What is the digital replica of the quirky restaurant & tech meetup mecca worth? The first bidder says $250,000.
On a Monday morning, Jamis MacNiven—equal parts restaurateur, entertainer and teller of (sometimes) tall tales—stood beneath an enormous, leathery anaconda hide that runs the length of the dining room inside his Silicon Valley restaurant, Buck’s of Woodside. There, in a cowboy hat and a bright red, short-sleeved button down shirt, MacNiven addressed a packed dining room filled with entrepreneurship students who’d just rolled in on a bus from a San Mateo university founded by third-generation venture capitalist Tim Draper.
MacNiven had joked that he was going to “scream the history of Buck’s” to his breakfast audience, an often-invoked spiel that he says is “all just fun. I tell truths and lies in equal amounts.”
His latest announcement — delivered beneath that sprawling serpent skin with a sign that boasts it was stripped from a snake in the Amazon that had attacked a child — also existed somewhere in between fact and fiction: McNiven was putting Buck’s up for auction.
No, not the actual, physical restaurant at 3062 Woodside Road that’s seen the birth of many a tech company over the years, but its digital doppelgänger, via non-fungible token. “We’ve recently launched an NFT,” MacNiven declared. Some of the students responded with a laugh, but it was true—Buck’s was indeed listed on the OpenSea marketplace as “the world’s first 3D immersive NFT.”
By the time the auction closes August 19, whoever places the winning bid for Buck’s NFT will own access to the one and only complete digital re-creation of the restaurant. These days, with something akin to a digital deed on a blockchain database, you can own digital assets like a tweet or an animation. So why not a replica of a near-legendary Silicon Valley institution?
As a place to meet and greet, wheel and deal, Buck’s is a big deal. Indeed, the NFT brochure states that since Buck’s opened its doors at the start of the 90s, “An invitation to ‘Breakfast at Buck’s’ would go on to become an official step in the high-tech startup funding process.” The practice has even been the subject of a Harvard University study.
The breakfast gathering that morning marked entrepreneur Giulianna Crivello’s first visit to Buck’s, a pilgrimage that was coinciding with a new fund she was launching, supported by Tim Draper. “It feels historical,” she says, “the inner child in me is screaming.”
But when you remove these interactions, and bring Buck’s back solely in pixels, does it hold the same kind of draw?
McNiven seems to be betting that when treated like a digital museum filled with tech artifacts and lore, preserved at a specific moment in time, Buck’s still has plenty of appeal.
A virtual welcome to Buck’s
On the matter of non-fungible tokens, MacNiven says, “I think I’m an authority now.” He breaks down how it will work for Buck’s: “In this case, there is only one digital copy of this. Once the auction closes, you need a password to see it. You get the keys, and it allows you to unlock the original.”
With the proverbial digital keys, visitors can virtually tour Buck’s at their leisure from a screen, and check out the items and stories that MacNiven has curated and collected over the years.
With a click or tap, viewers go through the doorway at Buck’s, where a replica of the Statue of Liberty greets you. Head around the corner, and you find yourself in the warm glow of a backlit photograph of sculptor Liz Hickok’s “San Francisco in Jell-O’’ hanging over a copy of a Playboy magazine in Braille signed by Stevie Wonder (“I met him at a conference once,” MacNiven says; the explanation at the digital Buck’s says it was the Grammy Awards). Near the bar is an Apple 1 computer, hanging over lip-shaped barstools. Pinned to the wall next to the office is a TED Talk pass from Al Gore. Peppered throughout are Little League and family photos, reminders that despite all the celebrities who’ve come to Buck’s, “We’re just a neighborhood joint serving pancakes to kids and cowboys and neighborhood folks.”
Visitors virtually experience all this in “the space somewhere between a video and a still (image),” MacNiven says. They have the details down to the alligator farm-inspired carpet that patrons have trekked over the last three decades. “The process of digitizing wasn’t that difficult. You use a camera that flies around, and then it networks the whole series of images together,” he says. “It’s actually hundreds and hundreds of still images that have been stitched together, and allow you to then stop, linger and then go deeply into that photo, then back out and go into another one.”
All that’s missing is the smell of hot coffee and the taste of coffee cake, though surely those aren’t too far behind.
“This is what happened to photography. When photography came out, it was so revolutionary and so shocking,” MacNiven says. “It’s the same kind of jump.”
