New Harmony Cafe. Photo by Lydia Chávez

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.  

Ben Angel and Diana Brooks. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

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. 

To keep the service-oriented food deliveries that other Mission restaurants have also been successful in doing, Angel will need to raise more cash; he’s started a GoFundMe campaign.

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.

Reem Assil stands at her bakery on 25th and Mission. Photo by Julian Mark.

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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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Would love to check out New Harmony Cafe’s menu, but unfortunately the link to their website is broken.

  2. I’m going to assume you’re serious but it’s hard to believe.
    Let’s make a few assumptions:
    1) employees cost $30 an hour to the business after taxes etc
    2) He makes 14 cents profit on a can at your price
    3) He only sells coke for this example, we can apply your 10% margin to other products as well if we want.

    At that rate they’ll have to sell 214 cokes per hour to cover ONLY the labor per employee.
    Of course that’s not figuring in all their other costs.

    I’d guess you’re ok with them making $1 per customer. As that seems insanely low and it’s a nice easy number to work with. If their total costs are 20k a month to stay open 70 hours a week they’d have to serve 285 customers an hour averaged out over the time they’re open. That’s 4.7 customers a minute from open to close which is not going to happen.

    Let’s say for a minute that $1 or even $5 profit per customer is reasonable.
    It’s still a challenge to run a business in SF with labor, bills, tax, rent, utility. If the city wants this to exist they’re going to have to subsidize the hell out of it. It’s literally not possible to pay these SF costs and charge less than a coke in a restaurant in rural Iowa.

    Curious what your actual solution is, if you have one.

  3. You are leaving out the largest costs of running a business(rent, labor, marketing, etc…). Check the prices at liquor/grocery stores in the mission for a can of coke. Even at these stores where there is no extra service, they charge over $1 for a can of coke.

    I compared Safeway as that is the cheapest place normal folks can buy things. They are charging an average of 66 cents for a smaller can of coke AND you have to buy in bulk(6). Your 75 cent example just shows your ignorance.

    Or, you truly aren’t ignorant and are just a spin machine trying to make the neighborhood anti business and financially dumb.

    Would never vote for the Donald.

  4. Wow New Harmony charges $2 for get this …….. can of coke. Should be la raza pricing.

    1. Well, if people are willing to pay $2 for a coke in a clean and comfortable place, so be it. They can walk to the next corner and get a coke at the grocery store for more than $1. $2 for a coke in a restaurant/cafe is not very expensive. Especially in SF.

      I’d like to know what you think the price should be? Seriously, what exact amount should they charge for a 12 ounce coca cola in your La Raza pricing model?

      For reference, Safeway charges $3.95 for a 6 pack of 7.5 ounce cokes –

      Ricardo, your lack of economic understanding makes me so sad for our educational system.

      1. John Thompson, you have no idea how econ works. Nobody buys items from Safeway to resell. Safeway is retail.
        They can get cans of coke delivered for 44 cents each plus 5 cents CRV (look it up, you probably have no clue what CRV means )
        They also should be paying 12 cents is taxes for sugary drinks.
        44+5+12= 61 cents for cost basis (you need to learn these econ terms)
        10% markup seems appropriate. Since its SF we will round up. I agree prices are higher.
        Should be 75 cents a can and. NOt a cent more.
        They can either sell for 75 cents or please come back to this article a year from now and let me know how they did. Please do not vote for Donald Trump.

    2. Not sure where you’re going with that.
      If you’re saying it’s expensive I don’t see how it’s possible to pay $20+ an hour to multiple people making coffee and food, high rent, utilities and everything else that goes with it.

      Building owners can’t rent the spaces (most) out cheap and exist. No one wants (or should have to) work for cheap. SF doesn’t provide cheap utilties / taxes. So how can anyone open and sell a can of coke for cheap?

    3. Hey Ricardo, Ben here. Just wanted to say I hear you. We do have a community menu with la raza pricing: $1.50 espresso, $2 coffee, and $6 coffee + breakfast sandwich. It’s important to us to have a menu that’s affordable in a city that’s not. Compared with any other neighborhood cafe / coffee shop (La Taza, Grind, Atlas, the only real Philz, etc) and we’re cheaper and serve great coffee (shout out to Proyecto Diaz!

      I’m always happy to hear opinions. Drop by if you wanna chat 🙂

      1. FANTATIC Ben,
        Great to see La Raza pricing. I wish you nothing but success mi amigo.
        Maybe you can teach Jered and John Economics one day.

        1. I guess we will disagree and move on from this one. I think Ben is doing a great job and that’s great he’s offering affordable options. I used to frequent La Taza and don’t remember it being that affordable. At least not as cheap as Ben’s menu.

          Best of luck to you Ben.

  5. It was sad that Laundre was forced to close. It had become quite popular.

    1. The laundry portion is still open and doing well.
      The cafe was great but might not have been a good fit.

    2. Laundre might not have been the perfect fit but it would’ve stayed open longer except it’s beer and wine license got appealed by United to the Save the Mission because that would gentrify the neighborhood. Amongst other complaints they claimed the white color of the walls was elitist.

      “That came to a head last October, when seven members of a neighborhood coalition met with Roviello, asking her to sign an agreement that, among other stipulations, asked her to change the color of her walls. Sans an agreement, the group would not support the cafe’s bid to serve beer and wine. (The group’s effort was ostensibly a means of stabilizing the gentrifying neighborhood.)”.