [Aguilera] is the chef-partner. Copas has been a little bit of my creative outlet, and also reflective of what I’ve learned in my career. More importantly I wanted it to be a space that reminded me of memorable times with friends and family, a space where creative bonds are nurtured, and of course just fun gatherings. I previously worked in the corporate world where I learned a lot about corporate structure, event planning, sales, and marketing. Things like that melted into a business-minded background, but also a place that invokes comfort and a familial feeling where you can get together and eat great food.

Working at Saison Hospitality has exposed me to a level of preparation, execution, service, culinary technique, and product I was never aware of. It showed me this new level of hospitality. I remember training at Saison and being completely blown away at the level of attention, preparation and seamless execution; it reminded me of a competitive sport. Growing up as an athlete, it was the closest thing I could compare it to, watching the way the teams would prepare for service and then when the doors opened, a near-flawless execution. To say it was inspiring would be an understatement.

At Copas, Chef Julio cooks very flavorful food, and it’s the type of food you want to go eat a few times a month.When you look at Saison, that’s definitely a a celebratory meal or one that is reserved for a special occasion. Copas is a gathering place where you can enjoy great food, product and service — but at a more affordable and approachable price point, several times a week or month.

How has Copas been in your first few months?

It’s been really great. When you work on a project, and you see it all come to fruition the way you intended, very naturally and seamlessly, it makes you feel that you are aligned with where you are meant to be. With any opening there are always hiccups and learning lessons, but this opening has felt pretty harmonious. The team has fallen into place, the artwork has fallen in place. It’s never felt like we’ve been swimming upstream. Everything about this restaurant has felt like the right place, right time with the right people.

I tell my team this all the time, but it feels like divine synergy — like everything happening for a reason. When you have that free flow of energy.

We’ve gotten a good amount of PR organically. I also felt that was a sign that we are meant to be where we are, that we can get the Resy article, the Eater article. You don’t realize how much things like that help a business. It just goes to show how much a little bit of media traction helps small business owners. It makes a huge impact.

What’s your leadership style?

I’m pretty hands-on. While working at Saison Hospitality, I carved out this role for myself: Chief of Staff. It’s pretty all-encompassing, and my job is to try to find solutions. I’m pinch-hitting at Angler tonight, I’m helping at Saison another night. I’m on calls to help communicate amongst teams. As a leader, you have to be flexible. But on the flip side, it’s also to provide structure, so any employee can come into any position and know there’s a path to success or growth: Here’s the recipe book, or here’s what it takes to be a back waiter, or a sommelier, or a captain.

I get that from my dad. I think a great leader is not necessarily someone who knows how to do it all, but someone who knows where to go for appropriate resources and be able to provide to the team what they need to be their best. You will never know everything, but the greatest leaders know how to play to their strengths while also knowing weaknesses and surrounding themselves with a team who can create balance.

We know there’s a shortage of people working across the board. In restaurants, staff are spread very thin because of the shortage of people working, so it makes everything a little harder.

 

How has your role as a leader changed during the pandemic?

I feel that in a post-pandemic environment, people have options to go work wherever they want. People don’t leave jobs; they leave when they are not supported by management or not growing. So, education is important. Management style is important. Creating a positive culture is important. People are coming back into the workplace after being home for a long time, so you have to be empathetic towards people and what they’re going through.

We know there’s a shortage of people working across the board. In restaurants, staff are spread very thin because of the shortage of people working, so it makes everything a little harder.

Self awareness and evolution is probably one of the biggest attributes within my role I’ve had to become more attune with. I am confident knowing that each team at each restaurant that I work with also makes a very conscious effort in this shift towards more positive culture and growth. During COVID, many of our favorite things were taken away from us and for those that were working through the pandemic, it was an extremely intense time. Coming out of that intense time, knowing that we survived one of the economy’s toughest chapters and most difficult times for the hospitality industry, I feel extremely fortunate that I can look over to my left and right and see team members still standing strong. Every day I focus on how to be a better human, a better colleague, a better leader and of course how to become more efficient.

How about on the customer side?

The demand from diners is there across all restaurants — everyone wants to be out now, everyone wants to have a good time. I feel in general, people are overall understanding, but you do have a select group of people that were at home during the pandemic now coming out and thinking that things are just like they were before the pandemic.  There are a ton of new people in the service industry, and a ton of people who left the service industry. Many guests understand this, but there is a fraction of people who still want to experience the things they did before the pandemic. And I don’t blame them — but there’s definitely a new level of empathy that’s required from everyone: guests, employers, and team members.