San Franciscans have been ordered to shelter in place until at least April 7, which means we are required to stay home except for essential needs, such as grocery shopping, appointments. you to the doctor, dog walks and solo hikes. While this is a crucial step in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, it will have a serious financial impact on small business owners, especially those in the restaurant industry. Many are closing completely in an attempt to save their businesses, others are hoping delivery and takeout will help them stay afloat, and some are finding whole new ways to keep staff employed, such as turning their restaurant into a general store.
Times were tough before COVID-19 hit
San Francisco is already an incredibly difficult place to live in the restaurant industry due to skyrocketing rents (both for restaurant owners and the people who work there), staff turnover and operating costs. In fact, when we spoke to Jim Angelus, co-partner of Kezar Bar & Restaurant in Cole Valley, about the impact this would have on his business, he admitted that when things are going well, they can pay their employees and their suppliers, but there isn’t much left afterwards.
However, finances were only one factor that played into Angelus’ decision to temporarily close, a decision he actually made days before the shelter-in-place order took effect. . “It was primarily a social issue,” he says. “With everything I read about reaching out to people, it seemed like the smartest thing we could do was shut down as quickly as possible. You have a responsibility to your employees, your community and your company to do what is best for everyone. Angelus employees agreed when he discussed the plan with him, and they will file for unemployment to try to ease the burden of their lost wages. Angelus has also offered his restaurant as much-needed storage space for Luke’s Local Cole Valley Market, which is just down the block and does a lot more business than usual.
Angelus isn’t the only one deciding to shut down until the dust of this pandemic settles. Dozens of other restaurants have also closed their doors entirely in an attempt not to go under completely. However, it’s pretty obvious that without help from city officials and insurance companies, not everyone will survive, and now is the time to get creative, if that’s an option.
From restaurant to general store overnight
Anthony Strong, chef and owner of Prairie in the Mission, is a strong supporter of social distancing and flattening the curve, so he knew he was going to have to end dinner service before the city even mandated it, but he also felt that as someone in corporate hospitality, he wanted to find a way to adapt and support his employees and community to meet changing needs.
After seeing pictures of all the bare grocery store shelves online, Strong decided to temporarily convert his space into a general store. “I think the default direction right now is to shut down and save every penny you have, but I figured at least if it was going to hurt I could feed some people, get them groceries and give big grocery chains a run for the money. We have access to products and merchandise at wholesale prices so I went to Whole Foods and looked at every shelf that was bare and placed my orders accordingly and turned the restaurant into general store.
The main dining room is now a storeroom, and the Campfire Room, a private dining space that Strong has just spent time and money improving, is now a showroom. (See a tour here.) “We have just about everything you need and everything is stable, ready to eat and not manipulated. We have dinner kits, pantry kits and other products, like pre-packaged Mary’s chickens, pasta, pasta sauces, toilet paper, hand towels and spray sanitizer, and most of our products are in bulk, so you’re not getting a pretty little thing of almonds, you’re getting a two pound bag of Marcona almonds. (See a full list of what’s available here.)
In order to ensure everyone’s safety, only two people are allowed to enter the shop. “You walk in, fill out an order form, hand it to a member of staff and we pack it for you. That way we don’t have a bunch of people in the space looking at things on the shelves and touching them,” says Strong. “We also set it just below the retail price; we beat anything you can find online. You can also pre-order online and pick up your box later. The boutique will be open daily from noon to 8 p.m.
In addition to giving community members access to food, it also allowed Strong to retain all of its employees. “I haven’t fired a single person and I have no intention of doing so. Our bartender packs the boxes, our servers call people up, and our cooks prepack and stock. I’m just trying to give everyone everything we can and keep people on the health insurance associated with it.
Is Strong worried about this? He says yes, he is worried about the whole thing, but he will do everything to give work to his employees and keep the company he has worked so hard to build. “Maybe it’s the rambling little punk rocker in me, but I ain’t about to take that shit.”
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