San Francisco Chronicle
Bar Agricole, seeking radical transformation, loses hierarchy
At the height of its fame, Bar Agricole drew crowds to its sleek concrete dining room for innovative cocktails with seasonal small plates. In 2019, it won a James Beard Award for its bar program after getting nominated eight years in a row. Then, at the start of the pandemic, it shut down along with owner Thad Vogler’s three other San Francisco restaurants.
To many, the closures were surprising. But behind the scenes, money was so tight that some employees’ paychecks bounced and several vendors filed lawsuits to get paid. As recently as fall 2020, staffers filed complaints with the state alleging tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. Others complained of a volatile work environment.
Now, Vogler is attempting to resurrect Bar Agricole in a dramatically new way. Over the past year, he’s convened a fourperson think
tank focused on reimagining what a restaurant could be without any hierarchy — without an executive chef, a bar director or even a traditional owner. In some ways, the new Bar Agricole won’t be a restaurant at all.
To Vogler, radical transformation is essential. When he ran Bar Agricole along with charcuteriefocused Trou Normand, rumforward Obispo and stylish Nommo, he said, he was constantly low on cash and getting burnt out.
“I was going from place to place, watching them get worse and feeling totally overwhelmed,” he said. “I was just feeling done.”
The pandemic gave Vogler a chance to start over, to focus on his love of singleorigin spirits instead of restaurant operations. And to go back to just one business: Bar Agricole.
Last year inspired other Bay Area restaurant owners to rethink their businesses, too, often with an eye toward equity. Fine dining spot Sons & Daughters raised salaries, expanded benefits and instituted profit sharing, while Arab bakery Reem’s is working toward becoming a cooperative.
But some former employees are skeptical about Bar Agricole’s comeback. Five exstaffers at Vogler’s restaurants who spoke with The Chronicle echoed claims contained in complaints filed with the state and several lawsuits: Money was a constant source of tension, with workers not getting paid on time or dealing with bounced checks. An exserver said the financial problems combined with a lack of communication eroded her trust in management so much so that she’d never consider working for the restaurant group again.
In a few cases, workers filed wage theft claims with the state. In a September 2020 complaint, former server Trevor Rogers said Bar Agricole owes him more than $30,000 because of bounced paychecks and late payments from 2018 to 2020. Two years earlier, former dishwasher Francisco Javier Mis Chan alleged that he was owed about $20,000 for unpaid overtime and for rest breaks, among other issues. There were also four wagetheft complaints filed against Trou Normand in 2015. The state didn’t have details on how all of the cases were resolved except for Rogers’ complaint, which is scheduled for a 2023 court date.
Meanwhile, lawsuits for nonpayment issues have piled up in recent years. Vogler’s restaurants have been hit with seven lawsuits from vendors, landlords and city agencies since 2018. That year, for example, San Francisco sued the group for not making more than $100,000 in mandatory health insurance payments for nearly 100 employees. Pawnee Leasing Corp. sued Nommo in 2020, alleging the restaurant defaulted on rent payments and owed more than $90,000. And a debt collector sued Bar Agricole on the behalf of seafood vendor Monterey Fish Market for failing to pay more than $16,000. In these three cases, judges ruled against Vogler’s restaurants. All vendors have since been paid, Vogler said, and he has signed personal guarantees with them.
Based on this track record, Rogers questioned whether Vogler and Bar Agricole deserve a second chance.
“At a certain point, you stop just being the owner: You’re responsible to customers, vendors and employees,” Rogers said. “There seems to be a gross disregard for the wellbeing of the people who are depending on you.”
Vogler said he doesn’t disagree with Rogers.
“I do not feel qualified or entitled to run restaurants and hope not to ever again.
We are starting a different kind of company,” he wrote by email. “We have chosen to use the name Bar Agricole because it acknowledges what we are proud to have accomplished in the beverage world. Part of that decision is remaining accountable for the mistakes we’ve made as well.”
For his new enterprise, Vogler assembled a team of Nick Balla, best known as the former chef of Bar Tartine; Amy Reynolds, the director of operations for Traci Des Jardins’ restaurants; and J.D. Nasaw, a hospitality consultant. Vogler hopes his new vision fixes what he sees as two major issues in successfully operating restaurants: having a lot of employees who are paid poorly with little job security and, as a result, having a lot of employees who show up for their shifts but otherwise don’t engage further. In his ideal scenario, everyone is paid well and motivated to make the company better.
