Zazie: Building a Legacy by Putting employees First

When Megan Cornelius celebrated becoming part owner of Zazie – a foundational legacy-status establishment in Cole Valley and her restaurant home for over a decade – it was January and the catastrophic effects of the COVID19 crisis could not even be imagined. Still, restaurant owners across the Bay Area are shocked by the endless ramifications that continue to unfold. Jen Pilliat who bought Zazie in 2005 after being general manager for five years, remains a 25% owner after selling the restaurant to long-time employees: Mario Rojas, executive chef Francisco Romero and Cornelius.

“On March 15th, I was high-fiving my partner like ‘congrats it’s our two month anniversary!’ Cornelius said. “And on the 16th, the doors were being closed at midnight.’”

Instead of reveling in the day-to-day joys of running a restaurant, Cornelius and her other co-owners are now frantically applying for government aid and attempting to interpret San Francisco’s shifting winds of curbside pickup and consumer trends.

“We started out pretty strong with to-gos but then realized some nights are busier than others,” Cornelius said. “And that’s just following the trends of the neighborhood. A Wednesday night could be busy because something came out in the news that day and they’re just depressed and over it. Or we’ve noticed that when something comes out that puts people in a weird space; people are coming in and ordering. Or when it came out that they were keeping shelter in place a little bit longer, no one was out that night. It was really quiet. This is just a day by day, even hour by hour situation. It’s intense.”

Cornelius is no stranger to the hospitality industry, having always loved restaurants and the people who work there. Beginning at 21 with her first bartending job, Megan has always worked in restaurants to support her other life roles like being a special education teacher. She worked at Beach Chalet and Absinthe in the Bay Area before transitioning to the Zazie team where she, like many others, found a supportive and amazing work environment. She explains that it’s one of the reasons Zazie’s model is so incredible – people working in hospitality are often pursuing other passions or creative lifestyles. Most people who do leave Zazie do so because they’re becoming practicing lawyers or therapists or to commit fulltime to other endeavors, often while working at Zazie to finish degrees.

“It’s always kind of been a hidden dream to own my own place but I’m glad that never happened because starting something from the ground up with crazy,” Cornelius said. “It’s nice to come in where someone has already laid the ground work and really built this amazing following and small brand that has been a wonderful place for the community and it’s the proudest place I’ve ever worked.”

Zazie opened its doors in 1992 and reached legacy status this past year while evolving into a revolutionary example of restaurant philosophy. Every employee receives fully funded health benefits, paid leaves (sick, family and vacation) and an employer-matched 401(k). Even in the first blows of the city shutdown, Zazie’s owners held true to their firm belief that employees should not have to worry about health care. Pilliat’s mother is a nurse and she staunchly refused to consider cutting health benefits, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. Another tenet of Zazie’s philosophy is no-tipping. A percentage of menu prices are put back into employees’ paychecks so that everyone from front of house to the kitchen is fairly rewarded. Pilliat is a dynamic entrepreneur who cares about her staff in an industry known for being cutthroat. Zazie inspires loyalty, not only in its patronage but its staff is known to stick around. While other restaurants may be familiar with high turnover rates, Zazie staff stays. Pilliat’s dedication to generosity and kindness as an employer is an inspiring light amidst the chaos.

“In restaurants unfortunately you don’t always have a lot of contact with the higher ups or you don’t feel like they have your best interests at heart and they don’t,” Cornelius said. “[You hear] ‘Take care of your own, trust your own’ and that’s why I’m proud to work here, because that’s what Jen does. [Pilliat] does a really good job of paying well and taking good care of you so that you don’t want to leave because you know you won’t find a better employer. They’re not moving on because they found a better restaurant, that’s for damn sure. She really works this business out of her gut and her soul.”

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