Early to Rise: Breaking Barriers with Bagels & Brunch

Since college, Early to Rise owner and head chef Andrew McCormack has worked in the restaurant industry, racking up a laundry list of life experiences along the way. He’s worked under acclaimed restaurateurs and chefs, from whom he’s absorbed a part of their approaches to the craft.

While working for Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Manhattan, he was shown a minimalist cooking method that brings flavor to the fore. Under New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, whom McCormack says is “the most influential person in the service industry,” he learned what quality service means to a dining community.

It was the opportunity to work for Chef Michael Tusk, of Quince and Cotogna fame, that brought McCormack to the bay area. After the grueling work at Quince led to a series of immobilizing work injuries, (a herniated disk and third degree burns being a few of them) McCormack had to step away from back-of-house labor and began working as a server at Spruce.

Throughout his time in the industry, he’s come to understand a restaurant’s role in the community.

“Restaurants don’t arrive by accident,” McCormack says in philosophical fashion. “They respond to human needs.”

One of the observations McCormack makes about San Francisco is its rampant income inequality and how this is reflected in the restaurant industry.

“There are massive parts of the city that are disenfranchised in the dining community,” McCormack points out. “Even at ‘affordable’ restaurants, you can easily spend $60 a person, so people who don’t work in a lucrative industry get beaten down to where they can’t even interact with those people, there’s no space for them. It’s not why I got into food, to be the guy at the door deciding who is allowed in.”

Around the time he was working for Spruce, he was looking to make fine dining inclusive without compromising the quality of the food. He found a way to accomplish this with Early to Rise.

Populist Pop-Up Turned Brick-and-Mortar Brunch

Early to Rise started in early 2016 as a pop-up event that moved into a permanent venue in Nob Hill late 2018, and debuted their first brunch in February 2019. Early to Rise is comparatively unconventional as a restaurant; they host brunch “events,” for which attendees need to purchase tickets in advance.

“People feel weird about sitting in a group with strangers, but that lasts about five minutes and then everyone is passing food and popping bottles,” McCormack explains insightfully. “A group of people having a positive reference point in common brings out the best in them. When the locus of conversation is something good, like a delicious meal, everyone interacts positively.”

Another major element to the space’s unique identity is their expert-level service for each event. McCormack calls his staff “the special forces of service.” A skeleton crew of just four people including himself, handle the service; cleaning, plating, finances, prep and closing for a restaurant that serves up to 200 people each weekend. Despite slim staffing, Early to Rise takes pride in maintaining a high standard of quality service.

The ethos of Early to Rise is perhaps best encapsulated in their flagship dish, bagels and lox. Made from scratch, high in quality, and affordably priced, McCormack explains that bagels were a staple of his diet during his time in Manhattan.

“Bagels and a cup of coffee gives me the same tingle that I would get with a nice meal at a fancy restaurant,” he recalls.

Serving bagels as fine dining flies in the face of culinary convention, even further blurring the lines of class distinction.

Growth in Closure

The restaurant industry is being hit particularly hard by the crisis, Early to Rise being no exception, but McCormack says it affords him an opportunity to grow as an entrepreneur. His experience with immobilizing injuries has prepared him for making the most out of a bad situation. In his time away from the restaurant, he’s been bolstering skills he wasn’t able to learn while serving and cooking, such as financial management and accounting.

“We’re going to come out of this as a more skilled space, I’m going to come out a more responsible manager of my business,” McCormack declares.

McCormack has worked out a takeout and delivery menu to safely proceed with, although he says that Early to Rise will not be setting tables again until it makes sense to do so.

“I have a real relationship with my customers and my staff,” he says with pride. “I talk with them. I’m not going to open until they’re comfortable to have us again.”

“We are not yet a full-on restaurant, so our situation is different from other folks, but that means we are well positioned for the new world we find ourselves in. We will recover; it’s just a question of when.”

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