On Wednesday, the JP Morgan Healthcare conference announced it would go virtual for the second year in a row due to concerns over COVID-19, marking yet another in a long procession of setbacks for San Francisco’s recovering hospitality industry. . According to San Francisco Business Times, the conference organizers’ decision was influenced at least in part by a handful of high-profile crimes in Union Square last November; had the conference gone ahead, the mall would have hosted some 15,000 attendees, prompting an influx of customers into surrounding hotels, restaurants and bars. Instead, these companies are preparing for the possibility of a further increase in COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant spreads across the country.
Restaurants and bars in downtown San Francisco have spent much of 2021 battling tooth and nail to recover from the worst months of the pandemic, but with concerns over the new variant, restaurant owners and bars will likely see no respite from the ups and downs they’ve navigated over the past two years. The nonprofit trade organization, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, called the decision to move the JP Morgan conference “disappointing” not only because of the immediate impact on the hospitality industry, but also because of the how it bodes for the industry’s long-term recovery. “This conference is not only an important business driver for restaurants, hotels and catering in San Francisco, but marked a return to major business events in the city,” the group’s statement said. “Unfortunately, the move to virtual will also have a significant impact on the ability of our businesses to bring back more workers.”
Bluestem, the two-story restaurant with a prime view of Market Street, fully reopened for indoor dining on Black Friday after a year-and-a-half closure – specifically to provide holiday shoppers and conference attendees with festival cakes and cocktails. Owners say the strategy has and hasn’t worked. Stacy Jed, who is also a past president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and in contact with many downtown hotels, says she didn’t expect holiday sales before the pandemic, but even so, it It was difficult to anticipate the confluence of factors affecting restaurants in this strange season.
Despite growing anxiety over the new variant, Jed said she hasn’t received a wave of regular booking cancellations — at least not yet. But there’s another concern for downtown diners: the specter of crime. After a series of armed robberies in San Francisco and the Bay Area, crime in California has been the subject of uninterrupted media coverage, both in local and international media. Now, at least once a day, says Jed, a customer comments on the blocked streets, closed stores, increased police presence and homeless population; some diners are now asking for a place on the roof, where they are above the street and can breathe fresh air.
The Bluestem crowd tends to be a mix of locals and travelers, and foreigners say they’re particularly shocked by the state of affairs. “Not a day goes by that a guest doesn’t mention the conditions on our streets,” says Jed. “Our hope is that the mayor will follow through and take strong action.” At a press conference on Wednesday, the Mayor of London Breed announced a handful of new public safety initiatives in a bid to end “all the bullshit that has destroyed our city” and declared the state of emergency in the Tenderloin, paving the way for the municipal authorities. to “bypass certain laws and bureaucratic hurdles” in the name of stopping crime.
Planned changes include an increased police presence in the Tenderloin neighborhood and granting police access to additional surveillance tools, which Breed says could help prevent more of these coordinated smash-and-grabs. . But while police say their increased presence in Union Square has already reduced crime, many doubt more police are the right solution given the national toll around police brutality, in which thousands of San Franciscans are took to the streets in protest – sparking the “defund the police” movement from which Breed is now returning. Laura Thomas, director of harm reduction policy at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, told the San Francisco Chronicle she was “disappointed and discouraged” by the change, which she doubts will improve “the quality of life for Black, Indigenous and people of color who have experienced police violence.”
Shoppers also say the police presence dampens the festive mood; others cite studies showing that the presence of firearms actually decreases the safety of an event or venue. And critics fear that the proposed changes to the surveillance law could compromise the right to privacy. Residents of Tenderloin, meanwhile, wonder why the police haven’t done more to stop crime in the neighborhood until now.
The types of reservations the restaurant sees have also changed: this time of year, Bluestem typically hosts large parties, from sit-down dinners for 50-60 people to stand-up receptions for up to 200 people. Instead, they get smaller groups consisting mostly of family groups of 10-20. This means even more than Omicron or crime, the cancellation of the JP Morgan conference means lost dollars. “That one will sting,” Jed said. “I spent my day healing wounds with event planners.” Months of plans were canceled with just three weeks’ notice. A company booked the restaurant for three full days — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — to hold back-to-back meetings, as well as private parties every night for 20 to 100 people. Even though Dreamforce is a bigger event, JP Morgan is more beneficial to restaurants because of when it’s held, Jed says. “January is a quiet month for restaurants,” she explains.
Christian Ciscle, chef-owner of SF Chickenbox, a counter-service fried chicken restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood, says things aren’t as gloomy as they seem. Since March 2020, he’s learned to roll with the punches – first moving his business from a pop-up inside a SoMa bar, then to The Mission, before securing his current spot in August. After dipping into his SBA loan money, he recently started a GoFundMe to raise $35,000 for security upgrades that would allow him to stay open safely for late-night diners; Chickenbox is on Broadway, a busy stretch with a handful of nightclubs and bars, which means dealing with partying “masses of people”, who may or may not be doing their best.
But staying open later and expanding to seven days a week is what it will take for the business to survive, so he has to make it work. “It was scary before [the pandemic] and now it’s like you’re doing day to day,” he says. And he expects nothing to get any easier in the coming year. “Anything can happen. You really have to plan for the worst. It’s not necessarily going to get better, it’s just going to get different.