During a lunch hour in March in downtown San Francisco, the scene seems reminiscent of the pre-pandemic business lunch days of 2019. On Mission Street, lunchtime lines unfurl out the doors of Mendocino Farms as office workers wait to place their orders. Further down, at another fast-casual restaurant, a line creeps out of the doorway. The streets seem even more bustling than usual, with workers weaving around on sidewalks and groups of joggers running past restaurants that are fuller than they have been in months.
For Ray Lee, chef-owner of Akiko’s in downtown San Francisco, the lunchtime crowd isn’t entirely back, but it’s finally enough to sustain a reopening for lunch. The popular sushi restaurant had been operating at night, but more recently decided to reopen for a $120 omakase lunch.
It’s a cautious step back into the daytime waters, something Lee tried back in summer 2021 for two weeks, but stopped due to a lack of business. This time around, Akiko’s decided to open Wednesday through Friday for lunch, dialing back the previous attempt to do lunch service for the entire workweek — which they sustained before the pandemic. “We were just seeing more people on the street, but more than that, we were getting a lot of email requests [to reopen],” Lee says. “Alright, [I thought], maybe it’s time to set up lunch again.”
What has been helping, he says, is not just regulars, but also conferences bringing tourism into the city. Citing the Morgan Stanley conference that took place in the Palace Hotel in early March, he says the return of events has led to a nice bump in lunchtime traffic, and it’s been steadily (albeit slowly) increasing. They’ve been seeing about a third of the business they typically saw before the pandemic, but it’s certainly a step up from 2021. “We knew these companies were coming back. Slowly small conventions are coming back,” he says. “Overall, we really need international tourists, business travelers. [But] first, we need people to go back to the office.”
March marked San Francisco’s big push to bring office workers back to the city with San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s “Welcome Back to San Francisco” plan, which sought pledges from companies to “implement in-person work policies.” In statistics cited by the San Francisco Business Times, the Downtown Community Benefit District said it saw 42,000 unique workers between January 1 and March 15 this year, versus 23,000 workers from that same time the year prior. In perspective that’s much lower than the 101,000 workers seen during that time in 2020, but a solid increase since the pandemic began. Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle called March the “most significant month in BART’s pandemic recovery” hitting its peak ridership numbers since the pandemic began, at 138,794 riders on March 24.
Another indicator of increasing business downtown is Off the Grid. Renee Frojo, head of marketing for the food truck event organizer, shared that business at the company’s food truck markets, such as at their Levi’s Plaza location, has been steadily increasing; the event has grown from two food trucks in June 2021, to four trucks on Thursdays to meet customer demand. They’ve since also relaunched other Off the Grid markets and are seeing success there as well: relaunching the Vallejo & Front markets in March, the 5M location in April, and Salesforce Plaza market in May. “We have basically been just keeping an eye on all the news coming out of all the major tech companies, biotech companies, law firms — pretty much any industry that you can think of that operates and office spaces downtown,” Frojo says. “We’ve had a bit of a good sense [to relaunch] based on all the outreach and sort of information gathering that we do for catering.”
The catering arm of Off the Grid, which handles a number of corporate events, confirmed that they’ve been getting busier and busier. “Oh, it’s coming back!” Chantal Call, senior account executive for sales at Off the Grid, says. “We went from nothing to at the very least throwing 1 return to office event per week since the last week in Feb and it just keeps on growing.”
Still, downtown is of course not entirely back, and it remains to be seen whether it ever will return to the level of business seen before the pandemic. Throwing a wrench in things is the corporate shift to a hybrid style of working, meaning employees will continue to work a number of days from home and limit days they are in the office. In other metropolitan areas like New York City, Bloomberg reports office workers plan to cut back their time in the office by 49 percent, according to a Stanford University study, which will in turn cut back spending in the city. San Francisco’s workers, by comparison in that same study, were cited as stating they would be reducing their in-office hours by as much as 53 percent, the highest of any city in the study. The Biz Times went further to state San Francisco’s return levels are at 31.2 percent of pre-pandemic crowds, situating the city below Austin at 52.9 percent and New York at 36.1 percent.
For now, Lee remains cautiously optimistic about the crowds. “I think hopefully, by the summer, everything will be back to normal,” he says. “It really comes down to if there’s any more COVID surges.”