In the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant culinary scene, where tastes, trends, and traditions converge, a remarkable individual has carved an extraordinary path to success. With a determination fueled by passion, creativity, and an unwavering commitment to her dreams, Tiffany Pisoni has risen from humble beginnings to owning two thriving restaurants, a flourishing catering business, and a successful dishware company. Her journey is a testament to the power of hard work, resilience, and an unyielding love for hospitality.
Tiffany owns Red’s Java House, a waterside restaurant offering burgers, beer, and more. The eatery won an award for serving one of the Top 10 Best Breakfast Sandwiches in San Francisco and the Top 100 Restaurant Award in 2019 in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her second restaurant, Swiss Louis Italian and Seafood Restaurant, was built in 1936 and seats 400 people, hosting patrons from all around the world.
Tiffany did not naturally gravitate toward a career in the food industry as a young professional. Instead, she began her career in retail, working for the person who would someday become her business partner.
“I had a love for retail, and I really knew nothing about the food business. I started working for my business partner when I was 18, right out of high school.”
Even as a young girl, she had an admirable work ethic. She would work jobs in her community, undertaking new opportunities whenever possible.
“I mean, it sounds pretty silly, but in the fourth grade, I’d clean the pool bathroom on the weekends on Sundays. That’s what I did. I just always wanted to do stuff.”
Instilling in her a strong sense of responsibility, her parents decided against giving her an allowance. They would tell her, “You’re part of the family, so you need to make your bed, do the dishes, and clean the table.” Tiffany accepted these rules but always wanted more than she had, so she went and worked for it.
“In sixth grade, I would do babysitting if I wanted a new bike. I just worked. It was built into me. Then, I started retail when I was still in high school. I went into the store every weekend for a year since I was too young for them to hire me.”
She says she always knew she did not want to pursue a conventional career path. “I knew I wanted a retail store. I knew I wanted to work for myself.”
During her early years in the workforce, Tiffany spent her time working for her future business partner. Then, one day, one of his current partners unexpectedly passed away, and he asked Tiffany to assist him with a store he owned.
“He had a huge warehouse worth of merchandise, and I just moved everything. He asked me, ‘Hey, you’re doing great in retail. I have an opportunity to move it to a better location. Would you like to continue to manage it?’”
Tiffany said that she would love that opportunity but would only move forward on the condition that she became a partner. “He said great, I could make that happen,” she says. As the business flourished, Tiffany’s love for retail continued to grow.
“It was a Christmas store I had. During the first year, I started opening up different temporary stores around the holidays.”
At that point, her business partner did not have much to do with the store anymore, adopting more of a hands-off approach. She took advantage of the additional freedom to generate and implement new ideas. Impressed with her work, her partner eventually asked her to attend manager meetings at Swiss Louis. “The restaurant seats around 400 people,” Tiffany says, “It’s one of the largest in San Francisco.”
That year, he told her that he would like her to start getting involved in catering events. Since Tiffany was not directly involved in the food business just yet, she was a fresh pair of eyes, the perfect person to assess how the restaurant was doing with training.
“I just did that quietly for years, and I just fed him information. In the meantime, I sat there, recognizing that I was getting such great mentorship. So I thought, ‘I’m going to suck in as much as I can and put all this time in because he’s been in the business for so many years.’”
Tiffany benefited greatly from her opportunity to observe and learn from both staff and management, laying the groundwork for a future career in hospitality.
“So, when it came time to do a big remodel and resign leases for Swiss Louis, I became his partner. During that time, a lot of stuff was moving for us. I had this opportunity when Red’s Java House came up on the market. We don’t really buy any businesses. I always started my own ventures, or I would take over existing ones from my partner.”
In 2011, the pair undertook the most extensive remodeling that San Francisco’s Pier 39 had ever seen since its construction. Pier 39 is a 45-acre waterfront complex known for its 12 restaurants, over 90 shops, a five-acre waterfront park and a 300-berth marina. The place is a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
Swiss Louis, a restaurant with deep historical ties to San Francisco, first opened in 1936 and has never been sold. Instead, its ownership has always been passed down to deserving former employees who did an exemplary job and always took good care of the building.
Tiffany calls the restaurant her battleship, saying, “It’s the one that helps out the other ventures by making it possible to do certain things.”
One such venture was Red’s Java House, which she overtook before she became a partner at Swiss Louis. Her father was the one who encouraged her to take the leap.
Tiffany says her dad was working at Pier 1 at The Port of San Francisco as the chief engineer at the time. He had heard that Red’s Java House was being put on the market and told Tiffany to go and take a look at it. He insisted, “Go and check out this place; I think you’ll love it.”
Initially, she was not interested. Not until a few months later did her dad suggest she revisit the place.
