As local tea fanatics pass by 15th and Valencia, they can’t help but feel bereft. In the midst Covid-19, their beloved Samovar Tea House shuttered. More than a year later, a Detroit-style pizza joint opened. Wait, who is that behind the counter? Samovar Tea House’s owner, Jesse Jacobs. Turns out he started and owns this place, Joyride Pizza, too.
By now, Jacobs is used to answering the same series of questions posed by erstwhile teahouse patrons: Yes, Samovar tea can still be bought online, but unfortunately the brick-and-mortars are done. Sadly, there is no tea here at Joyride Pizza — but would you try a slice? The ingredient quality, like the owners, remains the same.
That usually satisfies confused Samovar clients, Jacobs said. “They’re sad, but they understand,” he said. Now customers stay home to “make chai in the morning, and then come in for pizza.”
Jacobs’s chameleon act demonstrates how the pandemic forced some San Francisco entrepreneurs to survive by rebranding. The changes could be as minor as creating a spinoff of a longstanding eatery’s name and shifting to takeout, as Trick Dog did with ‘Quik Dog,’ or as extreme as embarking on a wildly different endeavor, like the metamorphosis of Samovar Tea to pizza, or Top Round on 24th Street’s redo as a birria restaurant.
Rebranding could be a saving grace for businesses that haven’t seen pre-pandemic sales return, said Subodh Bhat, a professor of marketing at San Francisco State University. That’s in part because the pandemic caused a permanent change in consumer behavior, Bhat said. For example, customers may now be accustomed to grocery shopping on an app instead of visiting a storefront.
“Generally, I think [small businesses] have to reinvent themselves, because some of that business will never come back,” Bhat said. “The question is: ‘What do we do?’ They’re trying different things. People are experimenting.”
That’s part of why Jacobs took the plunge. Prior to the pandemic, Jacobs found that residents craved a place to sip tea and chat with a friend; starting with a shop in the Castro in 2001, Samovar grew to five locations in the city, including one at San Francisco International Airport. As other shopkeepers did, he shut down in the pandemic and continued sales and classes online. But when Jacobs reopened just two locations in spring 2021 — at Yerba Buena Gardens, and briefly on Valencia — he received a lackluster response.
“The reality is that people were not into connecting” in typical cafe cultures. “Think about it — you’re not going to have a cozy cup of chai or work on a book report” during a pandemic, Jacobs said. Once the delta variant emerged, Jacobs knew the brick-and-mortars were over.
“That was a moment of deep introspection. After we did the relaunch of Samovar, I said, ‘we gotta transform,’” Jacobs said. “What can we do in the Mission, if it wasn’t tea? What do we need? What would bring people joy?”
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He realized the answer was right under his nose. Jacobs and his wife had spent the pandemic making amateur sourdough pizza, a food revered by his health-nut family as a permissible “guilty pleasure.” He roped in his brother, who helped launch Samovar, and began “devouring” pizza cookbooks; Alastair Hannmann, who’s done pizza all his entire life, signed on and helped innovate recipes.
He zeroed in on Detroit-style pizza for its “savory cheese crisp,” and soon developed a design and perfected a menu. It was decided: The Yerba Buena and Valencia teahouse locations would now sell pizza. “We already had the location, it was more like retrofitting: put in a pizza oven.”
Joyride officially opened in August, and is exploring locations throughout the Bay Area. “Coming out of the pandemic was a lot of fear, and we want to bring joy through pizza,” Jacobs said. “We’re here to stay.”
Other rebrandings came as a result of entrepreneurial spirit and money. While Covid-19 definitely shuttered businesses, innovators still had access to capital, said Louis Cornejo, a commercial realtor and president of Urban Group Real Estate. In fact, 2021 brought a 21 percent increase in new California business licenses.
“Businesses were doing great until 2020, and then [the government] said, ‘stop,’” Cornejo said. “Businesses that have capital are basically just waiting. Some said, ‘Let’s keep our cash and just close until we come back with an idea.’”
Ricardo Lopez, who owned a roast-beef sandwich franchise shop, Top Round Roast Beef on 24th Street near Alabama Street, is brimming with ideas.
He cycled through a handful of side hustles during the pandemic — a barbecue pop-up out of his house, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant called Crispy Edge — before finally deciding to close Top Round and replace it with La Vaca Birria, a Mexican restaurant specializing in the eponymous traditional Mexican meat stew.
“I always wanted to try Mexican-style birria,” Lopez said. He grabbed two childhood friends, his girlfriend Alma Garcia Vanencio and her family, honed his grandfather’s birria recipe, and opened La Vaca Birria in July.
While Top Round was doing just fine, “I just saw more potential in doing these brands that are more unique, instead of these sandwiches you can find typically anywhere,” Lopez said.
At the same time, multiple factors worked in his favor. Even pre-pandemic, Top Round was about 70 percent delivery orders, meaning sales hardly tanked during the shutdown. That steady money bolstered Crispy Edge, whose profits fueled the La Vaca Birria food truck that Lopez started in March, 2021. The truck did so well, Lopez looked for a brick-and-mortar.
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Luckily, he already had a lease at Top Round’s spot, so he transitioned. “We did keep the company LLC, so that helped us switch it over, and we let the landlord know. We have had a good relationship with the health inspector too, and thankfully, with the city, it was very smooth.”
And his mind keeps moving. Lopez later hopes to birth Don Pancho Pizzeria in the next few months, which will offer Mexican-style pies and run concurrently at the same location as La Vaca Birria on 24th Street. He already has the space and some pizza-making tools. “We still have the oven,” Lopez pointed out.
For a man with Lopez’s mindset, the pandemic was his oyster.
“My head never stops,” he said. “Once things are running smoothly, I automatically say, ‘let’s do something new.’”