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Stack of pancakes
A few of the over 125 pancakes served by Curtis Kimball
Curtis Kimball

Can 125 Free Pancakes Cure San Francisco’s ‘Effed Up Vibes’? Maybe.

The Creme Brulee Cart chef is coming out of retirement to bring the city together with hundreds of free flapjacks

Paolo Bicchieri is a reporter at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, coffee and cafes, and pop-ups.

Last month, one San Francisco man took to the streets to sling pancakes in an attempt to rid the city of the bad vibes accrued since the pandemic began more than two years ago. Creme Brulee Cart owner and chef Curtis Kimball came out of retirement to serve more than 75 people more than 125 pancakes. All free, all for fun. “San Francisco is in a bad way. Vibes are all effed up. I can’t do much to solve the problems here, but I can make pancakes,” began Kimball’s now-viral Twitter thread about the effort. Kimball, whose Twitter handle honors his now-closed creme brulee business, is as pure a soul in San Francisco’s pop-up game as there ever was. The food cart early adopter has been seen as an innovator and keystone of the upscale street food phenomenon in the Bay.

And so, doing what he knows best — cooking — the 20-year Bay Area resident invited friends, family, and total strangers to his home, at the foot of Bernal Heights as it greets the Mission District, to eat free pancakes on January 22. It was, to Kimball, a chance to break down the ramparts built up during the last few years. “For obvious reasons — the pandemic — everyone has had to be a little standoffish for the last couple years,” Kimball says. “Nothing we could do about it. So I thought it’d be fun to connect with neighbors. I don’t mind making a fool of myself.”

Man holding his daughter in a chef’s toque. Curtis Kimball

He closed his mega-popular Creme Brulee Cart in 2016, after seven years of hopscotching his way through San Francisco. But Kimball says he learned from that professional venture how to put himself out there and create a welcoming environment, the same energy he hoped to conjure with this pandemic tonic. “I had toyed with the idea of just giving out creme brulee on Christmas in the same spirit,” Kimball says. “Just to get good vibes going in the city. But the weather and omicron made me cancel it.” Though Kimball spread the word about the event through his social media channels, he says it seemed most people came thanks to the zany flyers he tagged throughout the city. He credits the noisy digital realm in helping his advertisements cut through the clutter. “It’s a weird flyer to see,” Kimball says.

It seemed wiser to feed a group of “friends” at his house rather than toe the legality of serving strangers in public, though he did text a friend at the San Francisco Department of Public Health to tip them off. But while standing outside, doling out drizzles of syrup, Kimball says he felt insecure. “I’ve done it before, but it’s still hard. I feel really vulnerable,” Kimball says. “It felt really good.” He never stopped smiling throughout the festivities, he says, as strangers arrived with all kinds of gifts — their homemade lemon curds and small-batch honey serving as small tokens of friendship and gratitude.

Now Kimball’s re-strategizing on what’s next. He’s considering landscaping as another avenue to stoke happiness into San Francisco. But after this experience, he’s actually more confused about what to think of the food industry and says he has no immediate plans to return. “It’s interesting because, though successful, the pancake thing turned me away from wanting to do a food business again,” Kimball confesses. “The vibes were so good that going back to the foodie vibes feels bad. Customers come with the expectation of themselves as critics rather than just as enjoyers.”

It’s possible, he added, that his calling in life is just to create good vibes. When he started his cart, torching creme brulee for strangers, his intentions were the same as with this pancake party. It was in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and no one had any money. “Everyone was bummed out, and I thought the best thing we could have was just getting together with people,” Kimball says. “I just set the cart up as a random thing to make people happy. This felt like even less pressure, so the vibes were even better.”

He threaded a conversation about what he learned from his first feed and is excited for round two on February 12. He’s hopeful he can create one more big pancake feed before having to relocate or getting shut down; there are enough problems in San Francisco, and Kimball is optimistic his pancake feed isn’t the most pressing issue to city officials. He does think the next feed will be crazier than the last, and he doesn’t want to burden his neighbors, but he does want to do just one more. “If you want to come arrest me, here’s where I’ll be,” Kimball jokes. “They might come shut me down, but I think that would be kind of dumb of them.”

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