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Study: Sales at San Francisco Restaurants Have Dropped By 91 Percent

Over half of SF’s restaurants don’t have any sales at all

Even with innovations like expansive outdoor dining, San Francisco restaurant sales are down by a reported 91 percent
Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

It’s tough to get hard numbers on the pandemic’s impact on San Francisco’s restaurant industry. There are voluntary surveys of restaurateurs, of course, and data from delivery apps and review sites on how many spots seem to be taking orders (or not), and — in the case of the apps — for how much. But without a census-style door-to-door accounting of every restaurant in town (about 4,415, based on current permits from SF’s Department of Public Health), it’s still tough to say. But San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce says they’ve found a way to check on the health of the restaurant business...and the prognosis isn’t good.

The Chamber is dedicated to advocacy for all local business, so they went straight for the money, working with credit card companies to pull card swipe data across San Francisco businesses, spokesperson Jay Cheng says.

“We only have access to aggregated and anonymous data, so it’s hard to go too deep,” Cheng warns Eater SF. But when asked by Eater SF for data specific to San Francisco restaurants, the results provided by Cheng are shocking.

According to Cheng, based on data provided to the Chamber by credit card companies:

  • San Francisco restaurant sales are down 84 percent year-over-year, comparing July 2019 to July 2020.
  • San Francisco restaurant sales have dropped by 91 percent since March, when the pandemic began

In non-pandemic times, one might pause here to note that this data obviously doesn’t apply to cash sales. But while San Francisco businesses are still legally required to accept cash, almost all that were cash only now accept credit, due to (largely unfounded) fears that the novel coronavirus might be transmitted via cash. In addition, patrons are far more likely to prefer contactless payments these days, most restaurants say, making card swipes a better barometer of sales than they might have been six months ago.

Based on credit card activity, Cheng says that about 51.5 percent of the city’s restaurants aren’t currently ringing up any sales, suggesting that they’ve closed temporarily or for good. Overall, Cheng says, of the customer-serving businesses in San Francisco that are currently doing business, 66.8 percent are restaurants or grocery stores.

That 51.5 percent statistic jibes with the expectations of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), the lobbying group that represents SF’s dining biz. At the beginning of the pandemic, Laurie Thomas, the group’s executive director, predicted a permanent closure rate of 50 percent, saying in May that her figure was “a gut number, based on talking to people right now...Anecdotally, one out of two people can’t see a way to stay in business.”