On a late Friday afternoon, the brick-walled dining room at Maison Danel echoes with conversation as tables of guests slide into tufted blue banquettes and perch atop vintage French dining chairs to sip tea out of floral-patterned cups. Danel de Betelu, who owns the elegant patisserie and tea salon on Polk Street with his husband David, moves quickly around the room, settling a pair of familiar customers at one table before sweeping over to deposit a plate of pastries on another. In between, he answers the phone, helping a customer place an order for pickup in French.
Maison Danel is busy. But it’s been an arduous road to get here. The business opened in February 2020 and had to close a month later as the pandemic took hold. Even now, de Betelu isn’t sure the business will survive; he and David are working with the landlord to figure out how to repay back rent from last year. If they can’t work something out, de Betelu says Maison Danel will have to close.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, de Betelu last year says the restaurant spent $20,000 to build a parklet they had to tear down after less than six weeks. The day after they finished construction, de Betelu says they returned to find the parklet covered in graffiti. For weeks, he would show up in the morning to find the wooden structure filled with trash and soaked in urine. One day, he arrived to find a fire had burned half of the structure. “If I am a customer and I see that, I would not want to sit there,” de Betelu says. So, despite the money invested, they took it down. He posted on social media that people could come to pick up the wood for free. It was gone in a matter of hours.
Many San Francisco restaurants have found parklets to be a financial boon as they battle the pandemic to survive; Mayor London Breed described the Shared Spaces program as a “lifeline” for business owners, but the reality is less simple. There are those, like de Betelu, for whom the sizable investment ended up being a sunk cost due to either the physical restrictions of where the parklets were built or the difficulty of maintaining a piece of private property in a public space. “It was a waste. Of course, it was a waste,” de Betelu says, shaking his head as if he’s still in disbelief. “It’s like if I put 20 grand in the toilet. It hurt.”
The Shared Spaces program started in May 2020 as a temporary emergency measure to keep restaurants open while diners were still unable to return indoors. But as of a unanimous Board of Supervisors vote on July 13, the program is now a permanent part of life and business in San Francisco. For some restaurant owners, a parklet not only kept their businesses afloat during the darkest days of 2020, but the additional outdoor seating also invited a chance to grow in ways that would have been impossible before.
One such restaurant is Izzy’s Steakhouse, an iconic Marina District restaurant that built a lush, covered parklet in front of its building in September 2020. Managing partner Samantha Bechtel says Izzy’s didn’t rush to get its parklet built, which paid off in the long run. “It’s interesting, looking back we had no idea how long we would be doing this for when we built these and so one of the nice things about the ordinance is that now we can really think about and be strategic about a more permanent solution,” Bechtel says. The restaurant hasn’t yet reopened for indoor dining and when it does, the parklet will represent a big change; with the same size kitchen as ever, Izzy’s has increased its total seating by 50 percent: from about 100 seats indoors to about 150 total, including the parklet. The owners are contemplating using Izzy’s San Carlos location as a sort of commissary to ease the additional burden on the Marina location’s kitchen.
Hook Fish Co. in Outer Sunset took even longer to build out its parklet, only debuting the multi-level space in early June after they “really understood the longevity of the parklet system,” says co-owner Christian Morabito. Hook Fish was founded on the premise of serving transparently sourced seafood, so wanted to invest in something permanent. “We didn’t want to just throw something up and create more waste,” Morabito says. In the end, he estimates they spent about $20,000 sourcing wood from Big Creek Lumber and plants from California Native Landscaping. But like Izzy’s, Hook Fish stands to benefit greatly in the long-term; while the restaurant only offers about three dozen seats inside, the parklet will easily double the number of people who can eat on site. And, also like Izzy’s, the restaurant is now trying to sort out the logistics of reopening with both indoor and outdoor seating, plus takeout.
Meanwhile, at Aquitaine Wine Bistro, co-owner Andrew Fidelman says it’s unlikely the restaurant and wine bar will rebuild its parklet — though it’s more an issue of safety rather than finances. In mid-June, a driver crashed into Aquitaine’s parklet, which was located near the intersection of Church and Market streets, a busy public transit hub. Thankfully, the restaurant was closed and the parklet was empty, but Fidelman says it could have easily been a different situation. “I wouldn’t want to make the same mistake twice you know,” Fidelmen says. “Next time people could be sitting there.” Still, he says, it’s hard not to consider the potential upsides of expanding and being able to serve more customers. “Now that it’s permanent one has to think about business,” Fidelman says. “I’m not going to say [if we will rebuild] either way, but it’s something to consider, of course. One wants to be a part of it.”