This was supposed to be a story about how the owner of San Francisco’s only Nigerian restaurant made a bold move to save her business, shuttering her dining room, pivoting to a takeout and delivery model, and moving her operation into a commissary kitchen. That’s not what this story is about anymore, however, because yesterday, a gigantic, six-building blaze destroyed it all.
Simileoluwa Adebajo’s announcement last year that she’d quit her job as a financial analyst to open a Lagos-inspired restaurant generated immediate attention: Bon Appétit noted at the time, and Adebajo took that press and ran with it, first with a pop-up then crowd-funding a restaurant and catering company that opened inside a shared dine-in space in June of 2019.
To stay afloat in San Francisco’s challenging restaurant scene, she hustled between revenue streams. Three days a week in her SoMa dining room, she’d serve her menu of foods like jollof rice with fried plantains and asun (a smoked goat dish with naija pepper sauce), using mostly ingredients she has to import from Nigeria — a weeks-long process — as “no one sells them here,” Adebajo tells Eater SF. The rest of the week, she’d prepare catering orders, plot cooking classes, and even tried things like “Uber Moments,” an Airbnb “Experiences” competitor that offered intimate Eko dinners for $55 per guest. Anything to keep her fledgling business going, a tough order in one of the most challenging restaurant landscapes in the world.
When the pandemic hit, Adebajo was arguably better equipped to roll with the changes it wrought. After all, when you’ve been open for less than a year, you haven’t had time to get set in your ways. Once she realized that indoor dining wouldn’t be an option for a while, she talked to the landlord of her SoMa space, as “why should I pay for a room I’m not even using?” She negotiated an exit from her lease, and moved her equipment, supplies, and food — “all my inventory” she tells Eater SF, “so, so, so much food” — to a commissary kitchen at 160 14th Street, just steps from Rainbow Grocery, intending to offer delivery and takeout. Then everything screeched to a halt.
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This week we were supposed to relocate from the restaurant back to our industrial commissary on 14th Street where Eko Kitchen initially started. This morning I woke up late and running into work, found that the kitchen was on fire and burning to the ground. Almost all of our inventory and equipment has been lost in this fire, but thankfully no one was hurt. I am so glad I was late for work today. We will rebuild and recover, and share more details as things unfold. #foodoftheday#jollofrice#foodie#sanfransiscofood #nigerianfood #eatdrinksf #popup #popuprestaurant #yougottaeatthis #foodphotography #sfbrunch #sanfranciscorestaurants #cookingclass #nigerian #womanownedbusiness #blackwomanowned #smallbusiness #catering #events #corporatecatering #westafricanfood #sanfrancisco #bayarea
Adebajo slept in yesterday, which is “why I wasn’t there when the fire started,” she tells Eater SF. That fire, a five-alarm blaze that closed 101 and continues to spark up over 24 hours later, destroyed everything she’d moved to the kitchen. She still seemed stunned when she spoke with Eater SF Tuesday afternoon, a call scheduled when the agenda was far different.
“I’m going to have to talk to my landlord,” at her SoMa space, she says, because “I guess I need to stay there longer than expected!” During the pandemic, she’d added another hustle to her repertoire, making meals as part of SF New Deal, the tech-backed effort to support local restaurants and the food-insecure by paying spots like Eko Kitchen to prepare meals for the needy.
“I have a week of orders for SF New Deal I still have to make,” she says, food she will now prepare at her old restaurant. As of August 1, she expected to be filling those orders from the 14th Street kitchen, but now she doesn’t know. Hence the discussion with the landlord, and a renewed search, she says, for another commissary kitchen she can transition to.
The special ingredients she needs for many of her dishes now prove to be an additional speed bump. Prior to the pandemic, items like Nigerian palm oil took a couple weeks to get here, but with the worldwide shipping delays that the coronavirus crisis has caused, these days it can be two months before she gets what she needs.
For many folks, this equation — (SF restaurant pressures + a fire) x an unprecedented global pandemic — might equal defeat, or at least, a return to the world of high finance. But not Adebajo. As soon as she ended her call with Eater SF, she opened her computer and launched a GoFundMe to help rebuild not just Eko Kitchen but the four other food businesses that operated out of the now-razed kitchen. Its goal was $20,000, and as of publication time, it had already generated over $17,000.
And by Wednesday morning, she was back in the kitchen, boxing up scores of meals for low income households served by the San Francisco African American Faith Based Coalition. “Life goes on,” Adebajo says. “All my plans have been axed, so now it’s time to come up with a new one.”