Less than a week after three fatal shootings occurred in a section of the Mission that has become one of the hottest restaurant districts in San Francisco, the sidewalks are full of eager patrons. Diners know about the shootings, but even before they happened, some of the Mission’s attraction has been its edge.
“It’s kind of scary, but kind of fun,” says Dana Humphrey, 28, as she sat eating at Gracias Madre, a vegan restaurant where the tacos aren’t cheap. Her friend Alexis Papeshi, 28, who lives in the Marina, agrees. “It has some cachet,” she says. ’Oh we are in the Mission, we are so cool.’”
For years, the Mission has had a reputation as a neighborhood for trendy bars and restaurants - even in the Gold Rush it was a place to come for fun. But in the last two years the Mission’s status in the culinary world has risen. Its establishments go on and off the Michelin star list (Range off, Saison on), two have Michelin Bibs (Flour + Water and the Slow Club), two are in Zagat’s top five trendy (Flour + Water and Beretta) and of the city’s 62 restaurants on the Chronicle’s Top Bay Area list, eight are in the Mission. Oh, and Mission Chinese Food was named second-best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit magazine.
But as the food has gotten more upscale, old boundaries, little-understood by newcomers and visitors, have remained. Even long-time residents aren’t quite sure what the old rules mean in a neighborhood increasingly crowded by the affluent. But as Mission Loc@l interviewed owners, managers and customers last week about the three fatal shootings, it became clear that when upscale foodies share the same real estate as gangs, no one is affected more than those who work at the restaurants.
The murder of Gaspar ‘Tio’ Puch-tzek, a line cook at Hog & Rocks – a case, police say, of mistaken identity – cut especially close to home. He had just gotten off work and was outside having a cigarette with some dishwashers when alleged gang members approached, asked what gang he claimed and then shot him in the face when he said none.
“What happened the other day, employees being outside, it’s very common,” said Anna Walker, a manager for Radish, a new restaurant nearby. “We just don’t linger anymore.”
When Radish opened earlier this year on 19th Street and Lexington- an area near the edge of Sureño territory, the owner Emily Summers says she knew the neighborhood’s reputation. Nevertheless, she saw opportunity: a vacant corner, a lot of graffiti, and a lot of people hanging out who “weren’t doing anything good for the neighborhood.”
“It was a chance to create a safe surrounding for the neighborhood,” she says.
The fatal shooting of Puch-tzek happened so close to her restaurant that police detectives came in to review her restaurant’s surveillance video.
Two other fatal shootings followed – one gang related occured 23 hours later on Hampshire near 20th Street. The third happened early Monday morning and police believe that was drug-related. A fourth shooting at 24th and Mission at noon on Wednesday, left the victim with a bullet in the hip.
Employees at Rosamunde Sausage Grill next to Wednesday’s shooting have been taking cabs to get home since the violence began, says bartender Simone Thornton. Liza Thoms, 25, a hostess at Cha Cha Cha, where a shooting happened outside more than a year ago, asks her boyfriend to walk her home. Jack Boger, a bartender at Gestalt still walks home alone to his apartment at 15th and Shotwell. He’s used to hearing gunshots nearby. “In a way that’s the most disturbing part,” he says. “How normal it is.”
Other workers have been less fortunate.
Late one evening at the corner of 19th and San Carlos, two individuals approached Santiago Mendoza, a cook, who had just gotten off work.
In a move eerily reminiscent of the Puch-tzek murder, two men asked the cook to name the gang he claimed. After responding that he wasn’t in one, they fired six shots.
Unlike Puch-tzek, Mendoza, now 41, lives to tell his story.
And, eight years later, he’s still working as a cook in the Mission. “What can I do?” he asks. “I have to go to work.”
And in some sense it is a lot safer now. Overall, murders in the Mission have been declining steadily. The Mission Police Station – which also patrols the Castro and parts of Noe Valley – recorded 18 homicides in 2008, six in 2009 and five in 2010. This year the count is at four.
Much of the violence occurs in waves and not all of it is gang related. But when it is, Latinos like Mendoza are targeted.
On Mission Street, Eduardo Reyes, owner of Acaxutla, says when he moved here from Guatemala 25 years ago, the neighborhood was a meeting place for Latinos from all over the Bay Area. Acaxutla was opened to reflect that Mission – a restaurant where working-class Latino families could come to eat.
If violence erupts, however, Latinos stay away. They’re afraid to be mistaken for a member of a rival gang, and business has dropped by 20 to 30 percent since the recent murders, he says.
“When somebody hears there’s a shooting, they just don’t want to come,” he says, adding that he too feels unsafe on Mission Street.
Others are less concerned.
“I’m not scared, I still feel safe,” says Manny Torres Gimenez, the owner and chef at Mr. Pollo, a small Peruvian restaurant that has acquired a cult following among foodies who come from all over the city for its tasting menu. “I’ve been walking the same streets every night for three years by myself and I’ve never seen anything happen.”
That said, he adds that the edginess of the neighborhood is attractive to many customers. “That is part of the experience, to be in that crazy dangerous neighborhood.”
Adds Daniel Hawkinds, the owner of Gestalt on 16th Street and open since 2007, “Any place that is interesting is going to be a little dangerous.”
Others maintain that shootings can’t be good for business.
“Of course it affects business. Who wants to be around where there’s been a shooting?” says John Khoune, son of the owner of Malai Thai.
But Khoune and Reyes of Acaxutla were the exceptions. Far more owners and managers say that business is still booming.
Rosamunde’s customers don’t seem concerned by the recent surge in shootings – even the shooting that took place Wednesday just next door. “I hate to say it but they’re unaffected by it. It’s just normal,” says Thornton.
Silvia Gonzalez, 36, gets asked by customers at Cha Cha Cha, where she works if it’s safe to walk around outside. But neither the perception of danger, last year’s shooting near the restaurant or the recent shootings have affected business, she says.
Debra Blum, owner of Beretta, on Valencia says that restaurants can be an approachable target because they stay open late at night. But, she says, “because of our experience in 2008, we’ve always been aware and proactive in our security.”
In that incident, which shocked the local business community, a group of armed individuals walked in shortly after 1:00 a.m. and robbed the restaurant as customers sat in the dining room.
Although no one was hurt and the robbers got away with less than $2,000, Blum worried that the hold-up would have a negative effect on their reputation. But business continued to boom.
Remembering that evening, she says, “Customers stayed after police came. What’s funny is once everyone was gone, they went back to the bar and kept drinking their drinks.”
Boger said Gestalt customers have been talking about the recent shootings. This Monday, a customer told him he had just walked by Camp Street, where the third fatal shooting occurred. The customer said “it was all chalked up and it was spooky,” says Boger. “Then he said, ‘I’ll have a beer.”
At Hog & Rocks, employees are still mourning the loss of their co-worker.
“It’s literally one day at a time, one moment at a time really. One moment you’re fine, then next moment you’re in tears,” restaurant manager Marcelle Gonzales says.
Andrew Dombrowski, a restaurant manager and sommelier at Hog & Rocks’ sister restaurant, Maverick, has been going around to restaurants in the city to ask for donations. He’s also organizing a silent auction on September 17 to help raise money to return Puch-tzek’s body to Mexico.
“Hopefully something positive will come out of this,” Gonzales says.