Howie's No. 2, which opened last year on Jefferson Avenue in downtown Redwood City, temporarily closed its doors in late June. Bulka said the developer set to build a four-story, 93,515 square-foot mixed-use building with two additional levels of underground parking next door at 2075 Broadway St. "generously" offered him "some financial support based on the impending disruption to the business." Developer Lane Partners plans to soon demolish the existing 25,560 square-foot commercial building, and construction is estimated to last two years, Bulka said.
The inevitable disruption such a construction project would mean for his business coupled with the fact that the Redwood City Howie's wasn't performing well led to Bulka's decision to temporarily close, recoup and think about a better concept to open in that location.
The Redwood City Howie's didn't do very well in its first year of operation because, Bulka thinks, "it's simply the wrong restaurant" for the neighborhood. He opened the second Howie's six years after the original Town & Country Village location, and "basically just picked up Palo Alto and dropped it in Redwood City," resulting in a unsuccessful mismatch, Bulka said.
"We didn't think hard enough about what was going to make the neighborhood love us," he added.
Howie's owner Howard Bulka layers bacon on a baked-potato pizza, made with scalloped potatoes, Gruyere cheese, crisp bacon, fresh rosemary and Parmesan, at his Palo Alto restaurant in 2015. Photo by Michelle Le/Palo Alto Weekly.
With the financial support from Lane Partners and more growth on the way to Redwood City over the next few years, Bulka decided to take this time to finally do that hard thinking. He plans to spend time reconnecting with Redwood City, where he lives, and has already started by going to more restaurants, bars and shows at the Fox Theater, he said.
"Everybody talks about the growth there and it's undeniably coming but basically ... I'm looking at a lot of empty, tall buildings surrounding me. The number of residential units and the number of office workers coming to that town in the next two to three years is really amazing and it's certainly gong to change the complexion of Redwood City, but it kind of hasn't happened yet. It's slowly trickling in," Bulka said.
He hopes to reopen sometime in the next year or so with a casual, affordable restaurant that can be the default "neighborhood rendezvous" for both longtime Redwood City residents and newcomers. He envisions something like a sports bar (though he said he's hesitant to use that term) with TVs for people to watch local games and food that is "representative of the ethnicity of the neighborhood" and "very easy on price point" (nothing over $10 or $12). The restaurant's large outdoor patio is another selling point.
"I think in Redwood City you need a place where the working-class people, the long-term residents of Redwood City — the teachers, the firemen, the plumbers — they need a place to call their own. The young professionals are coming in need a place to hang and a place to drink. I need to build something that works for those different groups of people, plus all the other types," Bulka said.
Once the concept crystallizes, Bulka said he will launch a website to share his ideas with the local community and seek feedback through pop-ups or other one-off events in the space.
In the meantime, the chef of Howie's, John Shelsta, could be headed toward opening his own bakery.
Shelsta, who Bulka described as someone who is "hardwired to be a baker," used weekend brunch at Howie's to serve special pastries and other baked goods. He's also sold his incredibly popular goods at pop-ups at French restaurant Zola in downtown Palo Alto, including this past weekend. Bulka said this weekend's pop-up was the busiest one yet, with a line down the block and twice as many pastries sold.
Former Howie's Redwood City chef John Shelsta, pictured in the restaurant's dining room with his chocolate mousse cake in 2015. Photo by Michelle Le/Palo Alto Weekly.
Most of the Redwood City staff quickly found employment elsewhere, Bulka said. About three or four moved to the Palo Alto restaurant.
Bulka opened the first Howie's at Town & Country in 2009. He was formerly the executive chef at the now-closed French restaurant Marché in Menlo Park, where Shelsta and the owner of Zola, Guillame Bienamé, also worked.