In any recession or economic crisis, the failures proliferate, but, some see opportunity. As Jing Chen, who co-owns 10 Therapy stores in northern California and one in Portland Oregon with her former husband, Wayne Whelan, says, a recession offers both “danger and opportunity.”
During the 2008 recession, the company opened three new stores. Late last year when business was strong, Chen opened a new store in Livermore, and this June – in the midst of the pandemic – she opened a new store in Folsom. “I’m going through the same difficult time as everyone else, but I know we will be okay; I’m a very cautious capitalist.”
Unlike other stores that sell home products and small personal items, Therapy’s price point is low — and that strategy, she said, has helped it survive. She’s also adaptable. Before the pandemic, Chen had no online store, but launched one in mid-April.
Chen isn’t the only one to see opportunity in the city’s recession.
From cart to restaurant
For the past two years, Leonardo Flores spent most weekends selling drinks out of a cart at Mission Dolores Park, and most nights driving for Lyft. His beverage business, known on Instagram under the handle Dolores Waterfall, was his main source of income.
Then, in mid-March, business ground to a halt. While Dolores is known for being constantly inundated with people, the arrival of Covid-19 to San Francisco kept crowds home and the park empty. While driving for Lyft, Flores said, more than an hour could pass between rides, making the gig unsustainable.
Left with no work and a practically nonexistent financial safety net, Flores decided to try his hand in the food industry.
A week or two after the city’s shelter-in-place order, Flores began selling and delivering ceviche and micheladas – a popular Mexican drink that contains various combinations of beer, tomato juice, lime and an array of sauces and spices – on the weekends with his wife, Nayelli Cornejo.
“The first week, I think we had like five or six orders and all were from friends. … They were really only ordering to help us out,” Flores said in Spanish.
As a native of Mexico City, Flores has been buying and making micheladas, mostly for himself, for years. The popular drink has many different variations, and Flores says he has always been told he has a knack for making them.
Then, after about three weeks of delivering “cevicheladas,” cups full of michelada with tortilla chips and ceviche on top, the Daly City-based couple began receiving too many orders to fill by themselves.
So they began hiring employees. First, they hired one “cuñado” (a close friend), then they hired three more.
“We needed help, and our friend is also unemployed, so we decided to offer him the job,” Flores said.
What were originally five-pound batches of ceviche became 45 pounds. What was originally five or six orders per week became 15 to 25 per day.
The team, now six people, is like a family, Flores said. The couple has known their staff as friends for more than five years, and each hire became unemployed due to the pandemic and recession.
Confident in how their business has performed over the last five months, Flores and Cornejo have made the decision to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Again, the recession helped: empty storefronts abounded.
After looking at multiple storefronts, a few of which were simply too expensive, the couple found a spot at 22nd Street and Potrero Avenue, just across from San Francisco General Hospital.
“It was really destroyed: the floor, the walls — we had to repaint and fill holes,” Flores said. “Everything was worn down, same with the kitchen.”
Eager to lease a property that had been vacant for years, the owner offered the couple two months of free rent if they could fix up the extensive damage.
Flores did not have much experience with construction or remodeling. Fortunately, his friends and family did. And many were eager to help.
Cornejo’s father is a professional electrician with a bit of plumbing experience. Flores has a friend who goes by the nickname Cuco, who works as a painter. Cuco offered his services as well as his professional tools, which made painting much faster. Another friend, David Flores, runs his own interior design company, he helped choose the new restaurant’s color palette.
Together, the group completely remade the storefront, and residents may check out the new Mission Waterfall restaurant later this month. A specific reopening date has not yet been chosen.
Leap of Faith
When Sonia Martinez was young, she was drawn by the allure of punk rock: the music, the look, everything.
“The punk rockers in the ’70s with the safety pins in the cheek, where everything’s done in the bathroom, I was very interested in that,” Martinez said.
The piercings were particularly fascinating to her, and when Martinez learned she could make a living by poking holes in people and adorning them, she jumped at the chance.
Martinez said she then found a business that she liked and, “bugged the shit out of the guy who owned it to give me an apprenticeship.”
She’s been working happily as a professional piercer ever since, for more than 20 years.
For the last 10 years, she has been at Mission Ink, but last year she began thinking seriously about her future.
“There’s no 401k in being an independent contractor,” Martinez said. “So I thought maybe it’s time to see about opening up my own shop.”
A self-described optimist, Martinez was insistent on staying in the city, despite the high rent and her limited budget.
When Martinez and her partner, Andrew Ireland, began looking last year, they were disillusioned by the prices they saw and paused their search to save up more.
“Then the pandemic hit,” Martinez said. “And you see so many stores closing, which is so heartbreaking because that’s someone’s dream, but because of that rents have fallen.”
The recession also left Martinez with no work and lots of time, so she began looking again in May. By July, she found her new shop, on Valencia Street between 21st and 22nd streets, in the spot that once housed a workout studio named Burn.
Martinez opened 13 Bats Tattoo and Piercing Studio on Oct. 1, just two weeks after the city allowed tattoo and piercing indoors.
Martinez acknowledged the high risk of opening a business at a time when so many are closing or struggling to survive, but she remains steadfast in her optimism.
“At least if I fail, I can say I gave it my all,” Martinez said. “But I’m hoping to put my positive energy into it. I’m hoping my leap of faith will pay off.”
In June of last year, Suraksha Basnet signed the lease for a new Nepalese restaurant, Base Camp.
Basnet is not particularly new to the restaurant game. She has been running Dancing Yak, on Valencia Street, for three years now.
Base Camp was initially set to open in December, 2019, but Basnet needed a new PG&E meter for the business, resulting in a four-month delay.
Finally, earlier this year, Base Camp was ready to debut, but as the soft opening date approached, it became increasingly evident to Basnet that she could not move forward. The day Basnet set as Base Camp’s soft opening, March 16, was the day the city announced a shelter-in-place order.
Now, six months into the pandemic and resulting recession, Basnet is in a position she would never have expected. Dancing Yak, the restaurant she operated successfully for three years, is temporarily closed. But Base Camp, the restaurant that never even got a proper opening before the pandemic, is now her actual base camp.
For Basnet, the defining factor between her open business and her closed one is simple: outdoor seating.
Basnet opened Base Camp for takeout in May.
“Once we opened, I and one chef worked the kitchen the first month, with one manager in the front of the house,” Basnet said.
As word of her new business began to grow, Basnet was able to bring on two more staff. This is despite Basnet not receiving any federal financial assistance for Base Camp because it was not open prior to the pandemic.
When the city allowed outdoor seating in late July, Basnet immediately put a few tables in front of Base Camp, which led to a bump in business. Soon after, Basnet gained approval from the city to build a parklet in front of the Folsom Street business.
“We were doing well, almost went up double, until the fires,” Basnet said. “I was actually able to bring two employees full time.”
Meanwhile, the situation at Dancing Yak was much less bright. Basnet was denied the ability to build a parklet because of a bike lane. The narrower Valencia Street sidewalks also make it impossible to put out tables without obstructing the path, Basnet said.
As a result, business floundered. Finally, in August, Basnet made the decision to cut costs by closing Dancing Yak and moving its staff and menu over to Base Camp. She now has a total staff of 11, and business is good for the moment.
When the city reopens indoor dining, Basnet said she plans on reopening Dancing Yak. But for now, she’s focused on Base Camp.