Chef Jay Foster on being Black and running restaurants in San Francisco
December 16, 2019 7:53 PM   Subscribe

Running Restaurants in San Francisco Made Me Rethink Everything I Thought I Knew About Success “While all of this was going on, I started to put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, to be one of the few Black restaurant owners and chefs left in San Francisco’s historically Black Fillmore neighborhood. I would pray to the city to let me find a way to be everything that the city’s African American population needed, in terms of representation, visibility, and influence. ...At that point, it was even more important for me to do this, to make something for the Black community in a city that used to be composed of nearly 15% Black people, but now is less than six percent. I felt like San Francisco needed this restaurant now more than ever.”
posted by primalux (18 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Within the span of one year, our rent went from $3,500 per month to nearly $14,000. We were working harder and later to keep up."

The fact that they survived this kind of increase even one month is amazing to me.

"We were several weeks into Isla Vida’s opening when we knew we’d have to close Farmerbrown. We couldn’t keep funding it, despite everything we’d done. We’d taken out loans, we’d gotten the city involved to help stave off the steep rent increases. Closing was the only thing left we knew to do. We were lucky that the San Francisco airport reached out about wanting to create an outpost of Farmerbrown in one of the terminals, but that didn’t lessen the pain of having to close the restaurant. I was happy to be able to save some people’s jobs, but I was still devastated. We were a $3 million company at the time, but even that wasn’t enough to survive in San Francisco."

"We didn’t have the community support like before. The spaces the Black community had carved out, the restaurants we’d established, the communities we’d become a part of, were all fading out. The San Francisco that I fell in love with was not the city we were living in. The new crowd that replaced them wanted Instagrammable food delivered to their doors without having to wait. At that point, it was even more important for me to do this, to make something for the Black community in a city that used to be composed of nearly 15% Black people, but now is less than six percent. I felt like San Francisco needed this restaurant now more than ever."

There is so much here. So much about how much we lose in community and how much we have to grieve. It's hard not to just quote this entire essay. Capitalism is white supremacy. It reinforces existing power and carves away at connection, hollowing out minority neighborhoods and communities.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:22 PM on December 16, 2019 [19 favorites]


I was so disappointed when I learned Farmerbrown closed down. It was one of my favorite spots in SF; I even took my mom there for her birthday and she takes her soul food seriously. I’m very curious to hear what Chef Foster does in the future.

What does success mean when you hit all measurements of success and it’s still not enough? This seems to be a recurring theme these days.
posted by loriginedumonde at 8:32 PM on December 16, 2019 [12 favorites]


Within the span of one year, our rent went from $3,500 per month to nearly $14,000. We were working harder and later to keep up."

Some interesting context. A four desk space in the WeWork on Mission/3rd which is about 150 square feet is $4000 a month. Same size space in Berkeley is $2500.

It’s a strange time that without gov’t interference, on the open market, there’s zero incentive to have a retail/restaurant space in downtown SF when it can rent as twice as much as office space.

I’d say come to Oakland but with the rate of construction in Uptown its likely to head the same way in the next 5-10 years.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:21 PM on December 16, 2019


This was a heartbreaking read. I remember hearing about Isla Vide when it opened. I stuck it on my "want to go" list, followed them on Twitter... didn't quite get round to going and they're gone.

I honestly don't understand how anyone can run a successful restaurant in San Francisco today. Reminds me of this piece from the owner of Tawla, another departed SF food spot.
posted by simonw at 10:28 PM on December 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


I miss farmerbrown. They had great cocktails and a convenient location and were POC owned and I went there with some frequency. I'm now working even closer to that location and really wish they had been able to stay open. There were businesses that were possible in the pre-gentrified Tenderloin/Mid-Market that aren't possible when everything is a WeWork or a hipster cafe.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:38 PM on December 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


bitdamaged, they shouldn't have to come to Oakland. It's wild that a major city like San Francisco is actively flushing out its Black population, it also can't sustain restaurants that cater to them and other people who are interested in food beyond avocado toast and dressed up pork belly.
posted by loriginedumonde at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2019 [9 favorites]


Isla Vida, our Afro-Caribbean rotisserie chicken concept

Oh man, this sounds sooo good. I'm sorry I won't have a chance to try it.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 10:33 AM on December 17, 2019


God, that rent increase. These links are so depressing and feel so right. I always thought of San Francisco as a good food city, but I'm not sure it can be anymore. Sure, there are people who value quality chocolate and coffee and charcuterie and produce...but that's true of lots of places, these days. I spent a few weeks around LA last year and I realized that the ~soulless~ metro area gave me the best restaurant food I'd had in ages. So many different types of food, at different price points, without insane waiting times, almost always delivering better value and a more enjoyable experience than anything in or around San Francisco. The restaurant business has always been considered difficult, but San Francisco level difficulty just seems off the charts right now.
posted by grandiloquiet at 11:18 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's not just commercial rents that are causing havoc in the restaurant business. As residential rents have gone up (along with overall cost of living), restaurant staff (cooks, servers, bartenders, etc) have been priced out of the area. So there's simply fewer people around to do the work than before. But the market is also kind of broken meaning that this apparent demand doesn't translate into higher wages (or better benefits) for those who do stay in the area. Restaurants, also strapped for cash, are still paying minimum wages for most staff positions. There are more job choices but that doesn't help with paying the rent.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 11:29 AM on December 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


