Restaurant Boneyard Sells Remnants of the Past

Sales Manager Ken Heller in the Charyn Auctions warehouse.

At Charyn Auctions, 2675 Folsom St., you can get a 10-foot tiki bar straight from Hawaii. It crossed the Pacific but didn’t make the cut at a local restaurant.

You can also get a collection of six blood-red lampshades and a 20-foot bar from Zinnia that came to Charyn after that restaurant closed its doors in late 2009. Or an industrial Hobart mixer the size of a full-grown man, put on consignment in the cavernous kitchen warehouse.

Charyn, at the corner of 22nd and Folsom, is one of the Bay Area’s biggest restaurant auction houses. In the eternally risky world of restaurateuring, when a business goes under, Charyn comes in to sort out the debris. The insides of restaurants are auctioned live or else wind up on consignment at the Folsom Street warehouse. With the Mission District’s multitude of independent restaurants, Charyn is a particularly valuable resource.

Take Matt Strauss, the owner of Heirloom Café: in the spring of 2010, while building out his restaurant, he passed by Charyn’s warehouse and noticed the “football field worth of equipment sitting outside.”

“The size of their warehouse is mind-boggling,” said Strauss. “It’s a vast wasteland of lost and found in there. One wonders what’s in the far reaches of that space.”

With only a few months left before opening, Strauss visited the auction house and bought light fixtures, dining room chairs, washing machines, refrigerators, an ice machine, a slicer and sinks — almost everything he needed for his professional kitchen.

Heirloom Café has a simple, elegant look. It specializes in wines carefully selected from around California and Europe; its fixed price dinner menu is $65. Strauss is a perfect example of someone who saw beauty in the expansive collection at the Charyn warehouse.

“We have items here that are over 100 years old,” said Ken Heller, Charyn’s sales manager. He’s worked here for three and a half years, and has been in the auction business for about 20.

In that time, Heller has seen a lot of restaurants go under. For every Heirloom Café there is a Purple Onion: in September, Heller helped empty out the famed but struggling San Francisco comedy club when the owner decided not to renew its lease. Charyn was hired to liquidate its contents.

According to a 2005 study published in Cornell University’s Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, about one in four restaurants close or change ownership in their first year in business. That kind of turnover means Charyn’s can always count on the availability of fresh stock.

Heller recalls one instance in which a client sold him a set of dining room chairs and then bought them back 15 years later, after they had circulated around the city and wound up back at the warehouse.

The San Francisco Planning Code Section 703.3, which makes it especially difficult to establish a chain outlet in neighborhoods like the Mission District, has resulted in a concentration of mom-and-pop businesses that are ideal for a restaurant auction house — the kinds of businesses that don’t have big budgets for new furnishings and equipment.

“For us especially, [due] to the fact that we were not a big corporate restaurant buildout, it made a lot of sense for us to look at used restaurant equipment,” said Heirloom’s Strauss.

Restaurants in the Mission District that have bought items from Charyn Auctions include Pi Bar, Frjtz, We Be Sushi, West of Pecos, Lot7, St. Vincent, Phoenix, Mau, Estrada’s and many more. The auction house sells to food trucks and sit-down businesses alike, but the growth of upscale restaurants on Valencia Street represents a big part of Charyn’s local business.

Despite the influx of new businesses in the Mission District, the sluggish economy has hampered Charyn’s sales, even as it has stocked the business’s shelves.

“There’s definitely been a lot of bankruptcies. More than any other time I can remember,” said Heller. “Business has actually been worse for us over the last three years, despite having three times the amount of equipment.”

“We’re still hanging in there because there are people opening and they need the equipment and they don’t have the financing to buy new, so they have to resort to coming to us. We’re the only game in town.”

On a recent visit to the cavernous Charyn Auctions warehouse, customers were visibly excited at the treasures they found. A few Latino men and an old Asian couple scoured the narrow aisles.

The owners of local food-truck Southern Sandwich Company described their experiences with this reincarnation of appliances on their website:

Sifting through the remnants of restaurants past is a bipolar sort of experience, they wrote. At one end of the spectrum there is a sense of exhilaration when you discover a great find, but there also looms an undeniable uneasiness as you pick over what is likely the last tangible pieces of someone’s dream.

That was in 2010, when brothers Brett and Nathan Niebergall were just getting their food truck started. Two years later they’re still in business, an example of success in the take-no-prisoners restaurant industry. Back in 2010, Nathan Niebergall continued:

For me, I find the best remedy for this sense of unease is to imagine what once simmered away in these old pots and pans: the wrought iron stove tops where they sat, the hands that stirred their contents … now it is our turn to have our hands stirring these same pots, adding one more chapter to their culinary legacy.

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4 Comments

  1. suki

    I have always wondered about this place! Thanks for the article.

  2. Glen Parker

    Actually I believe it’s closer to 23rd and Folsom.

  3. Megan

    Is it open to the public? Or only through auctions?

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