For anyone familiar with San Francisco dining, Flour + Water is an institution. Since its opening in 2009 in the Mission District, Flour + Water has established itself as a premier spot for inspired Italian cuisine with California-sourced, ethically-produced ingredients.
When the restaurant first opened, the goal was to create a low-key neighborhood place for the San Francisco restaurant industry and other in-the-know locals. Word quickly spread, however, and Flour + Water found itself becoming a trendsetter. Co-chefs Thomas McNaughton and Ryan Pollnow have a well-defined approach to Italian cooking that continues to resonate strongly with diners.
“We want to highlight and educate ourselves surrounding everything in the Italian cooking tradition, and then apply that to what surrounds us here in Northern California and the Bay Area,” Pollnow says. “We place a heavy emphasis on classical pastas and pizza cooking techniques from Italy, but put our Flour + Water spin on it through our relationships with small purveyors. We celebrate the bounty that is the Bay Area as a food and agricultural center.”
Since the early days, the restaurant has grown into Flour + Water Hospitality Group with several complementary concepts that share the same commitment to community, culture, and sustainability. The group was a founding member of Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit dedicated to helping farmers implement regenerative practices. The thoughtful approach that Flour + Water perfected carries through at their more casual regional Italian restaurant Penny Roma; their new flagship Flour + Water Pizzeria in North Beach; and their Flour + Water Pasta Shop that functions as a pasta production hub, neighborhood lunch spot, and ancillary dining room for Penny Roma.
At the new Flour + Water Pizzeria, the group expects off-premise ordering to be a valuable service experience, so in addition to a 75-seat dining room that operates as the Pizzeria, Pollnow and McNaughton created Flour + Water Pizza Shop. The space has a separate entrance and separate infrastructure to serve third-party delivery orders and guest pickups. “We wanted a quick outlet for to-go in addition to an uninterrupted dining experience for all of our guests, whether they reserved through [restaurant reservation service] Resy or tried their luck as a walk-in,” Pollnow says. “We created a space that has in-house restaurant table service in the traditional format, and then also what we call Flour + Water Pizza Shop in the back for to-go operations.”
Preserving the company culture during this growth phase has been a critical priority. “With the opening of Flour + Water Pizzeria in North Beach, we’re expanding our team by 60–70 people,” Pollnow says. “Whenever there’s growth like that, we want to ensure we are extending the same company culture that’s existed with us for so long into this new neighborhood.”
Flour + Water Hospitality Group chose to spearhead the team’s expansion by promoting junior management. Many of the people on the Flour + Water Pizzeria management team have been with the company for years. “We look at it as a very welcome opportunity to grow our team members’ careers,” says Pollnow.
McNaughton and Pollnow have built their values into the business, and they credit these philosophies with the successes they’ve amassed over the years—from creating Flour + Water Hospitality Group to building rock-solid teams to becoming a go-to destination for global travelers visiting San Francisco.
“Our restaurant group, as a whole, shares the same ethos surrounding what we want to achieve,” Pollnow says. “It has to do with how people feel when they enter our properties, whether they’re our guests, our staff, or purveyors. It’s all about hospitality for us, and it starts with the internal team. We aspire to keep the environment as supportive as possible.”
“We were a little bit ahead of the curve in writing a culture book for our employees,” says McNaughton. “It became this amazing tool. We value our employees showing up as the individual that they are, and the expression of who they are, and that brings another layer of confidence and control to the environment.”
As Flour + Water Hospitality Group set about hiring dozens of new employees to kick off the Flour + Water Pizzeria and Pizza Shop, the long-timers on the management team helped champion the company culture to new employees. The controlled chaos of the opening weekend proved how effective investing in culture can be.
“It’s humbling when we hear from our community that Flour + Water is an awesome place to work,” McNaughton says. “We don’t take that lightly and want to ensure that we are retaining that supportive environment as we grow.”
Word of mouth also helped cement Flour + Water’s reputation as a landmark restaurant. “We’re thankful for its success and recognize we are very fortunate to have such a loyal following,” Pollnow says. “It has become a destination restaurant for a lot of San Francisco travelers. We love having that mix of neighborhood regulars, locals, folks who have been coming to our restaurant for 14 years, and people who maybe heard about us through a TV show or other media outlet that piqued their curiosity to see what we’re doing on our little corner of Harrison Street.”
With the high percentage of diners who are travelers, especially those visiting from other countries, it’s important for Flour + Water and the group as a whole to accept a wide variety of payments. Flour + Water Hospitality Group has accepted American Express since the very beginning, when the original Flour + Water opened its doors in 2009.
Today, Flour + Water Hospitality Group also thrives as a host for private events, the majority of which are corporate in nature. Mac Malone, director of events and marketing at the Flour + Water Hospitality Group, says most corporate event clients pay with American Express.
Accepting American Express has also helped Flour + Water learn about its guests through detailed data insights. “It’s super helpful for us as a business to know where people are coming from,” Malone says. “We’ve learned there’s a ton of people coming from New York, for example. Each year, we take a look at the data just to see what’s changed and what’s stayed consistent.”
As for other tools in its tool belt, Flour + Water has used the platform Resy for the last few years to manage reservations and provide other valuable analytics. “It’s an incredibly intuitive reservation system that provides so much more,” Pollnow says. “In restaurants, where the margins are slim and the bottom line is important, we need that data to stay in business. Capturing as many reservations and walk-in opportunities as possible is so important, and Resy makes that not just doable but easy.”
Flour + Water Hospitality Group continues to find new opportunities to expand. The new pizzeria and pizza shop opened to rave reviews, and last year, the group introduced Flour + Water Foods, a line of dried pasta that brings the craftsmanship behind their restaurant experiences to the home table.
“We can dial in systems and have plans for whatever is going to happen in our properties, but restaurants are an ever-changing environment,” Pollnow says. “It’s exciting for us to take challenges and turn them into memorable hospitality moments.”
For more information, visit americanexpress.com/business-solutions.