BAE Interview: State of Mind Public House

Our final interview for the summer was one of our most anticipated, regarding a food we all enjoy: fresh pizza.

Indeed, as the owner of State of Mind Public House ⁠ — a local pizzeria and meetup in Los Altos ⁠ — puts it, these last few months have truly demanded that we all offer a “slice of happiness” to the rest of our community, even as summer concludes and any pretense for unscheduled days or distance calls evanesces. The last few months have also been contentious, marred by an ongoing struggle between businesses of all kinds, stressed by the uneasy flow of customers and the incessant demands of running a business in a pandemic.

However, with State of Mind, there is an added element of drama: Covid-19. At the time when we spoke with Lars Smith, the owner of State of Mind, it had not even been a week since reopening after a case resulted in a temporary closure. Yet when we asked them how they were doing, the tone was far from dramatic ⁠ — it was, instead, calm and collected.

“I mean, the first thing I’d like to tell everybody is that, we should be trying to normalize [Covid], right?” he explains. “Because it is spreading around the world. We’re not avoiding it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Lars says this as an uptick of Covid cases in the Bay Area has led to two separate business closures in Los Altos over the period of one week. Yet he points out that this didn’t mean that the pandemic could end business as usual. Instead, he states, “the approach that we took to begin with is, ‘OK, this happened to us. We’re going to clean. We’re going to test everybody, we’re going to figure out the safest path forward.’” From there, State of Mind has now fully recovered, and is delivering and testing again in full force.

Part of it, Lars explains, is the isolating nature of Los Altos, and the fact that the quietude of downtown does not mean anyone is immune. “I think we were a little bit insulated in Los Altos,” he continues, “which tends to be the case in Los Altos with just things in general. It’s a little bit insulated from the other things that are going on in the surrounding communities and the Greater Bay Area. So I think it definitely opened up eyes to everybody that this is something that’s not only possible, but probably is going to happen to most restaurants, whether they know it or not.”

Lars and State of Mind have taken that philosophy to heart ⁠ — in any case where patrons eat in, individual temperatures are cataloged for a better benchmark; “it’s not all 98.6, believe it or not,” Lars points out.

Part of the reason behind comprehensive testing comes from concerns over customer safety. But these measures also fight for the well-being of workers. “I don’t take being a business owner and an employee like lightly, Lars explains. “It’s something that I was lucky to have good employers before I opened my own business. And I don’t see them as expendable or as just our workforce — They’re our family… So I want to make sure that we’re keeping them safe.”

When we asked what that meant in terms of keeping workers and jobs secure, Lars pointed out his desire to keep his employees by his side. He tells us, “It’d be easy for us to just streamline things, shut down and keep a minimum amount of employees and just skate through. But that doesn’t really help our employees’ lives, but is instead just kicking the can.” He notes that all of the employees he temporarily let go are now back on board.

As a larger whole, Lars views State of Mind not just as a vehicle for his love of restaurants, but also a bringer of goodwill. “I love cooking and everything,” he explains, “but somebody still needs to survive off of all this. And we want to make sure that we have the plan and skillset to not only have fun and open something people want to go to, but also be successful, to create longevity and equity.”

Yet the challenges and triumphs that now define State of Mind were also what led to its foundation. As we ask Lars how his business manages to get off the ground, he remarks that “It was a very long, circuitous path. But I guess it starts with my dad, who was born and raised in Palo Alto. My mom was born and raised in Los Altos. So the Mid Peninsula, the Bay Area of California, is our home.”

He continues that it was his early life that solidified his love of restaurants on all levels. “My brother and I in high school kind of fell into restaurant jobs,” he remarks, “and it got to a point where we realized, this is what we love to do. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. So let’s continue, let’s do it for ourselves.”

From there, Lars notes that out of all the things that went into crafting state of mind, the secret sauce was a plan. He starts off by noting that the “genesis” for state of mind began in 2013 ⁠ — yet perhaps that is a slight misnomer, given how deliberate the process to opening was.

