Less than three years after Tommy Halvorson bought popular Dogpatch dinner destination Serpentine, he’s shutting it down. While a revenue drop from the coronavirus crisis was a factor in the closure, that’s not the only issue at play, he says. “Even before COVID-19, Serpentine was suffering massively,” Halvorson tells Eater SF. “The model just didn’t work.”
Serpentine opened in late 2007 in the Dogpatch, just months after the T-Third light rail Muni line launched full service to the area. The new transit line was a big change for the neighborhood — previously reachable only by multiple buses or car, Dogpatch (and, to the south, the Bayview) was suddenly within a few seamless minutes of downtown San Francisco, ushering in a new era of development and business along the Third Street corridor.
Serpentine was at the forefront of that new era, opened as a sister restaurant to then-Mission standby Slow Club by owner Erin Rooney. It was an immediate success, then Eater SF editor Paolo Lucchesi wrote, with an “industrial interior,” a menu from burger maestro Chris Kronner (then in the early days of his star chef career), and super-long waits for a table inside the high-ceilinged space.
Rooney’s restaurant weathered the recession, a vaguely fractious review from then SF Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, and the eventual closure of Slow Club (it was replaced by industry fave the Morris in 2016). In late 2016, Rooney sold the spot to Halvorson, a veteran of fine dining kitchens like Gary Danko, Bix, and Chez Panisse.
Halvorson was a longtime neighbor of Serpentine’s — he built a catering company, called Foxtail, from a single, six-foot table in a commissary kitchen a decade ago, growing it into a massive operation at the AIC North building just across the street from the restaurant. After a renovation to bring more light into the large dining room (“Back in the day, [Serpentine] was more of a speakeasy or oasis,” Halvorson told Eater SF then, but by the late 2010s, people wanted to see and be seen) and a menu shift that brought in more Southern-style items like Nashville hot chicken. Kronner’s Prather Ranch Serpentine burger remained, of course.
Halvorson’s Serpentine did business at a steady clip, with long waits for Benedict-laden brunches and busy dinner service. But even then, the place suffered under the same challenges as any other restaurant in an expensive city like SF. “Our labor costs were 70 percent of our revenue,” Halvorson said. “I was paying my line cooks $24 an hour,” but with the area’s high cost for housing, “even then they’d still have to drive in from Martinez.”
But with Foxtail doing bonkers business (Halvorson said it sold 10,000 corporate meals a week, just the tip of the business’s iceberg), that revenue was there to subsidize Serpentine’s losses. And then, the pandemic.
“I call myself the worrier-in-chief,” Halvorson says. And in early 2020 he says he was “starting to see the signs” that a new virus that was sickening people overseas might have an impact in San Francsico. “I said, ‘OK, this shit is happening, let’s just fucking deal with it,’” and started to look at the numbers, figuring out what would have to happen for his businesses to make it through.
So unlike many, he says he was braced for the shutdown that hit the second week of March, pivoting Serpentine into a staples and spirits shop (remember, these were the days of packed aisles and empty shelves at your local grocery store), an effort to help support the community. Then came delivery and takeout service, as well as dinner kits and cocktails to go. When outdoor dining was allowed in SF in mid-June, Serpentine seated its loyal patrons on the sidewalks. “That all helped,” Halvorson says, “but it’s not enough.”
The main reason Serpentine was able to offer all those options for diners was a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, which allowed Halvorson to bring back four staffers and pay the rest of his furloughed workers for two months. “That was really awesome,” he says.
Now those funds are dwindling, and Halvorson says there’s only enough to pay his remaining workers through September. “Once we have to start paying for labor,” Halvorson says, “we’d have to do triple what we’re doing now just to break even.” It’s an impossible proposition: Halvorson and his small staff were already “cranking every day” to fill all the orders they had, and were “just burnt out.”
Another part of the problem is the effect the pandemic had on the city’s many catering businesses, all of which are reliant on events (which aren’t happening these days) and in-office meals (no longer an issue when your staff is working from home). Foxtail’s business was suddenly 10 percent of what it had been before the pandemic began. Its bounty wasn’t there to help keep Serpentine afloat, not any more.
Luckily, Halvorson says, “my landlord is awesome,” and is allowing him to shutter the Serpentine space but to hang onto it for now. Now, from Foxtail, he’s offering “virtual experiences,” custom-branded and curated food and drink boxes for corporate video conferences and distanced parties, as well as DIY meal kits to prepare at home. “Those have been doing really well,” Halvorson says, ”way better than I expected.”
Looking to the future, Halvorson says that “at some point, when dining in comes back, and whenever we feel comfortable that people are going out to eat,” he’ll do something with the Serpentine space. “We have this opportunity to reimagine it,” he says, not speaking of his restaurant, but about the industry in general. “We really need to reimagine what restaurants are,” he says. “If there’s business, we’ll find it, and we’ll do it.”