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Michael Mina casts for the next big thing

Michael Mina’s next restaurant is a bit different than the 24 high-end and polished-casual concepts his Mina Group has opened to success and fame in San Francisco, Miami, Las Vegas and beyond. For one thing, it didn’t start out as a restaurant at all.

“We were originally looking for a test kitchen, but we came across this space,” says Mina of his yet-to-be-named test-kitchen/pop-up hybrid in his headquarters city of San Francisco. Mina purchased the now-closed Café Claude, a small neighborhood bistro with 44 seats inside and another 12 on the patio, to expand the idea of a test kitchen to include a service element. This way, he says, he’s not just testing new menus on his own team, but customers as well. “The goal is to test out some concepts and see what works,” says Mina.

To make sure he gets a range of people in the door, most of whom he expects to be neighborhood folks, food will be offered at a lower, “sensitive” price than the charges typical of Mina Group’s other restaurants.

The benefit of a pop up like this is the ability to be more interactive, says Mina. While each concept or theme rotation will last two to three months, the menu will change weekly. The restaurant will be open four days a week; two of those three off days will be spent reviewing feedback to see what’s working, changing the menu to incorporate new dishes and reflect guests’ feedback.

Explaining the restaurant’s specialties to customers  at any given time is a challenge, says Mina. “It’s a new style of communication that we’re working through right now … how to take reservations, how to communicate out the new menu or the next concept.”

Mina is encountering an operational challenge familiar to the increasing number of restaurateurs who open permanent pop-ups: rotating equipment. His first iteration, an Eastern Mediterranean theme, will use a low stone oven to cook traditional bread. Mina and Chef Adam Sobel (who runs the kitchen at Mina Group’s RN74) are in the process of figuring out what piece of equipment to pull out from the kitchen to make room for it.

Mina also decided on renting some of the tabletop dishware, such as patterned pieces or stoneware, versus buying it so that he won’t have to worry about storing those supplies when they don’t fit in with a concept in rotation.

But if the team establishes a concept that is well-received and makes sense in the space, Mina will likely press pause on the control panel. He said he’ll make it a permanent restaurant for dinner, still running a test operation during the day.

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