What drives a young man to open a cafe during a pandemic? “Necessity,” said Ben Angel, the 34-year-old owner of the New Harmony Cafe at 20th and Mission streets.
“It was either open during the pandemic or never open,” he said. “It’s not enough to stay closed for an indefinite amount of time.”
Five blocks south of New Harmony, Reem Assil was so busy managing the soft opening of Reem’s California Bakery at 25th and Mission streets that she barely noticed the storm at her door.
“I didn’t pay attention to the news or the fact that that this was coming down until the week of our soft opening,” she said. Then, customers started canceling catering orders at her Fruitvale shop. The press kept asking: “What does it feel like to be opening during a pandemic?”
“What? We’re in a pandemic?” Assil recalled saying in early March. “That was when I had an ‘aha’ moment.”
While it is always risky to launch a restaurant, opening during a pandemic is particularly harrowing. And yet, both Angel and Assil are, so far, managing to stay afloat.
When a six-county regional order shut down the city in mid-March, Angel’s lease was already signed. Staying closed would have used up the capital he had raised from family and friends.
So, he took the plunge and paid April’s rent. To cut costs, he pulled the plug on hiring a full staff, kept his manager Diana Brooks, and hung out the “open” sign. Already, he and Brooks, who has experience in restaurants from her time at the Proper Hotel, had gotten halfway to what they envision as a large comfortable living room filled with art produced by the community, patrons, and professionals.
Indeed, the space is almost as colorful as the design of the 19-year tenant. Ritmo Latino, which closed in September of 2009 to be followed by various businesses. The last was Laundré, a coffee shop, also opened by a young woman with dreams of creating a space for patrons to have coffee and do their laundry.
The only missing ingredient in April were the customers Angel imagined lounging on the sofas or filling the tables. At present, much of that furniture has been pushed to the side.
No matter. By mid-May, Angel had built up a small takeout business. Some 90 percent of his customers, he discovered, come from a two- to three-block radius. To help sales, Brooks stocked homemade takeaways like bread and butter pickles, pickled pink onions, cauliflower, carrots and jalapeños.
In May, they improvised again. Instead of paying rent, Angel’s landlord, Jered Kenna, let him put the money toward providing 500 free meals for the community. Most immediately, that sends breakfast and lunch each week to the clients at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center on 17th and Capp.
Surviving the pandemic, however, will not be easy, and he’s already looking at Plan B: the possibility of becoming a worker-owned cooperative. Interested? Drop by the cafe and ask for Ben.
In the meantime, if you’re thinking of opening a business, you can read his blog on Medium on how to open during a pandemic.
Already opened, there was no turning back for Assil. Within days of her soft opening in the longtime former site of Mission Pie, all of her careful planning, intentional interior design, and the sense of “Arab hospitality” she tried to bring to the new restaurant, had to be scrapped or reimagined.
“Soon it became clear to us that it wasn’t going to be sustainable,” she said. “We had all the startup costs of starting a restaurant.”
Now, she’s down to a “skeleton crew.” Twenty-three initial positions at the bakery were pared down to 10. And Assil does most of the rest. “I’m playing all the roles,” she said. “Line cook, kitchen manager, application filler, marketer, fundraiser.”
Part of her cash-flow, at least enough to keep her most vulnerable employees on board, is coming from preparing scores of meals through the SF New Deal, which provides funds that allow restaurants to prepare meals for those in need. She’s able to produce close to 2,000 meals a week.
But that is nowhere near a sustainable model, and Assil is already planning for the future. “I don’t see dine-in happening anytime soon,” she said. “So we’re not planning to have a thriving dine-in (model) anytime this year.”
Assil said she’s experimenting with take-home meal kits with families, and said the future of the culinary scene could veer toward “how do you experience restaurants from your home.” Aside from that, “restaurants are going to have to streamline menus and form menus that are more scalable,” she said.
More than anything, Assil said the fate of an already precarious industry, one that saw extremely thin margins before the pandemic, hangs in the balance. “We are going to see restaurants not be able to adapt to the model and not going to survive this,” she said.
But after some inevitable die-off, she sees two possibilities: Corporate food chains may thrive, filling in where mom-and-pops were once hanging on. Or, if policy-makers funnel money into smaller businesses, “a more sustainable restaurant economy may emerge.”
For her part, “I feel equipped because I’m resilient,” she said. ”The ones who have made something out of nothing will figure out a way to get through this. We’ve always had to work with very little.”
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