“We had a 60 page business plan before we opened,” he explains. “We had SBA backed funding and we approached it as if we are opening a not just a restaurant, but we’re going to wing it is that we really went through the rigors of opening a business with structure and a plan and a brand and a concept.”

Still, the analytical nature of running State of Mind has not deterred Lars from his view of his hometown. “I think that Los Altos is a really wonderful community, and really tight knit,” he tells us. “There’s not a lot of businesses downtown Los Altos that aren’t owned by people, at least generally within 15 or 20 miles, and there is something really fun and unique about that.”

Yet Lars also asks something of the community, a value we have heard time and time again as we interview: to understand.

The key, Lars explains, is “just to be patient, to know that none of us opened a restaurant to be serving people in parking lots or in streets, with masks, gloves and face shields on, taking peoples’ temperatures. And it’s not who we are; none of us saw that this as where our career paths were going. And so I would ask to just be patient, be kind and try to enjoy what is available instead of lamenting what’s not available or why things can’t be normal.” That line resonated with us, as a group of students who’ve had the privilege of enjoying these businesses before the pandemic hit, to know that businesses are still doing their level best.

One of the last large issues we discussed with Lars came from the opinions he voiced in the beginning of summer, back when city council members were deliberating closing down streets in Los Altos. While State of Mind would technically not benefit from the street closures (being located on another side street), he still came to the defense of his fellow restaurateurs in June. When we asked him about how that decision shaped his understanding of how business in Los Altos has changed, he replied with a request for people to find common ground.

“The idea of competition and having to beat your competitors ⁠ — I’ve never really bought into that,” he explains. “I think that there is enough of the pie, shall we say, to go around under that… We’re all in this together.”

Lars also recognizes the undercurrents that have led to division between different segments of Los Altos businesses. “We all need to look out for each other, to [make sure] my neighbors are doing well, my friends that own restaurants in downtown Los Altos are doing well. And the retailers as well, which I know is a contentious issue.” In a direct reply to one of the arguments made at the council meeting ⁠ — an argument, in fact, made by one of the other businesses we interviewed, Lars continues, “If [opponents of street closures] can’t ⁠ — I mean, if you’re telling me that we’re bringing people downtown that weren’t coming downtown and creating some sense of normalcy and community and families and all that coming down, and you’re not capturing any of that sales, the problem might not be those streets.”

Yet far from focusing on the disagreements surrounding Los Altos, Lars continues to think of his business as one of the tools that helps keep him grounded in the best of our community.

Speaking to us about the beginning of the pandemic, Lars notes that, “I kind of scoffed at the fact that, you know, my pizza place is ‘essential,’ but now I know there’s a tiny bit of truth there… like, we’re providing food, and it’s not necessarily food that people need, but we’re still creating normalcy in people’s lives where we can go out and get the foods that we used to get before all this happened. You can go sit down with your family, not at home, where the kids want the TV and their toys, and it’s something refreshing for people’s mental health and for people is something to look forward to… and I think it goes a long way.”

As we wrap up our interview, we ask Lars if he has any final thoughts he would like to say to the community as a whole, and he finishes with one last focus on mutual respect. “I think we all could slow down and be kinder to one another right now,” he states, “and just try to have empathy, compassion and understanding with what everybody is going through, because we’re all having a lot of balls in the air and are trying to figure out how we survive.”

Indeed, it’s sad to note that statements like this have cropped up wherever we go ⁠ — after a long summer of trying to understand where businesses are coming from, there is still so much that we have seen that have seen and been unable to fix, even as the nation begins turning its attention to new controversies and injustices. Moments and statements like this have helped to ground us in the unifying sense that those who are working one day might not be on the next. And now, more than ever before, the time has come for us to accept that reality, and to embrace what keeps us all happy and healthy.

101 Plaza N, Los Altos, CA 94022

Find out more about State of Mind Public House here:

https://www.stateofmindpublichouse.com

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BAE Initiative

BAE Initiative

The BAE (Bay Area Enterprises) Initiative is a student-led organization that helps local businesses fight the effects of Covid-19.