Rose Pistola, the North Beach Italian eatery, is an institution in San Francisco – twenty years and counting. Behind it is owner Laurie Thomas, who also owns local staples, Rose’s Cafe and Terzo. Thomas wasn’t always into food. Before she went into the food business, Thomas was working as a manager at a software company. We caught up with her about the food scene, clientele loyalty and working with non-profits.

How does one make the decision to leave the tech industry and move on to food? Would you do it again? Would you recommend it to San Francisco’s tech crowd?

After graduating Stanford with an engineering degree and receiving my MBA from Harvard Business School, I spent seven years in technical and management positions in Silicon Valley, but I have always been a lover of good food and wine. When, in late 1995, I was given the opportunity to invest in Rose Pistola, I went for it. In 2001, I took a huge leap and left Silicon Valley, joined Nice Ventures full time, and took over as CEO. I never imagined that years later, what started as a restaurant investment would turn into a career change. It has been a lot of work, with highs and lows. Would I do it again? Maybe, but opening restaurants now in San Francisco has an entirely different set of challenges than existed when I first invested 20 years ago.

What advice can you give a budding restaurateur?

You must really love and be good at operations, or decide to hire a full time senior management person to do this for them. The cool thing is over the past few years technology has really brought some great products that are helping make life easier and more efficient for the restaurant world. These include things like OpenTable, Chouxbox, Vatler, Cover and a host of other solutions that help automate the transactional driven world of restaurants.

Rose Pistola has been around forever, in San Francisco terms. How do you keep a restaurant current in the ever-changing scene?

We recently hired, for the first time since opening, a chef outside of the Rose Pistola family, Steve Walker. Steve continues to pay tribute to the classic dishes that first appeared on the original menu when Rose Pistola opened its doors, but he also takes the time to present our guests with new and innovative offerings. He knows the balance of staying true to Rose Pistola’s roots and what our loyal patrons expect, but also offering dishes that step outside of the traditional, and surprise our guests to keep up with the ever-changing scene.

Speaking of the scene, what’s changed in the scene since you started your journey?

A lot! The level of food and service quality has become so high and the diversity of restaurants in San Francisco has exploded. This means a much higher level of expectations from our dining public. Also costs have gone up substantially in the city – to the cost of rent and electricity especially. Also with the extremely low unemployment in San Francisco these days, trying to hire and keep qualified employees is very difficult too.

Can you comment on being a woman entrepreneur in the restaurant industry?

I have never experienced any issues with being a woman in business in San Francisco. The difficulty has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the rest of the demands running our type of business brings.

You have worked with several non-profits – do you think the city’s restaurants do enough for the non-profit community?

The importance of community outreach and giving back to our community and specifically to the neighborhoods our restaurants are located in, has always been a driving force for me. I have worked closely with Meals on Wheels, North Beach Citizens, Clinic by the Bay, Larkin Street, and many other nonprofits, including our industry trade organization – the GGRA. I believe that without restaurants, most of the city’s non-profits would be sorely hurting in their fundraising. I believe we have a very generous and giving restaurant community. I wouldn’t ask them to do more for non-profits than they are doing right now.

Editor’s Note: Rose Pistola features live music including Latin, Swing and Jazz every Thursday, Friday and Saturday –