Inside a small storefront on Mission Street, four men hunker over a bar one late September evening, staring intently at a lightbulb.
They are entrenched in an argument about where to hang a fixture so that someone sitting at the end of a sushi bar will be well-lit.
With shirtsleeves rolled up above elbows, forearms covered in tattoos, the men stand among scattered boxes inside the former Yo’s Sushi restaurant. They have the weary expressions of having done one thing for a long time.
“Everything I’ve done has been a vehicle to get where I’m at now,” says Tim Archuleta as he pulls away from the argument, proudly displaying the sushi restaurant he’s about to open.
Archuleta is part of a new generation of chefs who’ve taken an increasingly common street-to-storefront journey to open their own restaurants. Rather than move up the chain at established places, they go into business for themselves, serving food at sidewalk stands, happy hours or roaming pop-ups, one-time food events that take over restaurants for an evening.
Not content with succeeding at a time when food trucks appear to have the social capital of fine restaurants, these nomadic chefs have now begun to settle inside their own brick-and-mortar establishments.
It’s a nationwide trend, with food trucks from Los Angeles to Cambridge, Massachusetts, opening restaurant spaces this year. Closer to home, places like Pica Pica on Valencia Street and Fatted Calf on Grove Street first got their starts at farmers markets. Anthony Myint helped open Commonwealth in August after he created successful brands out of the Mission Street Food and Mission Chinese Food pop-ups. And Eskender Aseged, the personality behind the Radio Africa & Kitchen pop-up, has been developing his own restaurant in the city’s Bayview District, set to open early next spring.
Sitting in the open-air patio at Coffee Bar, the cafe on Mariposa Street where he has operated his pop-ups on Friday nights for the past several years, Aseged explains how he has gone from serving food on Ikea plates in his backyard to opening his own sit-down space.
“I’m not opening my restaurant now. Opening has been a six-year process,” says Aseged, his iconic Panama hat tilted to the back of his head. Pop-up restaurants like Radio Africa & Kitchen are the most sustainable way of opening a food business, according to Aseged, because they serve as testing grounds for startups still trying to define themselves. It’s about trial and error, he says.
“At first we had to train people about eating cassava,” he explains, referring to the starchy root that is a staple in many West African diets. “Once people had confidence in me, then I could experiment with more African cuisine.”
The experiments paid off. Aseged has seen his business double year to year since he started Radio Africa & Kitchen. It’s allowed him to attract investors and raise capital in a city where opening a restaurant can cost anywhere from $50,000 to more than $250,000.
For his part, Archuleta says the very nature of making sushi encourages interaction with customers.
“In most restaurants there’s a disconnect between the customer and the food preparation,” he says. “With sushi, there’s more interaction with chefs. It’s more like being at their homes.”
In 2006, Archuleta started serving sushi at the Knockout on Mission Street, in part to interact directly with the people eating it — a switch from corporate catering jobs he had been doing since leaving Tokyo Go Go on Valencia Street, where he previously served as a sushi chef.
“Anyone and everyone came in,” recalls Josh Yule, a bartender at the Knockout. “The draw was its kitsch—eating sushi in a bar,” but people came back because “it was always really fresh and good.”
Archuleta’s wife, Erin, says one of the biggest benefits of operating in that atmosphere was learning to work quickly. Archuleta would roll every single order, and in bars filled with 70 people all waiting to eat sushi, he had to be fast and efficient or risk losing an entire crowd of customers.
Richie Nakano has found that out the hard way. He’s the man behind Hapa Ramen, setting up shop at street food parties and farmers markets throughout the city to serve Japanese-style soup bowls.
Nakano is looking at Hapa Ramen as a launching pad to open his own restaurant one day.
Back in May, Nakano — who boasts his own badge of forearm tattoos — hosted a dinner at Coffee Bar that drew 500 hungry customers. After waiting hours in long lines, people were finally served mushy noodles swimming in lukewarm broth. Most were visibly disappointed.
Nakano attributes the poor output to electrical issues with Coffee Bar’s stoves, but by the next morning, the blogosphere was already teeming with knocks on Nakano’s ramen.
“We’ve been faced with so many challenges doing street food,” he says. He has been able to recover from the setback to establish a consistently popular stand at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. “Nothing will phase me in a restaurant.”
While many blame Internet hype for Nakano’s Coffee Bar disaster, it’s why Joshua Henderson will be able to open his own diner in Seattle’s Capitol Hill early next year.
Henderson is the owner of the Skillet food truck, which, back in 2007, was a pioneer of Seattle’s street food movement. Skillet launched when street food was first beginning to boom, and it benefited from a disproportionate amount of publicity.
“You don’t see restaurants of our age and reach getting that kind of attention,” says Henderson, whose features in Time magazine and USA Today helped build a brand that ultimately put him in a position to open a brick-and-mortar space. “Investors came because of the name and reputation.”
Like many others, Henderson acknowledges that he launched his truck without plans for a restaurant. In a city where it rains 40 percent of the year, however, he now sees the value in having a roof overhead for himself and his customers.
So does Archuleta.
There are 24 seats in Ichi Sushi, Archuleta’s new restaurant. And on a midweek evening in October, one month after its opening, nearly all appear filled. It is a subdued, modern space with rich wood counters and old wine bottles that serve as hanging lampshades.
Archuleta is no longer making sushi by himself, but it sometimes appears as if he were. As he lifts his head periodically to scan the room, making sure that diners are satisfied with their orders, his hands keep moving, deftly folding rice-padded sheets of seaweed under each other.
“In this restaurant,” he declares, “it’s impossible for me to be disconnected from customers.”