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Checking A Tech Bellwether: Buck's Restaurant

Jamis MacNiven bought Buck's Restaurant in 1991; it quickly became a hangout for venture capitalists from around Woodside, Calif. (NPR)

A restaurant in Silicon Valley may very well be a sign of better economic times ahead. It's called Buck's, where big deals have been discussed and made since the '90s, riding the tide of rising Internet fortunes.

According to owner Jamis MacNiven, there's an impressive list of deal-making history at Buck's.

"Hotmail was founded here," he says. "Netscape had their early meetings in the back room; Tesla was founded here; PayPal got funded here."

And Yahoo, according to MacNiven, was turned down during a meeting at Buck's. The restaurant is just miles from Sand Hill Road, site of the nation's largest aggregation of venture capital firms.

Last year, after the economic downturn, business at Buck's was down. Now, all the tables are filled, and lines form during breakfast hours.

"It's after 9 a.m.," MacNiven says, "and we're still full, which is good for us. Everybody seems to be back."

When you pull up in front of Buck's in the rural but very rich village of Woodside, Calif., there's nothing to suggest that this is one of the most important business venues in the country. A small white sign on an unassuming one-story, redwood building is all that announces the place.

Inside, the story is different. Many tables bristle with laptops and iPhones. That's appropriate, MacNiven says, because Buck's became one of the first public WiFi hotspots in the nation in the late 1990s. The restaurant had already become a hotspot for venture capitalists to do business in a friendly atmosphere.

On its surface, Buck's seems an unlikely venue for serious business. The dress code is dress-down; a suit and tie stands out like a sore thumb. And the place is a riot of color incited by an eclectic collection of, well, "stuff" hanging on the walls and from the ceiling. Everything was either collected by, or given to, MacNiven.

There's a chair used to train Ham the chimpanzee to go into outer space and a Soviet space suit. There's also a huge blimp, several stuffed fish, a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch, and on one wall, a gigantic painting of cowboy Roy Rogers on a rearing Trigger.

And then there's the owner himself: decked out in custom-made, screamingly loud shirts, irreverently seating his customers.

"Gentlemen, can I get you a table?" MacNiven greets a group. "Sit down, shut up and order the most expensive thing on the menu."

A member of the group pipes up. "I'd like a nice filet," he says. "The last one was so bad, I'd like one that is edible this time."

"We'll go open the can now," MacNiven answers.

At another table, Gordon Haight and his sometime-business partner Danny Essindi are meeting over breakfast. Haight casts a seasoned eye over the room.

"Here you have two guys on their Blackberries," he says. "I know this table over here. The guy on the right is selling, the guy on the left is buying. I know people in the other room are doing a pitch right now."

And then Haight excuses himself; he needs to take a call from an investor.

Some people see Buck's as an informal barometer of business -- a meeting place for money and innovation on the bleeding edge of the economy.

Dave Coglizer, a venture capitalist who invests in clean technology, has been coming here for years. He says that a year ago, a lot of fear was holding back investments.

"But for the last six months or so, we see a lot of activity," he says, "a lot of great business plans, and see a lot more promise for the future in the overall markets."

And many of those plans are being discussed here at Buck's, only a few miles from Stanford University. Oh, and then there's Woodside itself, the horsey home to dozens of Silicon Valley gazillionaires.

So how does MacNiven know things are looking up?

"I noticed that one of my waitresses is driving a Bentley," he says. "I think that's a sign of good times."

Is that a fact? Not really, he says.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to a particular form of communication: deal-making. In Silicon Valley, there's a small restaurant where big deals are made. It's called Buck's. Over pancakes and coffee perhaps, some of the most famous Internet companies hammered out their first funding deals there.

John McChesney visited the restaurant and sent this report.

JOHN McCHESNEY: When you pull up in front of Buck's in the rural but very rich village of Woodside, there's nothing to suggest that this is one of the most important business venues in the country. A small, white sign on an unassuming, one-story, redwood building is all that announces the place. But inside, the story is different.

