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Over 50 SF Restaurant Owners Explain What They Need to Stay in Business

Slashed rent, sidewalk dining, and easier permitting are some of the demands

Floor plans for Ernest before and after COVID-19
Hemminger Architects

The folks behind the dining rooms of some of San Francisco’s buzziest restaurants say that they have a plan to save the city’s restaurant industry, and are urging city officials to dive deep into a 40-page report they’ve created that lays out that strategy. The plan is based on both health and safety recommendations and what over 50 of the city’s boldfaced restaurant names say they need — and its authors say that officials must act on its recommendations, or stand by and watch half of San Francisco’s restaurants close for good.

Charles Hemminger (the architect for Tartine’s restaurants and bakeries, the Morris, and Outerlands, among many others) and Seth Boor (projects include Dear Inga and Sightglass’s new Hollywood location) are the authors of the 40-page plan, entitled “Our Shared Spaces — What Happens Next?” (you can read it in full here, or below). On the final page of the report, however, restaurateurs including Corey Lee (Benu), Brandon Rice (Ernest), and Gabriella Camara (Cala) are also listed as contributors, as are brokers with Maven real estate and contractors with ACI (which has handled build outs for spots like Wise Sons, Matterhorn, and Absinthe). All this to say: This is a document created by folks in the trenches, not academics hypothesizing from an ivory tower.

According to these trench occupants, the only way the city’s restaurants will remain afloat through at least December of 2021 (the earliest date, the report posits, that a vaccine might be available) is if landlords dramatically slash the rent (not defer it); the city cuts its labyrinthine permitting process; and streets, parklets, and sidewalks be repurposed as restaurant seating without interference from the city’s Department of Public Works. Otherwise, they say that half of the city’s restaurants will permanently shutter, unable to recover from the economic blow the crisis has dealt.

It’s true, the last thing anyone wants to read is a 40-page policy document, so it might be a tough sell for all but industry super nerds. But it shouldn’t be! Much of the report is devoted to first-person accounts from over 50 well-known restaurateurs, the same kind of storytelling that one might gulp down if presented in a glossy magazine.

For example, here’s Lee on how restaurant rent needs to change:

The single most important thing for every restaurant operator is to have immediate policy that links restaurants’ lease obligation to the restrictions for occupancy and social distancing. For example: if 50 percent of a leased premise is now unusable, the rent should be lowered through a formula that the city provides. It is unreasonable to expect landlords and tenants to simply negotiate this, and it is unreasonable for landlords to expect full rent for a premise that tenants can no longer, due to new government regulation, use for their specified purpose.

And Rice on liquor licenses and permit fees:

Liquor license fees, I had to pay another $1,235 to keep the liquor license “in good standing” with the state because it hasn’t transferred yet because they are “very backed up” this is after already paying $262k for a license with all the fees.

If only able to operate with 25 percent occupancy are taxes, workers’ compensation, insurance etc. etc. costs all going to be 25 percent as well? Does the state plan to do anything about this? Sort of a sliding scale 25, 50, 75, 100.

Anne and Craig Stoll (Delfina) want restaurants to take over parklets, saying:

The city needs to loosen parklet rules and allow cafes, restaurants and bars to offer full service of food and alcohol, by servers, to guests. We’re responsible for designing, funding, building, permitting and caring for these parklets; it would be nice to have our investments generate some direct revenue. We know that restaurant seating will be reduced by more than 50 percent when we’re finally allowed to reopen and serving guests in the parklets is a (free) way to help us recapture a fraction of that.

The list of recognizable names and what they say they need to succeed goes on and on, and the result is a specific set of recommendations that begins on page 9, targeting city departments including Planning, Health (which oversees restaurant permitting), and the City Assessor’s office. It’s that latter office that can help with rent, the report authors say, as it has the power to “relief–Incentivize landlords to subsidize restaurant and small business tenants’ rent” by offering “property owners direct property tax reductions based on their documented rent subsidy to their commercial restaurant and small businesses tenants.”

But in the end, the report’s authors say, it’s a group project. “This recovery will require a bold partnership of innovative ideas, new ways of thinking, and a supportive regulatory environment,” Hemminger and Boor write. “We will all need to work with common purpose to preserve and support the businesses and restaurants which taken together define the rich character of our great city.”


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