Valerie Luu and Katie Kwan of the long-running Vietnamese pop-up Rice Paper Scissors could be serving pho and banh mi sandwiches out of their first Folsom Street brick-and-mortar restaurant within the year – if their neighbors approve.
Kwan and Luu are hoping to build out the 1,300 square foot space that once housed the Latin grocery Delicateses La Plaza at 2598 Folsom St. into a restaurant – a conversion that requires a change of use permit by the city’s Planning Department.
In an effort to rally support for their endeavor, the soon-to-be restaurateurs opened the doors to their proposed location and on Sunday invited neighbors inside for a meet and greet over Vietnamese coffee and spring rolls.
“We are excited to be having a place to call our own,” said Kwan, adding that the duo has been operating out of “four to five different kitchens” in the Mission since launching their pop-up six years ago, including at the MissionLanguage and Vocational School, the Brick and Mortar Music Hall and 24th Street’s La Victoria Bakery.
But strong neighborhood objection could delay or even end their dreams of a permanent location in the Mission. The women said they voluntarily hosted the pre-application meeting in effort to connect with neighbors and “start a conversation” about the addition of a new restaurant in the area.
“We are trying to spread the good word and make sure everyone is comfortable with us being here,” said Kwan.
About a dozen neighbors trickled in over the course of the two-hour meeting and said they appreciated the effort.
“Their grassroots approach is good because it makes people feel like they have more ownership of the place,” said a neighbor who lives on 21st and Valencia streets.
The recent gentrification of his neighborhood, the neighbor said, has caused it to lose its “neighborhood feel,” and him in turn to lose his “connection with it.”
“The more you bring your audience in early on in the process, the better it is,” he said about the new restaurant’s plans. “There should be some human touch and some imperfection to it, so it feels real.”
Luu called their operation “as real as it gets.”
“We are not a franchise. We started from nothing,” said Kwan, showing neighbors around the currently empty commercial space. A bar-like countertop will line the space’s large storefront windows facing Folsom Street and along their 22nd Street wall space, eventually providing seating for some 30 people. In the summer, outdoor seating along the Folsom Street sidewalk will add more dining space, said Kwan.
“Some people have investors –we started with two sets of tongs and a hope,” said Kwan.
Apart from Kwan and Luu, Rice Paper Scissors is currently staffed by two full-time female employees. Its owners plan to sponsor their permanent restaurant with their own savings and a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that has raised some $17,000 since its launch two weeks ago.
“We worked super hard for six years to even save up a little bit of money to move into this space for now,” said Kwan.
In regard to an influx of high-end restaurants that have opened shop in the area in recent years, Kwan added: “I think ours is sort of a different story and it’s on us to show people that.”
Still, those working to preserve the traditional Latino character and commercial diversity of the neighborhood voiced concerns with the restaurant taking the place of a community serving, Latino-owned grocer.
“We do have issues [with it],” wrote Erick Arguello, president of the 24th Street Merchants Association, which oversees the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. “We are losing many neighborhood businesses.”
Earlier this year, Mission Supervisor Hillary Ronen proposed legislation that would place restrictions on the types of businesses that can move into Calle 24, particularly on eating and drinking establishments.
Rice Paper Scissors’ proposed location is right outside the proposed special use district’s boundaries, and so would not be subject to these additional protections. Nevertheless Kwan said she invited members of the merchant’s association to the community meeting so that they could learn more about their concept and share their concerns.
“We are not trying to offer fine dining. We are trying to offer something very accessible and normal – a food that makes you feel loved and at home,” said Kwan, adding that the duo has worked “really hard to make sure our price points aren’t too high.”
“It’s very casual and accessible. We want to be your Wednesday night dinner, your Sunday brunch,” she said.
And while Arguello did not make it to the meeting, the neighbors who did gave the women a warm welcome to the neighborhood.
“I’m not against a new restaurant – I love them,” said a Folsom Street resident who gave her name as Joan. “ There’s not really a good Vietnamese place around here and I’m pleased to have one open.”
Neighbor Grant Walsh agreed and said that the grocery store that Rice Paper Scissors is replacing had been on a “slow decline” for years.
“I’m very excited that it’s not going to be another high-end restaurant that is going to be gone in six months,” he said. “The success of their business model has been proven.”