Anthony Strong, the owner and chef of Prairie who turned his less than two-year-old acclaimed restaurant into a general store after the pandemic hit, will permanently close today.
“You get pretty used to having hard conversations and dealing with mayhem and difficult situations on a regular basis in normal restaurant times,” Strong said Tuesday, when he made the announcement. “That’s been heightened immensely over the last five months. And now, this week, it’s a level of rough I have never seen before.”
As he talked to Mission Local on a patio area overlooking San Carlos Street, Strong waved at the customers and friends below who had stopped by to pick up their last orders.
“Congratulations! Thank you! I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” shouts up one woman as she walks by.
“I think the one thing that’s getting us through is just how many amazing people we have around us. From all of our guests who we love, who have been ordering from us since we opened,” Strong said.
Below Strong’s Instagram post announcing the closure are dozens of kind messages from customers and friends.
“I have bought a huge family meal almost every week from Prairie. … I loved seeing all the variety and wonderful creations you all came up with,” said one commenter.
“I so admired what you did with the general store. … This SF lady wishes you well and hope to see you rise again … and when you do I’ll be there with bells on,” said another.
“As much as I would do anything to keep it going, it’s my duty to base my decision-making on the reality of the circumstances,” Strong said.
Prairie celebrated its one-year anniversary in October of 2019, well before fears of a global pandemic were being discussed in the United States.
Then, in February, after “scraping up” enough money, Strong closed the restaurant for four days to install a semi-private area called the Campfire Room for hosting six- to eight-course dinner parties.
To save on costs, Strong did much of the renovation work himself along with his father, who flew in to assist with the project.
A month later, the city issued a shelter-in-place order, leaving Prairie with far fewer customers as well as depleted savings. That’s when Strong had the idea to transform into a typical market. Thus, in March, the Prairie General Store was born.
“It worked for a bit,” Strong said. “We’ve been able to do meal kits and hosting virtual classes and doing more subscription based things, like farm boxes, but it hasn’t been able to carry us.”
Along with a bump in business, the model shift also attracted attention from the media and other restaurants in the community.
Strong recalled being contacted by other small business owners in the city who said their landlords were pushing them to work harder in order to keep paying rent, citing Strong as an example of what they should be doing.
The general store model allowed Prairie to remain open and, for a time, things were looking up.
“It was in April when things were a little crazy here, because we were one of the only places in town with flour,” Strong said.
Not long after, the small business owner qualified for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.
“We got a PPP; it got used up pretty quick,” Strong said. “As grateful as I was for the assistance, it made it more difficult to ascertain the actual health of the business and what was going on. … That ended up being a curse in disguise for us, honestly. If I would have known, I probably wouldn’t have taken it. ”
Soon, the loan ran out. And the boost in business, which came from grocery store shortages throughout the city, ended when grocery-store supply chains adjusted.
“We traded one low-margin, close-to-impossible-to-run business model that we understood for one that is completely foreign to us,” Strong said. “We’re throwing everything at the wall we can but, aside from feeding people, no, it hasn’t worked.”
Strong began to realize that the pandemic would be sticking around and he started taking a hard look at the viability of his business.
Strong said the realization that he would have to close truly hit him during a recent virtual meeting with a company that had ordered coffee and biscuits from Prairie. The customers were asking Strong all about his business when one person asked, ‘How do you know when to quit something?’”
From 5 to 9 a.m. that morning, he had had been trying to answer the very same question. “I can’t tell you, but it’s a gut feeling,” he told the customer.
What’s next for the former executive chef of Delfina who ran multiple shops around town then created Young Fava, a delivery-only restaurant? Strong says that he has two things on his mind. The first is finishing on a strong note.
“I’m really just focused on doing this right on the way out, making things right across the board for everybody involved. Beyond that, I’m trusting a few people who I have that are close to me, who are advising me not to try and have it figured out yet.”
The second thing on Strong’s agenda is rest.
“I’m just going to get some sleep, honestly. I feel like I haven’t slept in three years, right now. So I’m going to catch my breath a little bit, play violin, meditate, ride my bike around and see what comes.”
“I’ve been leaning really hard on my support system throughout all this, other business owners in the city. … I do know that I’ve learned a lot and we’ve got some failures to share here, and if anybody wants to reach out at all, they can just straight up email me at Anthony@prairiesf.com.”