As Total Food Service continues its review of the state of the restaurant industry in key cities across the country post-pandemic, we are focusing on San Francisco. The city that brought us such culinary luminaries as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café, faces a different landscape today due to COVID.
It’s been two months since San Francisco dropped all restrictions after it closed on March 16, 2020. As the city’s restaurants try to stabilize after a year and a half of disruption, the Delta variant now reminds us that we are not out of the woods again. Along with the rise in COVID cases come debates over employee and customer vaccination restrictions, mask mandates, in addition to staff shortages.
“I don’t think people are considering closing because of the variant,” says Eve Batey, former editor of Eater San Francisco, now editor of NOSH. “But many renowned restaurants in San Francisco remain closed, in part because of this.”
When asked what San Francisco’s restaurant scene looks like right now, Batey said, “The city’s residential neighborhoods have grown, while its downtown, with its chic restaurants and cool chefs, stepped away from the spotlight. More importantly, because tourism is not at full capacity and people are not working downtown as they used to.
Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), which also owns Rose’s Café and Terzo restaurants, both in Cow Hollow, said, “We’re lucky our restaurants aren’t downtown. . Neighborhoods are where there is a lot of life right now. Batey said: “Residential restaurants are crowded and impossible to get into.”
Where are we talking about? “Already established areas like the affluent Noe Valley are seeing a resurgence of busy restaurants, and the same is true for places like the Sunset and Richmond districts. Both are located near the beach. Before you might just see usable dining options, now places are popping up where people can’t wait to eat,” Batey said.
Louis Cornejo, president of Urban Group Real Estate, said: “Even in these trendy areas, you still see a 20-25% drop in rents compared to the pre-pandemic period. Now, homeowners can charge $6-7 per square foot per month, where before they were getting $9 per square foot for the same space.
Can the restaurants still standing today attest to their success in survival of the fittest? According to Batey, “It was definitely a time when being small and able to be nimble was an advantage.” Cornejo said small spaces that barely made it before COVID didn’t have enough supplies and had to return the keys to the landlord. Places able to switch to delivery were able to reach an agreement with their owners.
Restaurant owners who want to open restaurants are now looking for smaller spaces. A few reasons for this include, it costs less to build the interiors and it is easier to operate with less staff.
Let’s look at the trending concepts of the moment: burgers, pizzas and specialty sandwiches, “all things take-out are booming. Yes, it’s a pandemic thing, but I don’t see it going away. It used to be that there was a sandwich shop on every corner, how can they all stay in business, now it’s like there’s a sandwich shop on every corner and they’re all packed,” explained Batey.
Thomas Keller was doing take-out. Alice Waters is still doing takeout. Chez Panisse is not expected to open until October. Even prolific restaurateur Adriano Paganini’s Back of the House restaurant group is getting in on the action, opening a second location for his fried chicken sandwich restaurant, The Bird, in the Hayes Valley.
Palm City in the Sunset District, opened two weeks before the shelter-in-place happened. Dennis Cantwell, an alumnus of Michelin-starred restaurants Zuni Café and Nopa, where he was wine director, and his wife Monica Wong, intended to open it as a small plates restaurant, but with the lockdown put things in place with suppliers proved to be very difficult. “We were like, well, we can at least get bread and we can get sliced meats, let’s just do hoagies,” Cantwell, a Philadelphia native, recalled.
This pandemic twist landed them on Esquire’s list as one of the best new American restaurants to open in 2020. The magazine writes “they now offer some of the most nuanced classic hoagies in the country.” Cantwell shared, “The hoagies kept our lights on.”
Thomas shared, some of the initiatives the city has taken to help other restaurants keep their lights on include the Shared Spaces Program, now a permanent measure, which allowed restaurants to reuse sidewalks, sidewalks and grounds. open as outdoor seating for their catering establishments.
Batey lamented, as indoor dining echoes the question I now hear from many owners: “How do I balance this huge increase in revenue from takeout, from sit-down service diners inside and accommodate the unexpected tables resulting from the newly created outdoor spaces. In some cases, these kitchens are 10 feet. by 12 feet. and they are stretched beyond their capacity.
Time will tell how they handle all of this, but considering all the other hurdles restaurants in San Francisco have had to overcome in the past year, this one is a good problem to have.