Alfred Ramos never planned on becoming the go-to apron guy for some of San Francisco’s best-known restaurant and bar owners. Nevertheless, food and beverage lovers in the city have probably seen his hand-sewn cotton and leather aprons on staff behind the stick, in the kitchen, or on the floor at destinations including Bar Iris on Polk Street, Mission cocktail spots Chezchez and Trick Dog, Rich Table, and NoPa’s all-day neighborhood cafe Automat. “I didn't expect to make aprons,” Ramos says plainly. “That was nothing planned.”
He started down the path that would eventually lead to his Brisbane-based leather goods company Stagger Lee Goods a little more than a decade ago when he was working at Al’s Attire, a bespoke clothing shop in North Beach. Ramos became enamored with the attention to detail that went into handmade and custom clothing — from the selection of the thread color to hand-cutting leather and transforming it into something with timeless appeal and durable design. “I think that’s kind of what lit the spark,” he says. He’d never worked with fabric or leather before and didn’t know how to sew when he started. “But I just sat down at a sewing machine and applied myself,” he says.
The retail job wasn’t quite enough to pay the bills though, Ramos says, even as it grew into a passion. So on the side, he took jobs at upscale restaurants and bars around the city including Alexander’s Steakhouse, Sons and Daughters, and Michelin-starred Coi. And once he started working in restaurants, he realized he could make enough money to start working on launching his business; he left Al’s Attire and went into the industry full-time, vowing to pursue his passion on the side.
The apron-making started with word of mouth, he says. Josh Harris and Morgan Schick of the Bon Vivants, the company behind Trick Dog and Chezchez, used to come into Al’s when he worked there and approached him about making custom aprons for their staff. In the years since he’s grown the business almost entirely organically, he says, having taken out no loans when he started. “All it’s been is just having good relationships with people in the industry and being as reliable as I can be,” he says. “Everyone seems to like the product a lot.”
All of Ramos’ products, including the Stagger Lee aprons, are entirely handmade in the Bay Area and use 100 percent cotton fabric and leather. Key to his success with making aprons for bartenders and other service industry workers is the cross-back design, he says. The leather straps cross and tie in the back, as opposed to hanging around your neck, a design Ramos says he hated wearing when he worked in the industry. “It’s like a torture device for me,” he says. “Imagine going through an 8-hour shift and there's a thing around your neck.” The aprons also have pockets that can fit kitchen shears, wine keys, pencils, and even a small notebook — though, notably, they won’t quite fit most phones, per request from some owners and managers.
During the pandemic, Ramos began expanding the Stagger Lee product line to include more leather goods — think hand-sewn wallets, leather bracelets, coasters, and key fobs. He’s also begun offering wholesale pricing for those in the food and beverage industry so owners can purchase aprons for their staff at a lower cost. Sometimes he hires help with the sewing, explaining that production can be taxing physically even if he still loves the work. As a small business owner, Ramos says he’s constantly striving to strike the right balance between growing and growing too fast. “I don't know how I would handle expanding more than I am right now because it’s challenging,” he says. “But I think if you can handle busy restaurant life, you can handle most things.”
Stagger Lee Goods is located at 31 Visitacion Avenue in Brisbane and is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.