For nearly six years, Picnic on Third has been a SoMa neighborhood staple — a self-described “culinary cafe” whose fresh, daily-changing lunch offerings were a hit among downtown San Francisco office workers. Before opening the cafe in 2014, chef-owners Leigh Loper and Natalia Bushyager cooked together at upscale restaurants like Quince and Foreign Cinema. At Picnic on Third, they quickly garnered a loyal customer base of folks who would visit as often as three times a week, for handmade pasta, braised short ribs, or Moroccan-spiced roasted carrots.
Now all that is coming to an end. Bushyager tells Eater SF that Picnic on Third will shut down all operations later this summer — most likely at the end of August — for health-related reasons that both are and are not directly linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
The crux of the problem, Bushyager explains, is that she has an immune system disorder that makes it unsafe for her to have contact with customers and staff during the pandemic, especially as COVID-19 continues to spike in the Bay Area. Bushyager’s illness — known as common variable immunodeficiency, or CVID — is a rare condition that prevents her body from producing antibodies on its own. The only way she can have a functioning immune system is by getting her antibodies through plasma treatments, which she has undergone on a weekly basis for the past six years.
“It’s been a battle,” Bushyager says, noting that over the past few years she’d already transitioned to take on more of a business-oriented role at the restaurant, rather than working on the line in the kitchen. “But this virus just puts the nail in the coffin.”
Because there is no herd immunity from COVID-19 right now, Bushyager says that her plasma treatments don’t protect her from the virus — and if she were to contract it, her body would never develop any antibodies to fight it off. To make things even more difficult, plasma donations are screened for as long as two years before they’re deemed safe — so Bushyager’s plasma treatments won’t be any help until at least two years after a viable COVID-19 vaccine is introduced.
In short, the chef’s doctors have told her that she needs to “hunker down” and minimize all social contact for at least the next couple of years.
The irony, Bushyager says, is that Picnic at Third has kept things going fairly successfully during the pandemic, serving hundreds of meals a day through a combination of catering gigs for essential workers and a takeout and delivery program focused on vegetable-centric prepared meals for diners to heat up at home. Bushyager herself never stopped working, spending her days boxing up meals by herself in a solitary section of the restaurant, away from the rest of her staff.
But the pandemic ultimately took its toll. Last week, Bushyager says, the restaurant was forced to lay off all of its staff, having exhausted the money it got from its federal stimulus loan. As Bushyager looked ahead to the prospect of at least two more years of not being able interact with staff or customers at all, she decided that continuing the restaurant was impossible. “I can’t sit back and not participate,” she says. “That’s a luxury that we don’t have.”
When Picnic on Third closes for good at the end of August, it will, by all accounts, have completed a hell of a run, taking the somewhat anodyne concept of quick, healthy office lunches and turning the restaurant into a real “community cornerstone,” as Bushyager puts it. “The idea was you can eat here every day, and you’ll feel good... We were that place.”
As for Bushyager, the end of the restaurant is also likely to mark her exit from the restaurant industry, though she says she’d still like to do something related to food in the next stage of her career — perhaps working on the operations side in the nonprofit sector to improve school lunches.
“Physically, my body is probably out of the restaurant world,” she says. “But my mind can definitely help.”