We are now six months into shelter-in-place. Six months since you might sneak into a crowded restaurant, step into the bar for a cold cocktail, or sit in a busy dining room, so that another human being can hand you a nice plate of food. But while restaurants may miss diners, restaurants miss them more. Throughout the shelter in place, local food businesses have tried everything to survive, from packaging creative takeaways to pivoting pantry supplies to building outdoor parklets from scratch.
How are they feeling these days? Here’s the temporary check on a few local restaurants, six months after they were sheltered in San Francisco.
“I feel angry and so angry,” says Besharam’s Heena Patel. “These are stolen dreams.” Just a few weeks ago, the chef made the difficult decision to temporarily close his award-winning restaurant, known for its vegetable-focused Gujarati cuisine. Since the start of the pandemic, Besharam has tried everything: launching take-out and delivery in the spring, and spending several thousand dollars setting up outdoor dining in the summer. “My immigrant instinct to survive kicked in. I learned from my parents, let’s do it… But the limits are beyond us.”
All of that wasn’t enough to stay afloat, and even if indoor restaurants open in the fall, 25% occupancy won’t generate enough revenue, so Patel made the decision to temporarily close and send their staff home. She now cooks solo in her empty kitchen, serving up a comforting menu every weekend to anyone lucky enough to place pre-orders. “They say survive, but how?” said the chief, frustrated by the lack of guidance and support from local and national government. “From where I stand I wonder, is my restaurant going to be dead next year?”
The Square Pie Guys seem to be suffering from a bit of survivor’s guilt. “We are relieved that the team is healthy,” said co-owner Marc Schechter. “And just happy to still be open,” adds co-owner Danny Stoller. Canning these Detroit-style pies has always been the majority of their business and has proven to be a remarkably pandemic-proof plan. Aside from a few quick closings, due to a COVID alert and to fix the floors, the guys kept pulling pies the whole time.
Although Schechter and Stoller never had to revamp their business, they certainly scrambled and got creative, turning the dining room into a “pizza factory” filled with boxes, using the salad station to toss a fried chicken sandwich sensation and keeping it fresh on social media with “secret” menu items. And even though they never imagined their first year in brick and mortar, they still feel optimistic and plan to expand – the goal is still “three locations in two years”, even under the cloud of the pandemic and the unknown of the election.
The Vault was perhaps the city’s greatest success story for outdoor dining, but chef Robin Song seems uncomfortable. “We are extremely lucky to have the space,” he says. “But as autumn sets in, it’s hard to imagine the next few months. We always take it day by day. The large underground cocktail haunt emptied early as FiDi workers returned home and was closed all spring, while restaurant group Hi Neighbor focused on launching pop-ups in Corridor. It wasn’t until June that the Vault reopened as a massive outdoor dining garden, taking over the courtyard and effectively building a brand new restaurant.
“If the weather was good, people would come out in droves,” Song says. “We felt so lucky to be able to serve guests again.” But as the August fog and wildfire smoke rolled in, reservations became more variable. “The hardest part for me personally was… asking the team to be outside for an entire shift and carrying trays of food up the stairs. It’s a lot of work on a good day, and asking for it on an unhealthy day [air quality] was a tough decision.
Unfortunately, the wildfire season is not over yet and the wind whistling through FiDi will only get colder. Normally, the vault relies on the holiday season, which could be completely ruled out this year.
“We’re set up for the long haul,” says Craig Stoll. Two days after the town closed, he and his wife and co-owner, Annie, permanently closed Locanda, their beloved Roman pasta spot. The restaurant was always busy, but “running a mid-level restaurant was already incredibly difficult before COVID,” says Stoll. “It was clear, there were no ifs, ands or buts. There was no way we could reopen.”
Their Pizzeria Delfina restaurants are now the meat of the company, and it varies by location: Mission and Polk are making money on takeout and delivery, Palo Alto and Burlingame are breaking even on meals. outdoors, and the fate of their new downtown location remains to be seen. The Stolls explore meal kits and frozen lasagna, and expand to add a drop-off point for Marin. Meanwhile, Delfina, the heart of their restaurant group, which has been serving perfect spaghetti and rotisserie chicken for 22 years at the Mission, has been in the dark for six months. The Stolls say it doesn’t make financial sense to reopen her dining room 25 or even 50 percent, meaning it likely won’t be open for the holidays, or well into next year.
When the Stolls got into this business and opened a cozy neighborhood restaurant in the Mission two decades ago, could they ever have imagined being swung into this business model, jostling into their 50s to reach the threshold? profitability of pizza delivery? “Pizzerias allow us to continue to cook in the same style, in a way,” says Stoll. “But it’s not Delfina. This is simply not the case.
“It was our life for 22 years,” admits Annie Stoll. “I miss that energy so much and being on the floor in a restaurant. That’s why I got into this business… I feel like I’ve been forced into a kind of professional retirement – to wear sweatshirts every day.