More than a decade ago, Curtis Kimball’s successful crème brûlée enterprise brought him so much press that he made national headlines. But in 2022, he crept around his Precita Park neighborhood posting fliers for a pancake party, and tried not to be seen.
“I was just nervous and self-conscious,” Kimball said, thinking the neighbors might be annoyed.
The truth was, like everyone, Kimball had gotten weird in the pandemic; talking to people felt more anxiety-inducing than normal. But he thought a pancake party might be able to flip that attitude around.
“I think people are ready to stop thinking about their neighbors as dangerous,” Kimball said. “I think people are thirsty not just for connection, but for ‘positive-rooting’ for each other.”
Kimball, who gained local prominence through his Crème Brûlée Cart in 2009, threw his second word-of-mouth pancake party Saturday at his house in Bernal Heights. The idea came up following a recent discussion with his wife about moving to the East Coast. In Kimball’s opinion, San Francisco entered a downward spiral roughly six years ago; though he thinks it continues to be beautiful but in “disrepair,” most of his friends fled the city as during the pandemic. Ultimately, his wife accepted a new job, and they decided to keep their family here. That didn’t solve Kimball’s problem about his friends being gone, though.
So, Kimball decided to cook pancakes, an easy, comforting food, for his neighbors, for free.
“I thought if I was going to be here, then I wasn’t going to just sit around and complain,” Kimball said. “Instead of thinking about not having friends, I was thinking about building a community.”
Kimball then casually planned a party and earmarked it for a “free weekend” in January. Just before Jan. 21, he printed out some fliers adorned with memes and instructions to his block. He’d take care of the pancakes, as long as you arrived with an appetite for food and human connection at 8:30 a.m. He assembled the requisite ingredients, scored a griddle from a Buy-Nothing group and set it up outside his stairs, and waited for hungry people to show up.
It wasn’t long before his hope for neighborly communion was realized. He served approximately 75 people pancakes that day, several of whom made notable connections. For example, participants coincidentally reunited with friends they hadn’t seen in years. Afterward, neighbors dropped off thank-you gifts like honey and lemons on his porch.
Pumped, Kimball decided to throw a second one. Another funny flier went out, and he Tweeted a viral post about it as the crème brûlée cart.
Kimball bought two more griddles and purchased enough ingredients for 800 pancakes, racking up about $1000. “My in-laws are in town, and I want to make it seem like I have friends,” he said.
And last Saturday, the eaters came in the hundreds, cutting across age, class and race. Some hailed from down the street, other San Francisco neighborhoods, or even from across the country. They learned about it through Twitter, Reddit, the news, Funcheap, or word-of-mouth.
While the visitors came for pancakes, many also acknowledged they, too, felt lonely. A pancake party sounded like an easy way to meet new people.
“It’s kind of a cool idea, right?” said Montserrat, 28. Her companion David, 31, hung nearby as they ate their blueberry pancakes; about seven children darted around them.
“There’s pancakes! You can come up and help yourself,” Montserrat said as I watched the scene. The two had just moved back to the city from San Diego a few months ago, and struggled to find organic ways of making new friends. “It feels hard to interject yourself into established friend groups in the city,” David said.
Montserrat agreed. As a new Alameda County teacher, she spends most of her time focusing on her career. Since David works from home, expanding his social circle has proven difficult.
Lately, David has been turning to Discord, a messaging platform often associated with video games, to find community events like this. Recently, that chat spawned meet-ups at Zeitgeist bar and in Glen Park. He shared the pancake party with the Discord chat, and said he and Montserrat would venture to the art and Valentines-themed event Lovers Lane in Balmy Alley afterward.
“We don’t usually have pancakes for breakfast,” Montserrat said. “I’m looking forward to meeting our neighbors. The pancake is just the… pancake on top!”
Meredith Grimm, 70, brought a ceramic coffee mug as she waited in line. She arrived with Paul McCarthy, 33, and Annelise Grimm, 37, who took turns attempting to simultaneously entertain their dog, Cookie, and their one-and-half-year-old, Nico Grimm.
“We love our neighborhood and want to hang out with the neighbors,” Meredith said, spotting some ahead. They caught wind of Saturday’s events through Kimball’s “hilarious” sign.
“It’s definitely good vibes. I haven’t met any person in a long time,” Annelise said.
“There have been fewer opportunities to hang out,” McCarthy said as he playfully hung Nico by his ankles; they actually came for the gathering, not the pancakes.
McCarthy said they usually host a haunted garage at their place a few streets over with a similar idea of community-building, but food does the job fantastically, too. “We should have more silly hang-outs.”
Stephen, 79, biked over from the Castro. The pancake party popped up on Funcheap, a site he often visits to find new, local experiences. “You get to emerge from your idle state, which opens you up to new perception,” Stephen said. “Normally I don’t have pancakes for breakfast, so we’re going to change things around.”
This event reminded Aditya, the father of two young children nearby, of the Crème Brûlée Cart/early 2000s San Francisco vibe.“It was great,” Aditya said. “At that time, there was a lot of that, Mission people made crème brûlée, pizza, pie. It’s cool people are doing stuff again, and hopefully this goes back to being on a regular basis, like a few years ago.”
During the two-hour event, dozens kept the line moving down Alabama Street. People entered idle chatter: Terri Massin, 70, reviewed the new Netflix show “Sweet Magnolias” that she’d been binging with her friend Becky. Kate, a visitor from Boston, said her work brought her to San Francisco and she read about the pancake event online; she was deep in conversation with someone visiting from Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Kimball, a poofy white chef hat perched atop his head, slung pancake after pancake on the griddle.
Next to him was his mother-in-law making the plain pancakes, and Lil Homie, AKA Dylan, who worked with Kimball on the crème brûlée cart. Kimball “was the first person to give me a cooking job,” Dylan said. Now, he’s a chef at Copas on Market Street.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Kimball said. “My idea was, if I can jumpstart something talented and creative, and maybe if I do that, then other people will do that, too,” Kimball said. “Tell everyone to go out and make San Francisco!”
It’s safe to say the pancakes lived up to his diners’ expectations.
“They’re delicious!” said Daphne, 9, who sat with her mother on upturned black buckets posited for diners.
At about 10:30 a.m., half an hour before Kimball would shut down the griddle, someone screamed out, “HEY LINE! How about we give a big round of applause to Chris and the whole gang!” The line erupted in cheers.
On Sunday, Kimball tweeted what everyone was dying to know: Did he make friends? Well, someone dropped off a bag of lemons with a note that read: “I’m your neighbor Galen. My wife also says I need friends,” adding his cellphone number. “Enjoy the Meyer lemons and thanks for the pancakes! —Galen. (Really, his wife, Kate.)”
“Well, Galen, I’m not sure if your wife told you,” Kimball tweeted. “But we’re about to be friends.”