An Inteview with Jen Pelka, Founder/Managing Partner, The Riddler

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Traditional Champagne production includes a process called riddling. It’s a tedious, manual task in which each bottle in the cellar is rotated just a few degrees, allowing gravity to slowly dislodge the particles of sediment therein. The person who performs this daily ritual is known, fittingly, as a riddler.

I explain all this because, prior to today’s interview, I had admittedly assumed that Jen Pelka — the restaurateur behind Champagne bar and inHouse partner The Riddler — happened to be a particularly zealous fan of Batman. But the name isn’t just a nod to The Riddler’s focus on Champagne; it’s something of a metaphor for Pelka’s journey thus far. Decidedly non-linear, Jen’s career has been characterized by consistent, deliberate steps into different positions all around the hospitality industry, each one just a few degrees of rotation from the last: from marketing to PR; to running restaurants in San Francisco and New York and (soon) launching a Champagne brand of her own.

In her own words, this is Pelka’s story:

You want to talk about transitions? Well let’s start with my decision to start a PR firm. Before launching Magnum, most of my career was in restaurant marketing or restaurant technology marketing. But right out of college (philosophy at Stanford), I was working in the scientific research group of a hedge fund. One night I met the sous chef of Daniel at Schiller’s Liquor Bar in the Lower East Side, of all places. I asked him if I could stage, and amazingly he said yes.

White shirt, black pants, black shoes, and bring my knives? Ok, got it! So I showed up, bright-eyed, with my one knife from Crate & Barrel, wrapped in a hand towel with a hair tie. [laughs] I ended up staging for a year and a half, every Saturday, and really started to fall in love with restaurants and cooking and Daniel.

There were so many amazing people working there at the time  people like Dominique Ansel, Jordan Salcito  but I had moved on to do some private cheffing, among other things. Then one day I ran into Daniel at a party, and asked if I could be his research assistant. It was a job title I totally made up. It didn’t exist. But luckily he said yes, and soon that role encompassed all sorts of creative projects: a line of spices, developing DBGB, all his work with Thomas Keller in leading Bocuse d’Or… and introduced me to countless chefs, writers, and so on.

Then I went into marketing over at Gilt, where they were experimenting with a project called Gilt Taste. Again, I was fortunate to be surrounded by amazing mentors: Ruth Reichl was their editorial director; Francis Lam was managing editor. There, we featured a lot of interesting people, which really expanded my network. Not to mention, I was sending a bunch of emails to media to get them to write about things. Did that mean I was suddenly doing… PR? It turned out, yes! [laughs]

After a stint at Tumblr, I met Charles [Bililies of Souvla, Jen’s now-husband] and after long-distance dating for a while, I started looking for jobs in SF. There, I joined the team at OpenTable, where we developed a content site called Open for Business, and sponsored things that were important to the restaurant industry, like Cherry Bombe’s first Jubilee. In fact, Kerry [Diamond, Cherry Bombe’s co-founder] is now one of our investors.

Up to this point, I’d been part of the larger restaurant community, just never as a restaurateur. But I’m lucky to be married for a hardcore restaurant operations person, and one day Charles said hey, why don’t you do Souvla’s PR? So I did. Soon, we took on other clients, like Mourad and Rich Table, Shake Shack and Sweetgreen. At the height of the agency, we were a team of ten, working with 25 clients. We wanted it to be the best in San Francisco, focused only on San Francisco. I think there’s great power in saying out loud what you want to do, and being very specific about it.

Even The Riddler started that way. Charles and I are regulars at this sushi spot in our neighborhood in San Francisco, and we’d look out the window and see this cute cafe across the street that was basically falling apart. One day I looked at him and said, that’s my spot  I want that to be The Riddler.

Fast-forward to today, we have a second one in New York and are thinking about growing further. We just promoted our GM / beverage director in SF to director of operations. She started with us as a sommelier, then head somm, beverage director, AGM, GM, and Director of Ops… and she’s just one of countless examples of people on our team who have grown with us like that.

Now I give myself the leeway to not be involved in every single decision. What are the things that I am good at, that only I can do? For instance, I really relied on my network to push forward on the fundraising side. All 33 of our investors are women. That’s a huge part of our story, and a huge part of our community.

Now we’re focusing not only on better systems, better profitability, but on building our community. With that in mind, my brother and I are actually launching a champagne brand in February, called Une Femme and celebrating female winemakers. We’ll donate a portion of proceeds to Dress for Success, a non-profit that empowers women to achieve financial independence. We are already working on a sweater collaboration with Lingua Franca, hand-painted handbags with Clare V., and more. I guess at the end of the day, I really just want people to drink more Champagne, and in a more stylish way.