Despite the coronavirus crisis, Cole Valley’s longstanding French cafe and brunch attraction Zazie seemed to be doing fine. Not like it was pre-COVID-19, of course. Obviously, its dining room and patio spaces were devoid of customers, but there was always a line for its menu of takeout offerings — a booming success, it seemed, compared to many restaurants in the city these days. But it still wasn’t enough to keep the restaurant’s doors open, Zazie co-owner Jennifer Bennett tells Eater SF, saying that at least for now, the restaurant has shut down completely.
Zazie’s seen a lot in its 28 years in business. Louis Malle fan Catherine Opoix opened the restaurant in 1992, naming it after one of the filmmaker’s most famous works, Zazie dans le Metro. In 2005, Opoix sold the restaurant to Bennett, a veteran of the San Francisco restaurant scene who since 2000 had toiled as Zazie’s general manager. Since then, Bennett has made a name for herself as a progressive-minded owner, introducing (unheard of, at most restaurants) innovations like a 401K fund with employer-matched contributions for staff, and acting as a vocal proponent for things like subsidized health care for restaurant workers and the elimination of tips, the latter to “bring equality to the front and back of house and create a profit-sharing model.”
Mid January (about two weeks before the Bay Area unwittingly saw its first COVID-19-related death), Bennett sold Zazie to three long-term employees: Mario Rojas, Francisco Romero, and Megan Cornelius. She kept 25 percent of her stake in the business, and remained on to consult and advise as the new team took the wheel. Now a resident of Calistoga (where Bennett’s other restaurant, Lovina, continues to offer meal kits for takeout or delivery from Bennett, herself), Bennett said in January that she’d gotten to “a point when you feel like you’ve given the restaurant all that you can and made all the changes that you wanted to make.”
Bennett didn’t realize then that she’d end up giving far more after the pandemic hit. Speaking with Eater SF, she says that Zazie’s normal sales are about $100–110,000 per week, $45,000 of which goes to payroll. Health insurance is another $17,000 per month, and rent is $10,000. So even before the crisis, no one was getting wildly rich.
After dining rooms were closed, takeout only generated about $25,000 per week — but all those other costs, including payroll, remained the same. “It was just an endless pit” of money, Bennett says. “I’ve already put over $100,000 into Zazie over 5 weeks, and this week was going to need another $30,000.” To do that, she “sold my life insurance policy, maxed out my home equity loan, and gutted my 401k.”
Bennett says that Zazie applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but though their application was accepted, the PPP funds’ $350 billion had already run out. If “more funds are allotted, we should be first in line,” Bennett says, and with a second $310 billion bill signed into law Friday, that just might happen.
“If we had the PPP funds, I’d be fine with spending more on wages than we’re taking in on sales,” Bennett says. And “I believe the money will come through eventually, and I’ll be able to pay myself back” for the emergency investments she’s made in recent weeks.
But until then, she says, “we can save the payroll money and let people collect unemployment (which kept being declined because they were still working).” The closure will also give everyone a chance to catch their breath. Bennet says that Zazie’s owners and its staff “are so stressed and exhausted.”
“The staff that are working are frustrated because their friends on unemployment are making $1,050/ week doing nothing,” and meanwhile, the children of Zazie’s workers “are home from school, so they have to pay for childcare to come down and work for less than that. They want to be home, and I understand that.”
But don’t think that it’s game over for Zazie’s miracle pancakes, remarkable home fries, or Ahi Niçoise salad. “We’re just taking a break,” Bennett says. “We almost never take breaks, and after the emotional and financial toll of the past 6 weeks, I think we need it.”