Popular food truck the Chairman has just opened a permanent location in downtown San Francisco. It’s an unusual move, given how desolate the area is: the pandemic has kept office workers at home, emptying the once-packed streets across Union Square, SoMa, and the Financial District. Its owner is betting that after the coronavirus crisis ends, the neighborhood will be busier than ever. He’s hoping that the Chairman can ride COVID-19 out, then come roaring back as a food truck/storefront/delivery business triple threat.
Originally known as Chairman Bao, the once wildly popular food truck drew long lines in the early days of food truck gatherings like Off the Grid. But now, with the local food truck scene dwindling, the Chairman is down to just one truck, and is trying to survive and reinvent itself, owner Curtis Lam says. This new location — a space the Chairman will share with Lam’s chicken-and-rice takeout operation, Good Gais — is called Hawker Alley, and Lam is hoping that other vendors will join them in the space as time goes on.
Hawker Alley’s 357 Kearny Street location is on a block filled with boarded-up lunch spots, in the emptied out tech and finance district. But owner Curtis Lam says the landlords gave him a sweet deal to fill an empty storefront (before Hawker Alley, the spot was a Freshroll location), and he’s thinking long term. “Kearny has been a lunch corridor for San Francisco for many, many years,” Lam says. “We know it’s going to be dead for a while, but we’re taking a risk, and hoping it will come back. We’re born and raised in the city, and we want to survive and be part of the healing.”
Unlike the region’s many ghost or cloud kitchens , with delivery as the only option, Hawker Alley is an actual storefront, where patrons can walk in and order from a self-service kiosk. But even though it’s open to the community, it’s definitely still a shared kitchen, with delivery as an important part of the strategy. Lam says he’s hopeful that multiple brands and vendors — not just his own — will eventually share the spot.
Lam says that the name and concept for Hawker Alley were at least in part inspired by his travels through Asia, and the experience of going to food markets with friends, and all being able to order from lots of different vendors. But the setup at Hawker Alley is streamlined, so stepping up to the kiosk, regardless of which menu you’re ordering from, it all goes on one ticket (just like a “KFC/Taco Bell,” Lam jokes). A website will be coming soon to place an online order to pick up, and delivery is available through Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub.
For now, the Chairman will still be serving the cola-braised pork buns that it’s known for, expanding slightly on its short food truck menu. And Good Gais, the takeout window that launched only a year ago, will keep its equally trim menu of gingery chicken and rice. Lam says they were finally able to add a fried chicken sandwich, which was never an option without a deep fryer on the trucks. And they’ve introduced a big build-it-yourself bao kit, for assembling at home.
The restaurant landscape is very different in 2021 that it was in 2010, when what was then known as Chairman Bao hit the ground. Back then, it was one of the most popular food trucks during SF’s golden era for mobile food businesses. Even a bi-coastal feud over its name, prompting the truck to drop the “bao” a year later and simply go by “the Chairman,” didn’t halts its rise, and by 2015 the Chairman had opened a permanent location in the Tenderloin.
At its height, the Chairman had two storefront locations and several trucks across SF and LA, with ups and downs since, as the Tenderloin spot shuttered in 2018. But these days, Lam still has a commissary kitchen in the Bayview, and he says he’s eyeing an even bigger space in the Richmond District, one he hopes will expand the delivery radius for his brands’ dishes. We’ll see if the once illustrious food truck will be able to reinvent itself, and whether the Chairman can revolutionize — or at least stay afloat — with this new shared-kitchen, kiosk-and-delivery delivery model.