We’re now six months into shelter-in-place. Six months since you could squeeze into a crowded restaurant, belly up to the bar for a cold cocktail, or pull up a chair in a buzzing dining room, so another human being could hand you a beautiful plate of food. But while diners might miss restaurants, restaurants miss them more. Throughout shelter in place, local food businesses have tried everything to survive, from packaging up creative takeout to pivoting to pantry provisions to building outdoor parklets from the ground up.
How are they feeling these days? Here’s the temp check on a few local restaurants, half a year into shelter in place in San Francisco.
“I feel angry and just so mad,” says Heena Patel of Besharam. “These are stolen dreams.” Just a couple of weeks ago, the chef made the hard decision to temporarily close her award-winning restaurant, known for her vegetable-focused Gujarati cuisine. Since the outset of the pandemic, Besharam has tried it all: launching takeout and delivery in the spring, and spending several thousand dollars on installing outdoor dining in the summer. “My immigrant instinct to survive kicked in. I learned from my parents, let’s do it ... But the limitations are beyond us.”
It all wasn’t enough to stay afloat, and even if indoor dining opens up in the fall, 25 percent occupancy won’t generate enough income, so Patel made the decision to temporarily close and send her staff home. She’s now cooking solo in her empty kitchen, putting one comforting menu out every weekend for anyone who’s lucky enough to get in on preorders. “They say survive, but how?” the chef says, frustrated with the lack of guidance and support from local and national government. “From where I stand, I wonder, is my restaurant going to be dead next year?”
The Square Pie Guys sound like they’re suffering from a bit of survivor’s guilt. “We’re relieved that the team’s healthy,” says co-owner Marc Schechter. “And just happy to still be open,” adds co-owner Danny Stoller. Boxing up those Detroit-style pies was always the majority of their business and has proven to be a remarkably pandemic-proof plan. Aside from a couple of quick closures, due to a COVID scare and to fix the floors, the guys have kept firing pies this entire time.
While Schechter and Stoller never had to overhaul their business, they’ve certainly hustled and gotten creative, turning the dining room into a “pizza factory” filled with boxes, using the salad station to launch a fried chicken sandwich sensation, and keeping it fresh on social media with “secret” menu items. And even though it was never how they imagined their first year in brick-and-mortar, they are still feeling optimistic and planning to grow — the goal is still “three locations within two years,” even under the cloud of the pandemic and the unknown of the election.
The Vault was maybe the greatest success story in the city for outdoor dining, but chef Robin Song sounds uneasy. “We’re extremely fortunate to have the space,” he says. “But as fall creeps in, it’s hard to visualize the next few months. We’re still taking it day by day.” The big underground cocktail lair cleared out early when FiDi workers went home, and was closed the entire spring, while the Hi Neighbor restaurant group focused on launching pop-ups at Corridor. It wasn’t until June that the Vault reopened as a massive outdoor dining garden, taking over the courtyard and effectively building out a whole new restaurant.
“If the weather was nice, people came out in droves,” Song says. “We just felt so fortunate to be able to serve guests again.” But as August fog and wildfire smoke rolled in, reservations got more variable. “The hardest part for me personally was … asking the team to be outdoors for an entire shift, and carry trays of food up stairs. That’s a lot of work on a good day, and to ask that on a day with unhealthy [air quality] was a hard decision.”
Unfortunately, wildfire season isn’t over yet, and the wind that whistles through the FiDi will only get colder. Normally, the Vault relies on holiday party season, which might be off the books entirely this year.
“We’re settled in for the long haul,” says Craig Stoll. Two days after the city shut down, he and his wife and co-owner, Annie, permanently closed Locanda, their beloved Roman pasta spot. The restaurant was always busy, but “it was already incredibly difficult to operate a mid-level restaurant before COVID,” says Stoll. “It was clear, there were no ifs, ands, or buts. There was no way we were going to be able to reopen.”
Their Pizzeria Delfina restaurants are now the meat of the business, and it varies by location: Mission and Polk are making money on takeout and delivery, Palo Alto and Burlingame are breaking even on outdoor dining, and the fate of their new downtown location remains to be seen. The Stolls are exploring meal kits and frozen lasagna, and expanding to add a drop-off point in Marin. Meanwhile, Delfina, the heart of their restaurant group, that’s served perfect spaghetti and roasted chicken for 22 years in the Mission, has been dark for half a year. The Stolls say it doesn’t make financial sense to reopen its dining room at 25 or even 50 percent, which means it probably won’t be open for the holidays, or well into next year.
When the Stolls first got into this business, and opened a warm neighborhood restaurant in the Mission two decades ago, could they ever have pictured being tipped into this business model, hustling hard into their fifties to break even on pizza delivery? “The pizzerias allow us to keep cooking in the same style, kind of,” says Stoll. “But it’s not Delfina. It’s just not.”
“It was our life for 22 years,” agrees Annie Stoll. “I so miss that energy, and being on the floor in a restaurant. That’s why I got into this business ... I feel like I’ve been forced into some kind of working retirement — wearing sweats every day.”