In a first-person piece for Bon Appétit, the SF restaurant owner behind two recently-closed businesses, Farmer Brown and Isla Vida, shares his insight into the perilous state of local restaurants like his. “When I first started out in the restaurant industry,” Jay Foster writes, “I had defined success as becoming established, having your restaurants, and being a pillar in your community. Now, success merely means surviving.”
Farmer Brown, Foster’s 11-year-old soul food restaurant in the Tenderloin, closed this summer following a massive rent hike. “As we were attracting more and more people, our landlords, formerly San Francisco natives who lived nearby, had to sell the property to a multinational real estate company,” Foster explains. “Within the span of one year, our rent went from $3,500 per month to nearly $14,000.”
While struggling to keep Farmer Brown afloat, Foster also points to the tremendous pressure he felt as one of SF’s few black restaurateurs.
I started to put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, to be one of the few Black restaurant owners and chefs left in San Francisco’s historically Black Fillmore neighborhood. I would pray to the city to let me find a way to be everything that the city’s African American population needed, in terms of representation, visibility, and influence. Some people pray to god, I pray to the city.
Sadly, Foster’s prayers went unanswered: While Isla Vida opened to critical acclaim, it never achieved the sales volume it needed to survive. ”I knew from the start that things felt different,” when opening Isla Vida versus Farmer Brown, Foster writes.
We could feel the neighborhood changing. We could see the tech companies coming in and raising rents. We didn’t have the community support like before. The spaces the Black community had carved out, the restaurants we’d established, the communities we’d become a part of, were all fading out. The San Francisco that I fell in love with was not the city we were living in.
One observer, SF Chronicle food writer Justin Phillips, recalled a trip to Isla vida before it closed, in which he enjoyed a meal virtually alone in the dining room. “I was reminded of all the recent times I’ve had enjoyable meals in vacant dining rooms of black-owned restaurants in the city,” Phillips wrote: Trips to restaurants like the now-closed Kaya and Farmer Brown that made him question whether San Francisco supports black-owned restaurant businesses.
When Foster finally elected to close Isla Vida, he says he was struck by how understanding and gracious his staff were. An outpost of Farmer Brown is still up and running at SFO.
“It’s discouraging to see all the wealth, all the Teslas coming into the city, and then seeing marginalized and even middle-class people who just can’t make it here anymore,” Foster says. While the essay, here in full, definitely paints a discouraging portrait of, it does inspire faith in Foster, whose leadership and thoughtfulness appear to be what the local restaurant industry could use.