“I had all these different ideas. Maybe I can put my own touch on it and make it my own place.”
The current owners were hoping to find a buyer who was also a native of San Francisco.
“They really wanted someone to keep the reputation of it and not tear it down to make it a modern place. They were having a hard time with that.”
In 2008, she made a proposition to the owners—that she would manage the restaurant without pay for a year. She wanted to figure out if acquiring it was something she would ultimately pursue.
“They did it and made it profitable again. After that, they said, ‘alright, it’s yours if you want it.’”
At first, Tiffany says she had planned to make aesthetic changes to the restaurant.
“Then I just realized that, really, the people of San Francisco own this, and I just have the fortune of being able to be part of it.”
Around the same time, she and her partner established Piazza Market Catering. Though many changes were happening in her life, Tiffany says taking over Red’s Java House was not daunting.
“I had the foundation of Swiss Louis, and even though I wasn’t a partner at the time, I was in the day-in and day-out operations at Swiss Louis.”
After spending countless days helping out the Swiss Louis team, Tiffany could use the knowledge she gained to make Red’s Java House turn a profit; her hard work had paid off.
“I think the most humbling part of Red’s Java House was I worked that place open to close for six months to get to know it. They had shut down for a month, and I had hired all the old employees back to learn.”
One thing she never experienced at Swiss Louis was customers walking in and asking for items that were not on the menu, but were common knowledge to the staff. There seemed to be this custom unwritten menu at Red’s Java House. She quickly understood managing an establishment with deep ties to its surrounding community would be a bit more nuanced.
“Swiss Louis was in a touristy neighborhood, so I had never really dealt with the local environment. At Red’s Java House, the cooks knew the customers, how they liked their eggs, how they didn’t like hashbrowns, so we would have to take off a certain charge for that. They knew all that.”
Many concerned locals would also ask if she intended to alter the cherished eatery—an unpopular idea among those who frequented the joint.
“For instance, the mop bucket usually sat outside in the patio area. The bar was also outside, and the mop bucket sat behind the table. I moved it, and so many customers asked, ‘What are you doing? You’re changing the place.’”
Before putting a fresh coat of paint on the restaurant’s walls, Tiffany would scrape a paint chip off and bring it to a hardware store for a perfect match. Still, customers would tell her she was making the place “too clean,” she laughs, “I said no, no, I’m taking everything that is here and just cleaning it up.”
After about eight months, patrons were more open to believing Tiffany was not planning any major adjustments to their beloved eatery.
“Red’s Java House has a lot of history. People at Red’s have been going there forever. Parents took their kids, and now their kids are parents taking their own kids. I feel that we’re a business, but we’re also in customer service. We wouldn’t be here without the people, without the community. That really has been my motto since a month after I started working at Red’s. I am lucky to be able to keep this place up for them.”
“During the pandemic, we were the only ones that didn’t shut down,” Tiffany says. The neighborhood came out to support the establishment in full fledge, eager to visit the familiar spot.
“The way we were set up, people were sitting on stoops outside. People around us found out about Red’s and continued supporting it. I’m thankful for my team that stuck it out when the city was quiet. So, I feel very honored to be a part of it.”
Meanwhile, the staff set up outdoor seating at Swiss Louis to abide by quarantine rules.
“We were mandated to shut down like all of the city. What we ended up doing was we had a beer bar that was connected to the restaurant. We opened up the wall between the small patio we had and the beer bar. We took out all the windows, and we made it a huge outdoor patio. The surviving point of Swiss Louis was that we were able to adapt in that way.”
As for the health mandates, Tiffany made sure to listen to her staff and respect their boundaries.
“People worry about different things, and you have to be accommodating to your staff. You have to be gentle and understanding. Everyone had their own comfort level, and it was a non-judgmental time. It was whatever made everybody comfortable, and we worked with that.”
At Red’s Java House, while the locals were overjoyed to see the eatery still running, the restaurant initially lost a lot of clientele due to shifts in how people were working.
“We lost all the construction workers because there was no construction. We lost all the cab drivers because people weren’t going out.”
With remote work, people’s daily routines had changed, so the restaurant had to adapt and do the same. Nonetheless, with some adjustments, the team could weather the storm.
“One day, I got a phone call from a manager like ‘You have to get down here.’ Places weren’t open yet. You couldn’t let anyone inside. I came down to Red’s, and there was a line out the door to the street. Every stoop in front of us was full of people. I mean, people were getting drinks, sitting out there, celebrating life and letting us be a part of that, which was super amazing.”
She treated her employees with a similar kindness in her catering business. Some workers were uncomfortable with positions requiring contact with customers, so she offered them more back-of-house tasks, like helping out with cooking.