Making the jump
NFTs certainly have their critics: If digital media can be unlimitedly reproduced, can it retain real value for the buyer? Can the creator of an original work be fairly compensated? What about the environmental impact, what with all the power required to keep it all running?
There’s also an element of risk, as with any investment. Physical property could get damaged or lost. For example, the valuable Apple 1 computer model that was on display at the physical Buck’s restaurant was removed to help protect it. A digitized version of it is now available via NFT, but even that’s not foolproof: an NFT could become inaccessible, should one of its service providers go out of business or change their systems. Or an investment just might not pan out. Still, for some investors, the allure of ownership remains strong enough that the risk is worth stomaching.
For his part, MacNiven says he’s never been skeptical about NFTs, though he’s thought a lot about them. “I think it’s a bold and wonderful experiment to slice up the world. If people want to spend their money on it, that seems OK to me. I’m always searching myself for what’s wrong with this,” MacNiven says. “We could get bogged down in all our concerns that we’re not leading a balanced life, or we can trust that we’re good people and we’re doing the best we can.”
A desire to share what Buck’s is all about has also motivated MacNiven, especially since he and his wife Margaret retired and passed the restaurant reins to their kids in 2020. “I want people to see my collection,” MacNiven says. “I’ve always been a showman. I’ve been on deck for 30 years and I’ve stepped back a little bit, but I want to share it with others.”
With a team of about 16 people from five different companies, preparation for Buck’s NFT only took about four months, from capturing the images to issuing the token and opening the auction. But inspiration for the project was seeded years prior.
MacNiven used to collect rare books, and he recalls seeing someone pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a document signed by Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492, though many copies were already in circulation. What set it apart was that it was an original. MacNiven has noted countless similar examples since then.
“Somebody paid real money for it, to own the original,” MacNiven says. “When NFTs started popping up, I followed them as an interesting curiosity. Then I realized they were very real.”
What it’s worth
While Buck’s team kept orange juice flowing and cooked up hot plates of pancakes and eggs for the students and other customers, MacNiven checked his watch to see if it was time to pick up his grandchild. It wasn’t a smart watch, though Apple co-founder Steve Jobs looked out through a mustached pair of funny glasses from a black and white portrait on the wall.
Instead, it was a digital watch, blinking back numbers in a liquid crystal display. The timepiece, like so many of the objects in Buck’s, seemed both nostalgic and somehow, well, timeless. And maybe NFTs will turn out to be equally so, the pendulum of innovation swinging back to something very basic.
“This desire of humans to possess stuff is a durable idea that we’ve had throughout history. But now, because of the internet, you’ve got the digital world, and people want to possess things there,” MacNiven says.
The clock is counting down to the auction’s close in two weeks. For now, there’s still just one bid, from a friend who offered up a not-so-tiny $250,000 to “set the tone.” MacNiven said he’d also call on another friend for help in the hopes of reaching their nearly 59 million followers on Twitter: “Elon [Musk] is a friend. I’m going to say “Guess what Elon, I need a hand.” (The Tesla CEO hasn’t posted about Buck’s NFT — yet.)
In the meantime, MacNiven says he anticipates that additional bidders will wait until the closing day to make a move. When they do, MacNiven and his family will maintain access to the physical Buck’s and keep it open to patrons. He expects that whoever places the winning NFT bid will do likewise, and keep the digital Buck’s open to the public too — though that will be entirely at their discretion, as the holder, and buyer, of the digital keys.
At the conclusion of his presentation, several students rushed up to MacNiven to take selfies with him, and also to get his take on their startup ideas. Many jetted around with phone cameras, snapping pics of a silver disc that commemorated the first million downloads for iTunes in its first week in 2003, and tables where historic deals took place for Tesla, PayPal, eBay, Hotmail and more. “Where’s the Apple 1? I need to get a picture of that,” one student said. Another said that he’d bid on MacNiven’s NFT once his own company takes off.
Draper University program manager Suffiyan Malik said that Buck’s was their first stop on a Silicon Valley tour for these entrepreneurship students. “All these founders come in from all over the world, all over the country,” Malik said. “It’s great to start off with Buck’s, where it’s all happened. It’s an iconic place to be. Everyone feels inspired … you feel like you’re becoming a part of a moment in history.”
So what then is the digital form of Buck’s worth?
Time will tell. But if nothing else, MacNiven says, “This is just a fun experiment … How could we preserve the historical record, and show the majesty that we’ve created here over the years? That’s really what it’s about.”
Buck’s of Woodside // 3062 Woodside Road, Woodside; 650.851.8010
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