San Franciscans may not recognize Curtis Kimball by name, or even by his face. And yet thousands of San Franciscans do know him.
They stood at random Mission District intersections at 3 p.m., happily waiting hours to buy from Kimball’s crème brûlée cart. They trekked to his home to devour free chocolate chip pancakes. And now that Kimball is packing up and leaving San Francisco, his neighbors, whether they know it or not, will miss him immensely.
Kimball, better known as the Crème Brûlée Cart Man — or Free Pancake Guy as of late — will bid San Francisco adieu after two decades to be closer to ailing family. “The bad news is that it’s now my turn to leave San Francisco,” Kimball wrote in a Friday farewell tweet. “After 20+ years of calling this beautiful city home, I’ve gotta go.”
For those who remember it, the Post-Dot-Com Boom was the “golden-age” of pop-ups in the Mission, and Kimball’s crème brûlée cart was a San Francisco favorite that drew scads of customers. Folks felt giddy with anticipation each time Kimball suddenly announced his cart’s newest location. “3 p.m. to sell out, by Dolores Park,” he might’ve tweeted. The dessert lovers flocked, and his reputation grew.
After skyrocketing popularity, national headlines, a brick-and-mortar, and a stint at a Westfield Mall space, Kimball retired his butane torch. But many recall this period reverently, and bring up Kimball’s alter-ego with an awe reserved for superheroes: “Do you remember when there used to be that crème brûlée cart?” They sigh.
It took only a soul-crushing pandemic and a dwindling social circle to get Kimball out cooking again for community. By January, he posted fliers and tweeted out an open invitation for a free pancake party to mingle and make friends; he held it again in February, catching the eye of the Washington Post (and, seemingly, every print publication in town and many from elsewhere). So, naturally, he decided the only way to leave the city was to have a final Pancake Party at his Alabama Street home (and to top it off with a national tour on his road trip heading east).
“I’m making pancakes to make friends. I’m making pancakes to spread love. I’m making pancakes so that you’ll make pancakes and you’ll spread love,” his Friday tweet read.
This Saturday, scores of San Franciscans came to say goodbye and break pancakes together, undeterred by the gray, wet morning. By day’s end, the chef would flip some 250 pancakes. Brian Goldstein, a longtime friend, purchased a poster board and pasted old photos of Kimball on it.
Neighbors old and new filled the impromptu Kimball retrospective with thank-you notes; in gratitude, children signed it with Sharpie sketches of rainbows and Kimball’s dogs. “Thank you, pancake guy!” One little boy screamed as his mom whisked him away.
“Curtis brings people together,” Goldstein said. He moved to San Francisco in 2004, and later befriended Kimball’s brother, and then got to know Kimball. Over the years he spent his fair share of memorable days with Kimball, including Christmas at Zeitgeist — and officiating Kimball’s wedding. “I’m sorry to see him go, but I know what he learned here, he’ll bring elsewhere. That’s really special,” Goldstein said.
At 10:15 a.m., a family of three arrived. The mother thanked Kimball as he buttered the griddle, and told him that she followed him since his crème brûlée days. “I’m trying not to cry,” Kimball replied sheepishly, ladling some batter.
crème brûlée cart Man’s San Francisco run
Christopher Tai, an attorney for the Eviction Defense Collaborative, and writer Jenn Ng, talked with friends who just moved to Bernal Heights. The couple recounted how one year the community kitchen La Cocina held a street food festival with a food scavenger hunt — and, because they won, Tai and Ng got to perform a silly video with Kimball.
It feels “surreal” and “very emotional” to have people you don’t know that well to say you impacted them, Kimball told me after the event. One woman shared that she bought Kimball’s crème brûlées as a daily treat for her friend when he was hospitalized for AIDS. Another woman said her husband would cook pancakes, and after his death, she never ate them — until Kimball’s free pancake party last February.
“A bunch of people came to say goodbye to me today — people I don’t know,” Kimball said, eyes watering. “Having an outsized impact is … cool.”
Meanwhile, appreciation poured out for Kimball online, too. “April 5, 2012 … my first, but not my last, creme brulee from your cart!! Life is truly fleeting,” one person tweeted. “You visited our neighbors – The Hell’s Angels! Nice!” One added. Another shared succinctly: “I ate far too many crème brûlées from you.”
This is the mark Kimball hoped to leave on San Francisco — one of community. His favorite memories involve connections with people; passing out roses to strangers before his bartending shifts, or that Halloween in 2010 when he decorated his garage with Astroturf and hosted a San Francisco Giants World Series watch party. Parents took a break from trick-or-treating to watch bits of the game. It was “perfect, just being able to connect with all these different kinds of people,” he said.
Though heartbreaking, Kimball believes leaving San Francisco is very much part of the city’s beautiful “transient” nature. As his own farewell party and tweet would reveal, he is far from the only one leaving Bernal Heights in the next few weeks.
But at the same time, newcomers who will keep the city lively and interesting are arriving. Fiyin, who met Kimball for the first time at his farewell party on Saturday, had just moved to Bernal Heights. “It’s exactly why we moved,” Fiyin said. “We wanted to be a part of the community, spontaneity … to eat pancakes in front of someone’s house.”
Kimball loves that. After all, San Francisco’s siren call attracted “weird people” like him, and he hopes more will come and leave their legacy.
His advice: Old San Franciscans, “Relax. San Francisco is always changing.” Newcomers: “Participate. Don’t treat San Francisco as a consumer good. Don’t just Yelp a place — become friends with the cook, or the restaurant owner. Be a part of this city.”
The Crème Brûlée Cart man has faith in the city he’s leaving behind. Following February’s pancake party, some neighbors started a Friday night happy hour outside their home. On 25th and York Street, a young man launched a coffee pop-up that commonly attracts dozens of folk.
“I wanted to live here all my life,” Kimball said. “It’s a great, beautiful city. I hope people appreciate it. The next generation — it’s up to you.”
Sweet, Heart❤ Warming stories; thank you All involved.
Annika Hom, Kudos
Bravo, more Power & Energy to You.
Keep going brave & strong.