It’s warm and a bit gamey down here in the basement of Mission Pie; it feels a tad like a locker room and there are, in fact, a bank of lockers. Someone has stowed what at first glance appears to be a didgeridoo in the corner, however, which distinguishes this locker room from most.
Half a dozen workers are catching their breath after another jam-packed shift. Ever since Mission Pie founders Krystin Rubin and Karen Heisler last month announced they’d be baking their last pie come Sept. 1, cavalcades of diners have been rampaging through the double doors upstairs for that last — or first — slice. This is a homespun place with a chalkboard on a basement wall listing every farm that’s sourced from. But, upstairs, they’re cranking out pies like South Bend used to crank out Studebakers.
Keeping up with this scarcity-driven demand is the closest Mission Pie comes to resembling an industrial operation. There’s not much time for its employees to process the thoughts and feelings unleashed by June’s announcement. That comes later. That comes down here, in the warm and gamey basement, where the framed photos of pies (yes, really) may even fog up a bit as more and more short-timer Mission Pie workers drop by to share their thoughts.
There’s a lot of sadness in this room. But it’s not directed where you might think.
“I was in shock.” That’s server Edi Sartin’s recollection of when Rubin and Heisler took her aside and broke the news that the place would be closing (every worker was told individually; there was no dreaded announcement of an “all-hands meeting” or whatnot).
“I felt awful. Because I know what it means to them.”
This came up again and again. I know what it means to them. The workers your humble narrator spoke with — and this constitutes a goodly chunk of the staff — were bummed and upset and uncertain with what to do in their own near-term work and residential futures.
But their real sorrow was directed outward, not inward.
“Instead of some startup where you go with other people’s money and just want to sell that business, Krystin and Karen wanted to build something that would last,” says baker Connie Yeh. “And that’s the heartbreaking thing.”
One of the major reasons so many workers wanted to speak to Mission Local was to set the record straight.
In the immediate aftermath of Heisler and Rubin’s announcement that they’d be shuttering Mission Pie, conjecture arose that they must have an ulterior motive — that nobody would close an ostensibly profitable business for their stated reasons.
This offends the employees, who claim those questioning the rationale for this move neither understand the restaurant business nor, specifically, the ethos of this restaurant.
Imagine Mission Pie is a fulcrum. Atop it is a see-saw. And on one end of the beam is profitability. And on the other end is ethics — treating workers well, providing equitably sourced food, pricing it at neighborhood-accessible rates.
This is the balancing act Heisler and Rubin pulled off for a dozen years. But, this year, they determined that it wasn’t sustainable. Workers here are insured and even have a 401K match and transit subsidy and earn competitive salaries — but not enough to survive in this city unless they reside in a state of perpetual young adult penury. Raising prices for the customers is out of the question. Skimping on ingredients is out of the question. Asking for a deal on rent isn’t possible either: Heisler owns the building, and 5.5 percent of Mission Pie’s budget — a low percentage for a business to devote toward rent — goes to the trust she established, where it helps pay the mortgage.
So they have opted to close the establishment. Failure must be an option when success represents a perversion.
Heisler and Rubin opted to curtail their joint venture in an orderly way; it’s cliched but they are, literally, getting their affairs in order. They gave everyone plenty of lead time to stock up on pies or search for a new job (and, additionally, provided raises for the staff and offers of a minimum of two weeks’ severance pay). Unlike so many situations in which restaurant workers show up to find locks on the doors or creditors and suppliers frantically phone up to demand nonexistent money from a defunct establishment, everyone here is getting paid. Everyone here is in the loop.
The same meticulous care Heisler and Rubin put into building this place up is being put into taking it apart. And, frankly, that makes people uneasy.
“There are many things that make the closing uncomfortable. One is, perhaps, a byproduct of death-avoidant culture,” Yeh says. The notion of acquiescence to the inevitable is unnerving (“do not go gentle into that good night…”). This really does bring up allusions to mortality.
“Mission Pie was never meant to be a single player,” Yeh continues. “It was created to strengthen the ecosystem: Farms, small business, local communities. I’ve accepted the decision to close, and I’m still uncomfortable.
“I would ask anyone else who feels similarly to channel that discomfort into challenging our status quo.”
It’s clear from the Pamplona-like crowds at Mission Pie these days that the establishment is beloved and will be missed. But it’s not clear everyone gets this place, now or ever.
Heisler and Rubin both told me they felt frustration that San Francisco has coddled socially destructive tech firms — businesses that held the city hostage and have otherwise not comported themselves well — but has not showered similar financial bounties on the city’s struggling small businesses. Mission Pie’s recent salvo against parasitic app-hailed delivery companies struck a nerve among a certain stripe of put-upon San Franciscan.
But, at the same time, Mission Pie’s owners are unrepentant capitalists.
“Healthy, thriving businesses are a community asset. We, as a city, have trouble internalizing that. Our policies do not represent a valuing of business,” Heisler told me. “For the last few decades, progressives in this town have held the traditional liberal mindset that the private sector is the source of evil and the public sector is the source of repair and good.”
Heisler and Rubin wanted to show that this needn’t be true. And, discouragingly for both them and all San Francisco, they no longer can. Even without the landlord issues plaguing so many businesses, they could run their shop ethically, and they could run their shop profitably, and they could run their shop sustainably — but no longer could they do all of these at once.
So now they’re getting their affairs in order.
And so are their soon-to-be former workers. Some will move on to different fields, some will land at other area restaurants, and some will move on from San Francisco entirely. Mission Pie was, for many of these employees, the last anchor tethering them to this city. So now they’ll head to parts unknown.
“Now that Mission Pie is closing, I am leaving San Francisco,” sums up baker Ali Dalsing. “If they can’t make it here, what’s the point? I am not interested in San Francisco without Mission Pie. Because fuck that shit.”