I do not understand why everyone feels the need to bag on Los Angeles even while saying they enjoyed being here.
We are definitely experiencing the "rising rents driving out locally owned and loved restaurants", though. There are a lot more places to go, but it's still happening :(
posted by flaterik at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Sorry, the "soulless" thing was not meant sincerely. I really enjoyed my time in Los Angeles, and the restaurants were even better than I expected (and I expected them to be good).
posted by grandiloquiet at 11:49 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


This article from a few years ago looked at the effects these pressures are having on the restaurant business: There's a Massive Restaurant Industry Bubble, and It's About to Burst. (Doesn't mention Isla Vida or Farmerbrown, but does discuss other San Francisco restaurants.)
posted by Lexica at 12:35 PM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Really sad to read. Here’s a question - how do hipster cafes manage to stay open with such crazy rents? I realize that coffee is a fairly high margins but the amount of $6 lattes you’re selling isn’t massive and you’ve got people parked on their laptops all day for the cost of that latte. Then again, I also don’t understand how people can afford to live in SF while working at a hipster cafe.
posted by misterpatrick at 2:28 PM on December 17, 2019


Really sad to read. Here’s a question - how do hipster cafes manage to stay open with such crazy rents? I realize that coffee is a fairly high margins but the amount of $6 lattes you’re selling isn’t massive and you’ve got people parked on their laptops all day for the cost of that latte. Then again, I also don’t understand how people can afford to live in SF while working at a hipster cafe.

Drive thru and order ahead - fast food is now close to 50% order ahead and drive-thru, so interior spaces can get smaller (best way to pay less rent). Coffee does better than restaurants, because it can also moderate it's employment, stays busier throughout the day (rather than a rush of about 4 hours) and can fit in smaller spaces.

It's also ok that people park inside because most people pick up and leave, and people (generally) are bothered by there being no cars in a parking lot or no people in a restaurant, so the laptoppers are actually improving business.

11 years ago (for Farmerbrown) wasn't really before the tech boom, but commercial rents are generally for 10 year terms, so basically what happened is he got a good rate for 10 years and the city's growth drove the new rate up for the next 10.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:32 AM on December 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


Most of the hipster non-major-chain coffeeshops in SF are in the middle of densely-packed city blocks with absolutely no room for a Starbucks-style drive thru or parking lot (as anyone who's walked through FiDi or SoMa or the Mission can attest). Granted, there's Philz, which has been rapidly expanding of late with tons of locations elsewhere in the Bay Area and SoCal, and which does have an order-ahead app - but, it is an outlier and should not be counted, given that there's a Philz in FB HQ. Overall, though, you'd need to actually look into different cafes' funding structures to figure out how they can last in SF, rather than assume that the reasons hipster cafes can survive in other economies are applicable over here.

Another possibility, imo, would be how a lot of the cafes roast beans for wholesale distribution, which doesn't explain the places that don't have a roasting business component as well, but can help explain the cafes that do. You'll see various grocery stores carrying their beans, for example, and they'll likely also have an online store to supplement their brick and mortar income. There's also the cafes that have been acquired by or have investment from major corporations (e.g. Nestle with Blue Bottle), or maybe they have some kind of deal with a major company's office to provide coffee for their employees (e.g. coffeeshops the public can access if the company's building is open but not otherwise), or some other kind of business deal that isn't immediately apparent in their everyday set-up in person, so their revenue isn't made solely by customers coming in to their physical locations.

I'm kind of a coffeehead but haven't really looked into how any of the truly indie hipster coffeeshops make it in SF, so I'd be curious to know more about that as well. Some don't last very long, I'd imagine, as I'm sure there's been more than a few places that have shuttered over the years, but the ones that do seem to last likely have a variety of ways (beyond drive-thru and order ahead) to pay the exorbitant rents.
posted by rather be jorting at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2019


To rerail for a bit, there's likely some common themes between the kinds of coffeeshops that are better positioned to thrive financially with SF rents (additional locations of a chain that's already receiving a ton of investment, major indie coffeeshops that already have deals with your Whole Foods and your Mollie Stones to supply them with beans) and the tech company amenable restaurants that symbolize the face of recent gentrification pushing out the restaurants that don't have similar levels of funding and other external support.
posted by rather be jorting at 10:14 AM on December 20, 2019


A late follow-up link from another Black Bay Area chef who is closing her SF restaurant: "Chef Tanya Holland Wonders Aloud Why People Gladly Pay $20 For Ad Hoc's Fried Chicken But Balk at Paying $18 for Hers"
posted by primalux at 6:43 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Here’s a question - how do hipster cafes manage to stay open with such crazy rents? I realize that coffee is a fairly high margins but the amount of $6 lattes you’re selling isn’t massive and you’ve got people parked on their laptops all day for the cost of that latte

They aren't turning a profit, a lot of the time! Philz, for example, is doing its wild expansion with the aid of $75 million in VC money. Having a huge pool of cash makes it easier to run. Sweetgreen has gotten $325 million.

Anyone trying to, say, make a restaurant primarily focused on feeding people in a pleasant environment, but doesn't have a (bro-tastic) elevator pitch about FUTURE WORLD DOMINATION is at a real disadvantage.

This future — it's not what I thought it would be.
posted by purpleclover at 12:54 PM on January 15


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