Almost every day over the past year, Steve Fox walked over to Urban Putt, his indoor mini-golf course on South Van Ness and 22nd Street, to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes, he’d work in his office. Sometimes, he’d even play a few holes.
“Obviously, it has been miserable,” he said. “There were periods of tremendous fear about whether we’d reopen — and sadness, because I’d come here every day, and there’s something sad about walking through this mini-golf course when no one is here.”
Mission Local spoke to Fox as businesses began boarding up last March, only days after the first shelter-in-place order took effect and left small businesses fearing for their futures. Many businesses have not made it; the boards they used to protect their windows remained up and soon gave way to signs that said “for lease.”
During the early days, Fox feared a similar fate. He laid off most of his employees, both in San Francisco and in Denver. His longtime general manager called it quits. And even though Fox considered mini-golf “essential,” he also understood that hordes of kids and tipsy 20-somethings packed into the small establishment was antithetical to a fast reopening.
But, one year later, Fox is optimistic. He says he plans to reopen next Wednesday at 25 percent capacity, now that San Francisco has entered the orange tier. He’s already begun to set up sanitation stations, reconfigure tees for the holes, and make other safety modifications. His chef, with months of downtime, came up with a bagel recipe, and Fox wants to offer coffee and bagels for pick-up on the weekends.
“I fully anticipate we’re probably going to lose money for months,” he said. “But the trick is, if we lose only a little money for a while until things get back to normal-ish, that would be okay.”
Other businesses we spoke with early on likewise had an eye on the future. Johnny Travis, the co-owner of State of Flux, a clothing brand based on Valencia Street, said 2020 was not the worst year for his company, and he’s already planning for summer of 2021, hoping tourism — and foot traffic — will pick up.
Following the lockdown orders last March, Travis and co-owner Herbert Garcia started manufacturing face masks before they were sold on every street corner. It allowed some of his employees to keep working, while most retail shops were forced to go completely dormant.
Meanwhile, Travis received several federal grants and loans: A payroll protection program loan, and several other loans from the federal Small Business Administration, which he said helped a lot. The store’s landlord cut rent in half and provided a break on back rent.
But Travis doesn’t hang State of Flux’s survival solely on the safety nets. Over the last year, State of Flux continued to roll out new products and offer fresh brands. The duo held outdoor screen-printing sessions on some weekends. And they’ve even begun collaborating with Timbuk2 on a new product. (Timbuk2 was another business that began making face masks in the early days of the pandemic, though only for healthcare workers.)
“If we end up doing okay in the first quarter, we can build up to the spring. Then, hopefully by the time summer hits, we can get tourist traffic,” Travis said.
Foot traffic has been harder to come by. There are not as many businesses on the southern end of Valencia Street — and that portion of the corridor has not benefited from a program that shuts down the corridor to cars on weekends.
“We’re just kind of left out,” he said. “Everyone from 22nd Street and above, we don’t get that advantage, which would increase foot traffic and get people walking around. We have to fend for ourselves.”
Luis Estrada, the owner of Salvadoran restaurant D’Maize, is also on a portion of 24th Street (between York and Hampshire) that does not see a high level of foot traffic, and his business has struggled. “I gotta be honest, the days — they change,” he said. “Sometimes, when you think a day is gonna be shiny, everything goes bad.”
Mission Local spoke to Estrada early in the shutdown last year. After having laid off most of his employees, he said he could not “see the end of the road.”
A year later, he sounded just as grim. For starters, opening his restaurant for outdoor dining has been a struggle. He has a patio that could have worked well, but “people are not respecting the protocols.” And 25 percent indoor capacity only allows him to have two tables. “For two tables, and running the risk of the outdoor patio, it’s not the best option to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, Estrada has struggled to obtain financial assistance. He received a paycheck protection loan last year, but that covered only a fraction of his costs. Otherwise, he’s felt as though his applications for other grants have fallen into an abyss. At the very least, his landlords have been “flexible,” waiving his rent entirely. “I don’t think they’re going to be flexible much longer,” he said.
So, he’s had to cut hours, and he’s praying that reopening speeds up so that D’Maize’s bread and butter — catering, mostly to San Francisco City College — can resume.
“Maybe tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday,” Estrada said. “We don’t know how much longer we can deal with it.”