Ernest, slated to open this spring, was one of the most hotly anticipated new restaurants in San Francisco. Chef-owner Brandon Rice is originally from Virginia, and cooked at Clio in Boston, before a solid five and a half years leading the kitchen at Rich Table. Taking over the former Coffee Bar space at Florida and Mariposa Streets in the Mission, the restaurant is named after his grandfather, a southern butcher. It promises to be a deeply personal menu, pulling from local farms and ranches, authentic only to the chef’s personal style. In SF, a city notorious for intimidating opening costs and red tape, it’s the rare solo project from a first-time restauranteur.
“I guess, technically, I’ve worked on opening Ernest for almost three years,” Rice says. “But you could say I’ve worked my whole life to get this opportunity, and finally do this thing.”
As part of his funding, Rice chose to set up a Kickstarter campaign, an option that’s often tapped by chefs these days. The fundraiser was never going to cover everything — but the chef likes the platform because it involves the community, and could help with certain key costs. Anyone who kicked in $500 would get a maneki neko cat named after them and placed on a wall, smiling and waving for the entire life of the restaurant. The way Kickstarter works, Rice had six weeks to raise his goal of $35,900. Friends warned him to buckle in for a stressful experience, with nearly all donations flooding in during the last few days.
That was before coronavirus descended. Two weeks from the finish line, the Bay Area’s shelter in place was instituted. People lost jobs. Budgets tightened overnight. Kickstarter, to the company’s credit, offered Rice an extension of one week. But what would change in a week? “It was intense,” says the chef. “But little by little, we got there. Then in the last 24 hours, it crushed it. We went over the goal.”
How does it feel to do the impossible, and secure final funding in these uncertain times? Anticlimactic seems like an understatement. Currently, “There’s absolutely nothing happening,” says Rice, who’s cooped up in an apartment in Oakland. Construction on the high-ceilinged, two-story restaurant, which was eight weeks out, screeched to a halt. The menu, which was already fully developed, might get pared down into what works for takeout and a half-empty dining room. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to open. He’s not making any decisions for now.
Still, Rice sounds grateful. “Honestly, I’m fortunate that we didn’t open yet. I don’t have a staff to lay off. I don’t have gas and electricity turned on. I don’t have all those bills right now.” In the meantime, like the rest of us, he’ll be waiting in the dark.