By getting rid of a restaurant’s typical hierarchical governance, where cooks, servers and dishwashers answer to the executive chef and general manager, Vogler said, there is no need for lowerpaid employees doing all of the tasks no one else wants to do, like emptying the trash. He said he plans to give 20% of company shares to employees so they all have ownership. The plan is to hire about 20 people, and one agenda item in the coming months is to decide how to allocate shares and institute profitsharing.
Bar Agricole is also working toward B Corporation certification, which means it must meet high standards for environmental sustainability, social good and public transparency. B Corporation restaurants are extremely rare in the U.S.; there are a handful in the Bay Area, including Hog Island Oyster Co. and the salad chain Mixt.
There is an additional principle guiding the new Bar Agricole, Vogler said: sociocracy. It’s a relatively new model that was born in the Netherlands and introduced to Vogler by hospitality consultant Nasaw. In addition to eliminating hierarchy, it groups workers into teams that make decisions together based on consent.
At a restaurant, sociocracy would ideally create an environment where everyone is constantly learning, working together and ruling as a collective body, according to Nasaw. There would be no job titles. Instead, people would take on roles, such as designing a menu, for limited periods of time, perhaps as brief as six months.
“Along with hierarchy, there is a lot of domination, a lot of exploitation,” Nasaw said. “Sociocracy pushes power from what would normally be the top to out to the periphery, so the person actually making cocktails has as much authority as possible over their job.”
Nasaw came to sociocracy after a career managing highend restaurants like threeMichelinstarred Eleven Madison Park in New York. Overall, he noticed a lack of leadership training in the industry and thought it could help make restaurants better places to work. He started teaching workshops around the country, bringing him to Bar Agricole in 2019. But over time, he realized spreading knowledge wasn’t enough to enact real change. He decided he needed to create new systems, which meant eliminating topdown management altogether.
Unlike a workerowned coop governed by consensus, a restaurant under sociocracy should be able to make decisions faster. Instead of needing everyone to agree to move forward, the model employs consent decisionmaking, where no one objecting means an action can move forward. Sociocracy proponents say it requires a mindset adjustment to think about accepting various outcomes versus pushing for specific outcomes.
The new Bar Agricole is Nasaw’s first big test: How will sociocracy work in practice in hospitality?
For one, Bar Agricole is no longer set up as a traditional restaurant operation.
Vogler’s group landed instead on a business plan that’s more like a specialty coffee company. Bar Agricole will primarily be a spirits company, but maintain a bar on the ground floor of a new luxury building at 1550 Mission St., assuming lease negotiations and funding go well. It’s designed as a place to enjoy a drink and a small bite, with nowhere near the level of ambition for food and service as the original Bar Agricole.
The goal is to launch in December with bottles under a new proprietary Bar Agricole label as well as spirits Vogler has purchased from around the world.
While the new business plan may ease Bar Agricole’s financial concerns, it’s unclear whether sociocracy will be able to prevent the sorts of inappropriate behavior that can run rampant in restaurants. Rogers and other exstaffers of Vogler’s restaurants described a difficult work environment where a former manager routinely yelled, threw objects and used lewd language — behavior they said was tolerated for too long.
Vogler said his new team is actively learning how to create a healthier work culture. Under its new model, that manager wouldn’t be a manager at all, Nasaw pointed out, creating a dynamic he hopes would empower other employees to object to poor conduct when they see it.
There is another dynamic at play, however: Vogler is a nationally acclaimed bartender. On a practical level, can there truly be no hierarchy or deferential treatment when an industry star is the company’s founder? Vogler appears to be trying and hoping. When he connected The Chronicle to Bar Agricole’s first three hires, for instance, he told the employees that agreeing to an interview was “not expected. Whatever appeals to you.” The workers declined or didn’t respond.
For Rogers, Bar Agricole’s plan to give employees an ownership stake sounds like an important and positive change. But he also wonders whether sociocratic governance can realistically keep problematic staffers in check.
“Thad was handsoff, and I think that’s where a lot of the difficulties in the restaurant came from. The personalities that needed to be guided, there was nobody watching them,” Rogers said. “Whether or not he can assemble a staff that is up to the task is questionable.”
Vogler agrees it’ll be a challenge. But opening a traditional restaurant, financially unsustainable and limping along, is not an option either.
“It’s difficult, and it may not work, because the fact is that this has to succeed as a company. We have to do a great deal of sales,” Vogler said. “It’s not guaranteed at all.”
“We are starting a different kind of company ... remaining accountable for the mistakes we’ve made.”
Bar Agricole owner Thad Vogler