AL’s Deli, a splashy, colorful sibling restaurant to Michelin-starred AL’s Place, opened in the Mission this past summer with fanfare and a menu of Israeli street food-inspired pita sandwiches and fun bites like falafel corn dogs. Now, just eight months later, the deli-style restaurant has closed — its last day of service was this past Sunday, March 7.
Chef Aaron London tells Eater that it was a heart-wrenching decision, but one that was ultimately dictated by simple math: The restaurant was serving 200 or 300 customers a day, a volume that would be considered pretty good at his fine dining restaurant — and many of those were loyal, repeat customers. But for the fast-casual business model he’d implemented at the deli, London says he really needed to be attracting something like 1,500 customers a day. It just never pencilled out.
“It just never really hit the mass appeal to make that model make sense,” London says.
From the start, the idea behind AL’s Deli was to do the kind of creative food London is known for, but to market it to the masses through that fast-casual, counter-service business model. And London says he knew he had to simplify things compared to his approach at AL’s Place, his vegetable-centric fine dining restaurant, which, among other things, is known for its “weird menu verbiage” — terms like “peach AL’s pastor” and “herb blaster” that the chef would just make up.
And the food at AL’s Deli was a lot simpler, but London suspects the restaurant would have had gained more traction if he had made the menu more straightforward — more like a traditional Jewish deli, for instance. He cites as one example that falafel corn dog — a hot dog stuffed inside a falafel ball — as the kind of fun, “cheeky” dish that he put so much R & D work into, but that, at the end of the day, just didn’t have enough mass appeal.
What didn’t help was the onset of coronavirus-related fears and cancellations that have hit the city over the past few weeks, exacerbating what was already a tenuous situation. The deli was heavily reliant on corporate catering business, and, with tech workers increasingly working from home, those corporate orders began to plummet in recent weeks, London says. In fact, he says a full 100 percent of the corporate orders he’d taken for this past week were canceled across the board.
“A lot of small restaurants don’t have the cushion a large corporation has,” London says. “A couple of slow nights makes a difference. A couple of slow weeks, and I think it’s very uncertain what’s going to happen to a lot of the small restaurants in the city.”
London says he still believes AL’s Deli might be a viable restaurant concept in some other form or at some other location, but for now, he’s moving on. He says he’ll likely give up the 598 Guerrero Street space and focus all of his energy on AL’s Place.