Food and Drinks

San Francisco restaurants that can’t pay staff enough to live there as rents soar

  • A burger-making robot, a cocktail-dispensing machine, and dining concepts that save on labour – Bay Area restaurants get creative to survive
  • With median rents of US$4,550 a month some staff have to work three jobs, and the wellspring of the foodie revolution is losing talent to Los Angeles
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 3:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 7:08pm

The handwritten sign on the front window of the closed Blue Fig Café last month bade a sad farewell to the days when San Francisco could support an old-fashioned coffee house.

The problem that led the eight-year-old Valencia Street café to shut down wasn’t a lack of coffee drinkers in the trendy Mission district. Nor was it the sky-high commercial rents or the competition from the tech industry cafeterias. It was simply that it has become nearly impossible to pay anyone in San Francisco enough to make you a cup of coffee.

How greedy landlords are killing Hong Kong’s culinary creativity

“It takes a lot to keep a place like this going, and lately we have found it hard to find great people to help us,” wrote the café’s owners on two sheets of printer paper taped to the door, reposted as a photo in the neighbourhood news blog, Mission Local.

“The type of folks who you have gotten to know over the years – students, artists, cooks – can no longer afford to live in San Francisco.”

With the median monthly rent in San Francisco now US$4,550, even hiking the minimum wage to US$15 an hour and requiring health benefits, as San Francisco has done, hasn’t been enough to maintain a healthy heartbeat in the restaurant industry labour market.

The fallout has hit restaurants throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, long known as the epicentre of the foodie revolution. The top-rated wine country restaurant Terra and the historic Berkeley fish house Spenger’s are among this year’s additions to the long list of area restaurants that have closed with owners saying it is nearly impossible to find staff.

Some of the area’s most industrious restaurant proprietors are launching new restaurant concepts designed to do away with much of the labour altogether. Instead, they are having the customers do the work by standing in line to place their orders and picking up their own drinks. Meanwhile, new “fine casual” establishments are serving scaled-down menus that can be easily prepared by fewer cooks.

Traci Des Jardins, the San Francisco chef who founded the French-influenced Jardinière and has helped launched numerous other restaurants, said the labour shortage could be seriously limiting the scope of offerings in the Bay Area’s dining scene.

“I think everyone is grappling with these issues and trying new things to figure out what makes sense,” said Des Jardins via email. “I think it will ultimately lead to attrition in the overall scope of the restaurants we see opening.”

The thriving newcomers in the restaurant scene are those that have designed their business model to work around the difficult labour market. They have eschewed slow-paced table service for upscale counter service, kept the food creative and high quality and made the most of technological advances such as online reservations and delivery services.

At Media Noche Cuban Counter, a new restaurant serving gourmet Cubano sandwiches in the Mission, the owners have cut in half the number of front-of-house staff needed to run the restaurant and invested the savings in higher pay for cooks. Customers order at the counter, with a lot of recommendations and help from a devoted counter team. Then they sit on bar stools in the pastel blue restaurant to be served their roasted mojo pork shoulder or island fried chicken, coconut slaw and avocado sandwiches.

“We deliberately designed the restaurant so it would be less dependent on labour,” said Madelyn Markoe, Media Noche co-founder. “The back of the house still requires a lot of labour; that’s where we put a lot of our focus in making sure we are able to pay fair, liveable wages.”

Even so, said her partner Jessie Barker, “a lot of our restaurant staff do work two or even three jobs to sustain themselves”.

Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said the same trends have been taking a toll in New York and other cities around the nation where cost of living is high.

Asian migrant farming family at the heart of California cuisine

“What’s in crisis is the full-service restaurant,” she said. “Lots of older restaurants and family-run restaurants are going away. What we’ve seen is the hollowing out of service.”

Instead, she said, top chefs were inventing innovative and cost-saving dining concepts, drawing ideas from such trends as food trucks and pop-ups.

Des Jardins has opened School Night in the trendy Dogpatch neighbourhood, which is like a full-time pop-up. Featuring hand-crafted pisco and agave cocktails and a scaled-down menu of Mexican-Peruvian small plates, it is open only Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. On the weekends it closes to become part of a larger event space, bringing in greater revenues.

Chef Anthony Strong’s Prairie serves “quirky Italian”, with customers writing their own dinner choices on menu cards. The restaurant also features an automated Toki Highball machine, which “perfectly chills and carbonates filtered water and whisky”, according to SF Eats.

And the restaurant Creator, which opened this summer in San Francisco’s South of Market district, offers US$6 gourmet burgers made completely by a 4.25-metre-tall (14ft-tall) robot with 350 sensors and 20 computers that can pump out 130 burgers an hour, according to SF Eats.

The quicker meals seem to appeal to young people with busy lives and shorter attention spans.

“They are willing to go to a food truck or eat at their desk or bring their computer to a restaurant,” said Borden. “But the business lunch of yesterday is no longer a thing.”

San Francisco is no longer an obvious tour stop for emerging chefs. Instead those up-and-comers are choosing to go to Los Angeles, where finding a place to live is merely difficult.

“People are no longer moving to San Francisco to get experience in California cuisine,” said Barker, who has worked in Bay Area restaurant management for 10 years. “Now they’re moving to LA. That’s the new pilgrimage to experience the bounty of California without the impossible rents.”

Nelly Gavrilov, 30, moved to San Francisco from Oklahoma, a state in the US Midwest, in 2014 to work in the restaurant industry and experience the legendary Bay Area lifestyle. Having worked in a high-end restaurant in Tulsa, she was able to get a server position at the upscale Italian eatery Locanda in the Mission district.

People are no longer moving to San Francisco to get experience in California cuisine
Jessie Barker

“I was actually making about the same amount of money I made in Oklahoma,” said Gavrilov. “But of course the costs were a lot higher, so I had to get a second job.”

She got additional work as a freelance floral designer and things were fine, until her housing situation blew up. She had been sharing a three-bedroom house with a rent of US$3,300 a month with her brother, his wife and their two kids. But, in 2016, the house was sold and their rent was suddenly raised to US$7,500.

They couldn’t keep the house, kicking off a chain reaction that cost San Francisco quite a number of restaurant workers.

Gavrilov and her boyfriend, Nick McEachin, a restaurant manager for Delfina Group of fine Italian restaurants, first thought they would find a place to move in together. But it quickly became clear their choices were to leave the area or to live in someone’s extra bedroom.

“We realised we couldn’t find anything we could afford,” said McEachin, who had himself moved to San Francisco in 2012 to get a taste of big-city restauranteering. He had been renting space from friends and moving often. He said he and Gavrilov searched for apartments under US$2,500 and came up with only studios and rooms in other people’s houses.

So the couple ending up moving to LA, where they could start out staying with McEachin’s parents. McEachin landed a job helping to launch the restaurant Hayden, a versatile space featuring New American cuisine with Japanese and Italian inspirations.

Then McEachin, now 30, was offered a chance to put together a re-imagined 2018 version of a seasonal restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, called Behind the Bookstore. His first job as the manager was to find a phenomenal crew. He found it wasn’t hard to lure even more of his former San Francisco colleagues to come with him, as the pay was good and the atmosphere fun.

He brought a bar manager, a baker and Gavrilov, as a server – all veteran San Francisco restaurant industry workers.

“Even being this posh, island, tourist destination, it was still more affordable than San Francisco,” he said.