The Power Lunch. The billion dollar invention scribbled on the back of a napkin. “Accidentally” (on purpose…) running into a potential angel investor at his or her favorite watering hole. These are all familiar aspects of the high-tech business culture in Silicon Valley, where some of the most important conversations occur outside the office.
But this phenomenon is not confined to trendy eateries in downtown Palo Alto. In fact, the use of pubs, restaurants, and social gathering spaces for business purposes is a distinctive marker of innovative hot spots—in different regions, for all kinds of technologies, and at many different times in our history. For example, Dr. Walter Lillihei, Earl Bakken, and the founders of Medtronic talked shop at the local Lutheran church and the University of Minnesota Campus Club, transforming the Twin Cities into “Medical Alley.” And in 1930s Hollywood, producers, directors, and technicians discussed the artistic merits of new innovations like Technicolor at studio commissaries and the legendary Brown Derby restaurant.
In short, social gathering places—and the exchange of ideas they facilitate—are a key ingredient in fostering a culture of innovation. This is a key finding of Places of invention, an exhibition scheduled to open in 2015 at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The Lemelson Center’s historical research draws on the theories of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place. In that book, Oldenburg describes the societal importance of what he calls the “Third Place”—a community gathering place that’s not home and not the workplace. These Third Places—like barber shops, diners, bookstores, and coffee shops—are welcoming places where regulars gather to engage in conversation and trade ideas. And this easy exchange of ideas, in turn, is a big part of what drives innovation.
But how exactly does this work? Let’s return to the Silicon Valley of the 1960s and ‘70s, when pioneering microelectronics firms like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel began transforming the region into a high-tech hot spot. In a 1983 Esquire article on Intel founder Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe wrote that “every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories” and other mysteries of the trade. The same concept held true for the sales and marketing guys, who had their own hangouts.
But weren’t they afraid of sharing proprietary information with a competitor? Yes and no. Then and now, Silicon Valley had notoriously high job mobility, so it was common to run into a colleague from a prior job and talk shop at a local tavern. Since techies changed jobs all the time, they were often more loyal to friends and former colleagues than whichever firm they happened to be working for at the moment. Thus, useful information flowed back and forth liberally, even among competitors. Plus, in order to GET good information, you had to GIVE good information, so a certain amount of divulging was necessary. Naturally, alcohol tended to lubricate this process. Moore’s Law suggested that processor power doubled every 18 months, so there was no sense in keeping a secret for too long anyway, given Silicon Valley’s short product cycles. So even though local firms competed intensely, the region’s high-tech workers easily traded information over beers to make deals and keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.
With these ideas in mind, here are a few Silicon Valley restaurants and watering holes—past and present—that have served as high-tech hubs:
Walker’s Wagon Wheel (Mountain View)
This western-themed bar at the corner of Whisman Avenue and Middlefield Road in Mountain View was a stone’s throw from the Fairchild campus and the place to go in the 1960s. In her book Regional Advantage, UC Berkley geographer AnnaLee Saxenian quoted Jeffery Kalb, a veteran of National Semiconductor, DEC, MasPar, and other high-tech firms: “In the early days of the semiconductor industry there were certain places that everybody frequented and the standing joke was that if you couldn’t figure out your process problems, go down to the Wagon Wheel and ask somebody.” When the tavern was demolished in 2003, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View picked up one of the tavern’s trademark Conestoga wagon wheels and a section of the bar for its permanent collections.
The Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge (Santa Clara)
The Peppermill, located just off US 101 at Bowers Drive, was one of a chain restaurants and lounges owned by a Nevada-based casino. Naturally, it was a little flashy, with velvet and faux-leather booths, lots of mirrors, and a small waterfall in the lobby. In their book Silicon Valley Fever, Everett Rogers and Judith Larsen quoted an anonymous Intel informant: “I can go to the Peppermill at eight in the morning and always meet somebody I know. All of my customers and all of my competitors—and that’s about five hundred people—eat breakfast there regularly…The Peppermill is just a giant meeting place.” A few years ago, the Peppermill was converted to the Axis Nightclub.
The Oasis Beer Garden (Menlo Park)
In the 1970s and ‘80s, hackers from the Homebrew Computer Club would adjourn their meetings in the auditorium at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator and head over to this beer and burgers joint. It was established in 1958, and still sits just north of the Stanford campus at 241 El Camino Real in Menlo Park; according to its website, it serves “families, teams, professors, business tycoons, and students” alike. The Oasis features wooden tables and booths carved by decades of undergrads and techies alike, as well as signs instructing patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor.
Lion and Compass (Sunnyvale)
After selling Atari for $28 million, company founder Nolan Bushnell opened this upscale bar-restaurant in 1982 at 1023 Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale. It combines an oak-paneled English-style pub (adorned by a NYSE stock ticker) with a chic sky-lit Terrace Room serving eclectic California cuisine. According to Robert Reinhold’s 1984 write-up in the New York Times, the “Lion and Compass has become the premier deal-making center and gathering spot for the barons of computer technology who lord over the tiny patch of California dubbed Silicon Valley…[Y]oung engineers with bright ideas dine with venture capitalists with money and leave smiling; loans and sales worth millions of dollars are transacted over Saumon Blanc en Croute.” Reinhold concluded that “the Lion and Compass is to the computer world what Sardi’s is to New York’s theater district.”
Buck’s Restaurant (Woodside)
Buck’s opened in 1991 and is located at 3062 Woodside Rd just west of Interstate 280. The quirky diner is popular with venture capitalists, as it sits halfway between their hillside mansions and offices on Sand Hill Road. Speaking to NPR in 2010, owner Jamis MacNiven recalled a litany of deals made under his roof: “Hotmail was founded here…Netscape had their early meetings in the back room; Tesla was founded here; PayPal got funded here.” Buck’s casual atmosphere would seem to make it an unlikely place to do business. MacNiven himself eschews a suit and tie in favor of loud printed shirts, and the walls and ceiling are adorned with kitschy “flair” that includes a Soviet space suit, several stuffed fish, and a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch. However, Buck’s has become something of a bellwether for the high-tech economy—a full parking lot is a sign of good times.
Obviously, these are just a handful of the places where Silicon Valley’s tech gurus get things done. Share your own story—where are your favorite pubs, restaurants, and high-tech hangouts?
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The Oasis Beer Garden. “About Us.” Accessed June 18, 2013. http://theoasisbeergarden.com/about.php.
Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 3rd ed. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.
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Wolfe, Tom. “The Tinkering of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley.” Esquire, December 1983, pp. 346-374.
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