Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater chats with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Every night after executive chef Parke Ulrich is finished catering to a high-end clientele at his deluxe Embarcadero restaurants Waterbar and Epic Steak, you’ll find him elbow deep in dirty dishes on a relatively remote corner of Treasure Island with his tight-knit crew at Mersea.
Built out of shipping containers and a military kitchen, Mersea is the island’s only all-day restaurant, and it’s just turned one year old. In that short time, it’s become a dining hub for Treasure Island’s local community.
“I think we have heart,” says partner MeeSun Boice, who left a career in technology marketing to run the restaurant full-time. “That’s one thing I love.”
The small, somewhat isolated island off of (and part of) San Francisco, is home to just 600 or so households, but current development projects will bring thousands more to the island in the coming years.
Boice and Ulrich were drawn to the farther shore by Treasure Island’s yacht club — they both enjoy sailing — but they could never find anything to eat afterward. The area boasts a few wineries, a brewery, and a cafe, “but even when we were building [Mersea], at 2:01 p.m., we had no place to eat,” Boice recalls.
In January, Boice, Ulrich, and the rest of the Mersea team celebrated their homespun restaurant and committed team with a one-year anniversary party. At the event, attended by much of the island, their impact on the community was clear: They applauded their first employee, Mike Bartell, a homeless veteran who found housing on Treasure Island, began volunteering with the SF Marin Food Bank, and eventually found work at Mersea. They thanked the area kids who helped pick wild succulents for decoration at the restaurant. And they thanked their investors, most of whom are friends and family.
“It’s been a little bit of an upside down thing, based on our forecasts,” says Ulrich. “That’s in a good way, because in our first year, we did better than we expected.”
One downside: They’re so busy with the restaurant, Boice and Ulrich don’t have any time for sailing.
On the location
Ulrich: People that have lived in San Francisco their whole life, they’ve never been to Treasure Island, even though it’s ten minutes from downtown... Treasure Island is the dark side of the moon for some people.
Boice: There are people here! This isn’t some Alcatraz where there’s nothing, just tourists and no life and energy, there are living, breathing people, children growing up, and we’ve somehow become that community place for them.
On building out the restaurant
Ulrich: Nobody that we had worked with had worked with shipping containers, so it was a challenge every day from my perspective. [MeeSun] was our general contractor, figuring it out every day.
Boice: We took it to the nth degree, we built our own bocce courts, the dining room tables are the old bowling alley lanes from the Treasure Island bowling alley that Parke and his friend built. All the gardening and landscaping we did ourselves.
On creating Community
Boice: There were certain things we agreed: The food would always be exceptional, and we wanted to be a part of the community. The local kids come — they keep bringing their friends, and there are certain rules, “be respectful of the guests, the employees, the succulents,” and if they know those rules, they get french fries.
I always believe that charity doesn’t have to be some grand gesture. It’s who comes in front of you today, and did you impact them positively? It’s what keeps me moving; It’s what keeps the 16-hour days not painful, it’s what keeps those mean Yelp reviews [palatable].
Ulrich: We take it very personally, our investors are friends and family, so it just has a whole different vibe, which is just that much better to me... you’d think we would be sweating, “are we gonna make enough money this month to pay the investors back? To pay my sister back?” But somehow, we know that it’s gonna come.
On working “Island Time”
Boice: I’m here full time, I left the tech business, because I wanna wake up and go, “man I can’t wait to go [to work.]
He’s here between Waterbar and Epic, he’s here at night doing the dishes... I think one of the most special things about Parke that gets lost is yeah, he manages these two monster restaurants, but here, you can really see who Parke is.
Ulrich: I’ll go back and forth a few times on the bridge every day... but out here, it’s very different, I call it island time, because it’s mellow. I don’t have as much pressure that I put on myself, it’s not the same out here. It’s the same pressure to make good food, it’s just different, and even though this is San Francisco, it’s two miles away, or whatever it is, and just because this is something that we started from scratch, and we have the most at stake with it, it’s even more fun.
On the food
Ulrich: We asked a lot of people, all of our investors, what food is comfortable for you? What’s your go-to thing if you’re sick? And this is when we knew we had the military kitchen, an all electric kitchen, and I needed to create a menu with our small budget based on that small kitchen. The menu then became really personal, based on what I grew up with, or what [MeeSun] enjoys... What I want to hear [from customers] is that they identify with it. It’s not fancy, but it’s delicious.
Boice: [Parke] says he judges a restaurant based on their chowder.
Ulrich: I’m a huge fan of soup, and everybody does a clam chowder, but we have haddock for the fish and chips, so we do a fish chowder... I like mine lighter, not as thick.
On the future of Treasure Island
Boice: We’re at the mercy of the city and the developers.... it affects us when they cut off the road, when they reroute — we’re constantly reacting to the environment, and we don’t know where we will be in the future, we jut know we have a few years to do the best we can. We hope that the impact we have on the community, that the developers see that we’re more than just a restaurant — that we’re not thrown out to pasture and that all of a sudden our rents aren’t like everything else in the city
Ulrich: We’re hoping they’ll say, you can’t get rid of them, they’re one of us.