Food & Drink

How COVID-19 is Impacting SF Restaurants: Closures, Delivery-Only Service, and More

And how to safely support them.

San Franciscans have been ordered to shelter-in-place through at least April 7, which means we are required to stay in our homes except for essential needs, like grocery store runs, doctor appointments, dog walks, and solo hikes. While this is a crucial step in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus, it’s going to have a serious financial impact on small business owners, especially those in the restaurant industry. Many are closing down entirely in an attempt to save their businesses, others are hoping that delivery and take-out orders will help them stay afloat, and some are finding entirely new ways to keep staff employed, like turning their restaurant into a general store.

Times were tough before COVID-19 hit

San Francisco is already an incredibly tough place to be in the restaurant business thanks to soaring rents (for both restaurant owners and the people who work in them), staff turnover, and operating costs. In fact, when we spoke to Jim Angelus, co-partner of Kezar Bar & Restaurant in Cole Valley, about how this would impact his business, he admitted that when everything is going well, they can pay their employees and vendors, but that there’s not much left after that. 

However, finances were only one factor that played into Angelus’ decision to temporarily shutter, a move he actually made a few days before the shelter-in-place order went into effect. “It was a social issue first,” he says. “With everything I read about coming into contact with people, it seemed like the smartest thing we could do was to close as quickly as possible. You have a responsibility to your employees, your community, and your business to do what’s best for everyone.” Angelus’ employees agreed when he discussed the plan with him, and they will apply for unemployment to try to ease the burden of their lost salaries. Angelus has also offered his restaurant as storage space if needed for Luke’s Local’s Cole Valley Market, which is right down the block and doing substantially more business than usual.

Angelus is not alone in deciding to shut down business until the dust from this pandemic settles. Dozens of other restaurants have also closed their doors entirely in an attempt to not go under completely. However, it’s pretty apparent that without help from city officials and insurance companies, not everyone will survive, and that now is a time to get creative, if that’s an option.

From restaurant to general store overnight

Anthony Strong, chef and owner of Prairie in the Mission, strongly supports social distancing and flattening the curve, so he knew he was going to have to end dinner service even before the city mandated it, but he also felt that as someone in the hospitality business, he wanted to find a way to adapt and provide for his employees and community to fit the changing needs.

After seeing pictures online of all of the bare shelves in grocery stores, Strong decided to temporarily convert his space into a general store. “I think the default direction right now is to close down and save every penny that you have, but I figured at the very least if this was going to hurt, I could feed some people, get them some groceries, and give large grocery chains a run for the money. We have access to products and goods at wholesale prices, so I went to Whole Foods and looked at every shelf that was bare, placed my orders accordingly, and flipped the restaurant into a general store.” 

The main dining room is now a stockroom and the Campfire Room, a private dining space that Strong just spent time and money upgrading, is now a showroom. (See a tour here.) “We have pretty much everything you need and it is all either/or shelf-stable, ready-to-eat, and unhandled. We’ve got dinner kits, pantry kits, and other goods, like pre-packaged Mary’s chickens, pastas, pasta sauces, toilet paper, hand towels, and spray sanitizer, and most of our stuff is in bulk, so you’re not getting a cute little thing of almonds, you’re getting a two-pound bag of Marcona almonds. (See a full list of what’s available here.) 

In order to ensure everyone’s safety, only two people are allowed into the shop at once. “You come in, fill out an order sheet, give it to a staff member, and we box it up for you. That way we don’t have a bunch of people in the space looking at things on shelves and touching it,” Strong says. “We’re also pricing it just below retail; we beat anything you can find online.” You can also pre-order online and pick up your box later. The shop will be open every day from noon to 8pm. 

Besides giving people in the community access to food, this has also allowed Strong to keep all of his employees. “I haven’t laid one person off and I don’t plan to. Our bartender is packing boxes, our servers are ringing people up, and our cooks are pre-packaging and stocking. I’m just trying to give everybody everything we can and keep people on the health insurance that are on it.”

Is Strong worried about this at all? He says that yes, he’s worried about things as a whole, but that he’s going to do everything he can to give his employees work and hold onto the business he worked so hard to build. “Maybe it’s the scrappy little punk rocker in me, but I’m not about to take this shit.”

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer for Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @daisy and on Instagram