(Soundbite of voices)

MCCHESNEY: The place is packed on a Thursday morning, and many tables bristle with laptops and iPhones. That's appropriate, says owner Jamis MacNiven, because Buck's was one of the first public WiFi hotspots in the nation.

Mr. JAMIS MACNIVEN (Owner, Buck's diner): Thursday is sort of a peak day. Partners' meetings are on Monday and Friday, everybody takes a three-day weekend, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCCHESNEY: Gordon Haight and his sometime-business partner Danny Essindi are meeting over breakfast. Haight casts a seasoned eye over the room.

Mr. GORDON HAIGHT (Businessman): Like, on this table over here, you have two guys on their BlackBerries. I know this table over here. The guy on the right is selling; the guy on the left is buying. I know people in the other room are doing a pitch right now.

This is an investor, and I need to take the call. Excuse me.

MCCHESNEY: People are lined up for seats, and the place is humming with conversations. MacNiven is pleased.

Mr. MACNIVEN: It's after 9 and we're still full, which is good for us. A year ago, it started to really drop off. We did see a lot of people running for cover, but everybody seems to be back.

MCCHESNEY: Some people see Buck's as an informal barometer of business a meeting place for money and innovation on the bleeding edge of the economy.

Dave Coglizer, a venture capitalist who invests in clean technology, has been coming here for years. He says a year ago, a lot of fear was holding back investments.

Mr. DAVE COGLIZER (Venture Capitalist): But for the last six months or so, we see a lot more activity, see a lot of great business plans, and see a lot more promise for the future in the overall markets.

McCHESNEY: Opened in 1991, Buck's rise as a deal-making diner coincided with the rise of the Internet in the 1990s. And according to MacNiven, his restaurant has some serious bragging rights.

Mr. MACNIVEN: Hotmail was founded right here. Netscape had their early meetings in the back room. Tesla was founded here. PayPal got funded here.

McCHESNEY: Stanford students Jerry Yang and David Filo pitched Yahoo here in 1994. MacNiven chortles as he recalls the hapless venture capitalist who turned them down.

Unidentified Waitress: You guys ready to order?

Unidentified Man #1: I'll do the Woodsider omelet, please.

McCHESNEY: On its surface, Buck's seems an unlikely venue for serious business. The dress code is dress-down. A suit and a tie stand out here like a sore thumb. And the place is a riot of color incited by an eclectic collection of - well, stuff hanging on the walls and from the ceiling.

Mr. MACNIVEN: Up here we have a chair used to train Ham the chimpanzee to go into outer space, and we have a Soviet space suit up there. I went to Russia to get that.

McCHESNEY: Also, a huge blimp, several stuffed fish, a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch, and on one wall, a gigantic painting of Roy Rogers on Trigger, rearing up.

And then there's MacNiven himself, decked out in custom-made, screamingly loud shirts, irreverently seating his customers.

Mr. MACNIVEN: Gentlemen, can I get you a table? Here, well...

Unidentified Man #2: Great.

Mr. MACNIVEN: Sit down, shut up, and order the most expensive thing on the menu.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, I can do that. I'd like a nice fillet. The last fillets have been so bad. I'd like one that is edible this time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACNIVEN: Oh, no.

Unidentified Man #2: Can you give me one that's edible?

Mr. MACNIVEN: We'll go open a can now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCHESNEY: MacNiven's talents aside, it doesn't hurt that Buck's is only a few miles from Stanford University, and the nation's biggest aggregation of venture capital firms on nearby Sand Hill Road. And then there's Woodside itself, horsey home to dozens of Silicon Valley gazillionaires.

So how does MacNiven know that things are looking up?

Mr. MACNIVEN: I noticed that one of my waitresses is driving a Bentley. I think that's a sign of good times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCHESNEY: Is that a fact? Not really, he says.

Mr. MACNIVEN: Yeah.

McCHESNEY: For NPR News, I'm John McChesney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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