Can you imagine buying a restaurant right now? How about one in SoMa, a neighborhood that’s seemingly emptied out as downtown workers continue to work from home? Well, that’s exactly what Fabien Santos did when he purchased Tres, a 15-year-old tequila lounge once owned by musician and speed-limit scofflaw Sammy Hagar. Now Santos has renamed the vast Townsend Street restaurant Merkado, a Tagalog word that means “market.” And while Santos hustles to assure diners that all their Tres favorites remain on the menu, the restaurant’s new mission is to diversify its offerings and to provide a space for folks like chef Simileoluwa Adebajo, whose Nigerian restaurant Eko Kitchen was lost in a July fire.
The Bauer-beloved restaurant began its life as Tres Agaves, then rebranded as Tres in 2011, all the while serving SoMa denizens from its list of 150 tequilas and menu of Mexican street food. Santos was there for a lot of that, serving as the spot’s general manager for the last five years. When owner David Stanton decided that he was ready to move on from Tres, he offered Santos first dibs on the spot, and Santos says he leapt at the chance, as he’d been looking for exactly a spot like Tres’s building to build his idea of a “huge open-air market,” he tells Eater SF, a place where he could serve an adapted version of Tres’s menu of Jaliscan street food as well as showcase other food businesses.
The news of the restaurant’s name change and new focus was announced on March 16, Santos says, the day that the entire Bay Area shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The restaurant’s dining room had only been open for a few weeks under Santos’s stewardship when everything stopped.
It took a minute for Santos and his team to figure out what to do — he was ready for Tres fans to struggle with changes to the restaurant, but he didn’t expect the neighborhood’s offices to empty and the ballpark to become a ghost town, diners gone in a flash. But by July Merkado had reopened, turning its back patio into a socially-distanced sit-down dining space.
A big help, Santos says, is his landlord, investment firm Presidio Bay. The company has allowed Merkado to operate rent-free since the pandemic began. It was enough of a boon that he realized he could take up his plan to diversify the food served at Merkado by making space for the Lumpia Company, an Oakland-based Filipino food pop-up that boasts Bay Area rap legend E40 as a co-owner. It’s now serving folks at Merkado Wednesday–Friday from 3–8 p.m., and serving Saturday brunch from 12–3.
Santos says he had a different model in mind when he approached Adebajo. He’d seen coverage of the Mission District fire that consumed her commissary kitchen, and he was eager to help get Eko Kitchen find a new place to work. As part of the frontline-focused SF New Deal, Adebajo needed a place where, every morning, she could prepare meals that would go to frontline workers and those in need as the pandemic rages on. Merkado was a perfect fit, Santos says, as Adebajo could use one of Merkado’s three kitchens in the morning, since his own staff wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon.
“For COVID safety, we can’t have our workers mix,” Santos says, “and this way we never really cross paths.” Adebajo concurs, saying that the Merkado kitchen also allows her five-person team to work safely, as it allows for a decent amount of social distancing.
For Adebajo, the decision to work with Santos was made within 10 minutes. After the fire, she says she had many people reaching out to offer her kitchen space to keep things going. “But when interacted with Fabien, I just asked one or two questions and learned that we share a lot of the same values,” when it comes to things like food insecurity, support for undocumented people, and feeding the frontline. “It just made sense,” Adebajo says, and like that, Eko Kitchen, SF’s only Nigerian restaurant, was back in business.
Santos hopes to add more vendors to Merkado’s lineup as time goes on, but right now, he says he can only think about things about three weeks in advance. “With everything changing weekly, you can’t plan too far,” he says. “We just focus on keeping out guests safe, our staff safe, and our costs low to get through the year.”
Adebajo says she expects to remain at Merkado through the end of the year, preparing meals for frontline workers during the week, and serving Eko’s Sunday supper to customers on the weekends. When she spoke with Eater SF, she was in Maryland, visiting family and stocking up on supplies, as Nigerian ingredients are hard to ship during the pandemic, but are plentiful in that state. Once she’s back, she’s planning on launching new menu items now that she has more space to work, and will offer virtual cooking classes to fans.
“Our Sunday supper service is paused until September 20th,” Adebajo says, and “when we relaunch we will have an independent ordering system on our website (to bypass third party fees on Tock and Ubereats)...and a whole new exciting menu.”
She’s also working to figure out how to get her food to more people via delivery, given the restrictive delivery radius for apps like Uber Eats. “You exclude a lot of customers when you rely on delivery apps,” Adebajo says. “We want to be able to serve the whole Bay Area.” And now, with a new home in SoMa, a kitchen that — in large part — is her own, and a slew of checked bags full of hard-to-find Nigerian spices, she’s back on her way.