Meanwhile, she was starting to realize the value of not having a rigid ordering system in place.
“During the pandemic, people wanted to talk. Sometimes, our salespeople would be on the phone with customers for 20-30 minutes just talking to them because people just wanted to talk. That was good for everybody. I think people are remembering that’s what we did for them.”
When the pandemic died down, the number of orders coming in via phone picked up. Since business models had shifted, she says, her chefs learned to prepare individually packaged meals throughout the day. “Our boxed lunch company really boomed during that time.”
“They remember that we were working with them through all these difficult times, and that’s coming back now.”
She explains that the company’s loyal clientele has been instrumental in its continuing rise to where it was before the pandemic. Since then, she has been trying to recruit new team members.
“My business partner and myself, everyone who works for us, they have a family. They have bills to pay. So, we try to keep as many people as we can on the payroll so that they can still have their form of a life.”
Working in the catering industry also made her realize the high cost of dishware, which eventually inspired her to start her own business, DishCo SF.
“I was just flabbergasted how much things cost in the catering business, like how much you have to pay for a platter. Things get broken all the time. I was on the hunt to figure out a way to save money to make this work.”
To grow the business, she tracked down various production facilities and had containers of goods shipped over.
“We’ve been able to find a lot of people like us. They own one, two, or three places and don’t want to pay $50 for a platter. So, we found this niche. It started from me saying there has to be a better way because, ultimately, you have to pass everything onto the customer.”
To get DishCo SF off the ground, she describes it as being like “starting from scratch and just pounding the pavement.”
“We were getting out samples, making phone calls, and going to shows.”
However, of all her successful businesses, it took the biggest hit during the pandemic. She used that experience to strengthen her skills as a motivator for her team.
“We have constant employees. We’re just keeping everyone motivated. It was kind of like, we did this years ago, and we need to do it all over again. But I would keep on saying, well, we know what to do this time. Last time, we were trying and going through things that didn’t work.”
Along with generating morale, she says that to be a good boss, you have to get your hands dirty.
“It’s not a one-man show, so every single person is important to me. The host is important; the waiters, the waitresses, the dishwashers, the cooks are important. No one job is more important than the other because we wouldn’t function if we didn’t have one.”
In a fitting example, at Swiss Louis, one day, when a toilet backed up, Tiffany grabbed the plunger to take care of it. A new employee asked her, a bit taken aback, “You’re going to do that?” Tiffany said, “Yes, it’s my toilet. What do you do in your home?”
That employee had not seen an owner or manager roll up their sleeves that way before.
“Being an owner doesn’t mean that I get to sit there and watch everyone else do the work. I think that’s why we have so many employees who have been with us for so long, because everyone is very valuable, and every job is important. Even if I can’t get behind the line and cook, I help in any way I can in any department; that’s just what we do here.”
It is the same work ethic she has nurtured since childhood. She credits that go-getter mindset with where she is today.
“I just realized that I wanted to be able to do this on my own. I wanted to make my own decisions and wanted the buck to stop with me. I didn’t want to go through multiple channels. I think from a young age, I just always knew that was something I wanted to do. I didn’t go to college. I chose to have life experience in a career I wanted to do, and I did. I put everything into it. Even when I became a partner, I put all my savings and everything into it. I worked a year without making money, working seven days a week because I believed in myself to make it profitable.”
However, running so many successful businesses can be draining. Tiffany says the pandemic changed her outlook on maintaining a work-life balance.
“Once the pandemic hit, I wasn’t working nearly as much because many places were closed. I had more time with my family, and I had more time with my friends. Coming out of the pandemic, I definitely have kept that mindset in the sense that I need to get off work at a certain time for my children. My kids are little for only so long.”
She says that when you are so devoted to work, you have to stop for a moment and accept that things will not always be done 100%. It is okay to step away. Reflecting on her journey, Tiffany says she would not do anything differently.
“Whatever choices I’ve made in the past made me who I am today. I think if you make mistakes, you learn from your mistakes.”
For people who are thinking about going into hospitality or starting their own business, she has some advice.
“If you own a restaurant, you have to be a little crazy; that’s number one. If you truly believe in yourself and are willing to bet on yourself, then you need to do it. The day you keep waking up and not liking what you’re doing is the day to get out of that business because of your life and mental health. You’re at work for eight hours, at home for eight hours, and spend eight hours asleep. That’s your 24 hours.”
She says it is vital to consider how much of our lives are spent at or thinking about our jobs.
“You’re thinking about it, so you want that work to be your joy. A portion of your joy, not the entire thing. And so, if you’re dreading that on a day-in and day-out basis, you need to find something else that will make you happy. If working for yourself and having that responsibility and trying to go for it will make you happy, then I think that’s something you need to do.”
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.