One Year Later: Checking in on 5 SF Business Owners Bowled Over by the Pandemic
From chefs to photographers to a record store, the city's entrepreneurs have faced a year of hard choices and big pivots
As we all know, San Francisco closed up shops before any other major U.S. city in March 2020 — leaving thousands of small business owners, entrepreneurs, and restaurateurs to make the best of an impossible situation. The 12 months that followed were apocalyptic for many of them, with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce claiming in August that 54 percent of the city’s storefronts had shuttered. The stop-and-go restrictions would eventually claim mom-and-pop shops alongside iconic destinations like the Cliff House, while compelling some of our longtime favorites to pivot into the unknown — including both Cowgirl Creamery and Mission Cheese, a nightmare for cheese lovers everywhere.
Here, we speak with five of the city’s former, current and future business owners about hard decisions and new directions.
Last year, 1-2-3-4 Go! Records owner Steve Stevenson had two brick-and-mortar locations: one on Valencia Street, the other in Oakland, plus a modest online trade. Now he only has the latter shop — and an unexpected succession of record-breaking months, thanks to online sales, which have grown from 10-15 to as much as 70 percent of his business.
“When we opened on Valencia Street six years ago, people were like, ‘You’re crazy — why would you open a store in San Francisco?’” he says. The shop’s best year, he says, came shortly after it opened, in 2016 — only to see music-loving international tourists disappear after the election of Donald Trump. “That summer, you’d hear 20 different accents, and everybody’s got, you know, $100 bills — but the kind of people who travel and go to a record store also tend to be the kind of people who’d look at current events and say, ‘Fuck America right now.’” In giving up the Valencia Street location — and permitting longtime neighbor and “radical indie publisher” Silver Sprocket to “sort of take over the whole thing” — Stevenson says the pandemic forced a not-unexpected hand.
With that move, though, came a wholehearted, and successful, pivot to online sales. “Now that we can have people in the store [in Oakland], we’re having a record-breaking month pretty much every month, especially for online sales,” says Stevenson, who launched the business there 13 years ago, with his own record collection and a 160-square-foot space that cost $475 a month. Now, he’s in an 1,800-square-foot shop — and hiring.
“There’s a lot of things that I thought either couldn’t happen, or shouldn’t happen,” says Stevenson, who’s now advertising heavily on social media and shipping to customers around the globe. “Once you make hard choices and do whatever you can to survive, you kind of find that a lot of those things are not impossible — and in fact are things you should have been doing. I’ve left so much money on the table, and we could have made so much more progress had I known — but I’m glad I know now.”
Chef Reina Montenegro moved to San Francisco from the Philippines in 1997 with “my two suitcases and my dreams,” renting out “this little tiny closet of a room on 19th and Mission.” Last March, she was serving vegan Filipino cuisine at the Nick’s restaurants: Nick’s on Grand, Nick’s Kitchen, Nick’s on Mission. The Mission location had only opened in November 2019. “We went from making $2,000 a day to barely making $200 a day,” Montenegro says. “We didn’t have a chance.”
The closures forced a long-coming reckoning with all elements of her business — even its name. “Nick was the person I’d bought my very first business from — Nick’s Kitchen in Daly City,” she says. “ I was so tired of people asking me Nick was, or asking my ex if he was Nick. I was just really tired of it — I had been hiding behind that brand for so long.”
Enter Chef Reina, the new brand behind a big online expansion. In a few weeks, Chef Reina will expand delivery of her vegan “care packages” beyond the Bay Area to customers across the country; soon after, she’ll open a new brick-and-mortar made to cater to to-go and delivery buyers. “I know the demand is there — I get messages from people every single day — hundreds, really — saying, ‘I wish we had just vegan Filipino meals in LA,’” she says. “Or New Jersey. Or the Midwest.”
One thing she won’t be redoing is opening another full-service restaurant. “I ran a restaurant for six years, and it’s just the hardest business,” she says. “You have worker’s comp, you’ve got taxes, you’ve got employees. I’m going to do it smart this time. I want to work smart, not hard.”
“All our spring orders go out between March 15 and March 30,” says Rachel Faller, designer of Tonlé. “We had more than $100,000 of cancellations in that one week.” Faller’s situation was further complicated by the fact that her sustainably produced clothing is crafted in Cambodia: not only could Faller not travel safely to meet with her studio staff — neither could she use money from her PPP loan to cover her out-of-country costs. Faller estimates that her staff produced 50,000 masks and other forms of PPE in April and May but with “little or no profit.” “We were basically just covering our costs, and that allowed us to stay alive,” she says. For three months, she handled shipping entirely on her own.
While Faller gave up the lease on her Inner Richmond brick-and-mortar in December, that closure paralleled an expansion of Tonlé’s online presence, and a shift away from wholesaling — which, Faller says, has allowed her to take fuller ownership of the brand’s messaging and independence. “With wholesaling, we have to sell more volume, and we get less profit from it,” she says. “With online sales, we get a higher margin, and a little bit more of a safety net.”
“Last year I was preparing to have the best year I’ve ever had,” says photographer Chloe Jackman. “I was in the middle of putting together a proposal for the Salesforce spring conference. They had tripled the size of a team that I was going to have. I had eight great weddings in the books. And then that just all disintegrated.”
With events of all sizes officially on hold, Jackman found inspiration in her Clement Street neighbors, expanding work she’d been doing all along as part of the local merchants’ association. “We started promoting small businesses, and then that evolved,” she says. “I’d thought about letting my studio go at one point — I was like, ‘What am I doing with extra overhead when the world is falling apart around me?’ But I also realized it was a great opportunity for me to pursue a line of work that I’d been wanting to do, which is more lifestyle and branding and creative work for small businesses.”
There was more to come: with her partners, she launched the Reclaim Collaborative, an affiliate marketing company for ethical and sustainable brands. Their first big initiative was Reclaim Black Friday: “We encouraged ethical, sustainable businesses to not run sales over Black Friday weekend — and instead hosted educational panels and had companies redistribute a percentage of what they normally would’ve had on sale and redistributing it to native lands, Black and indigenous land trusts.” (The group ultimately funneled $19,000 to those groups.) All these efforts add up to sustained support for small and independent businesses. “I spend a lot of time talking to people about dropping the ease of Amazon to support actual small businesses because if you want your community to stay wonderful and your property values to stay up, you should probably have some small businesses in your neighborhood,” she says.
A bierhaus might be the epitome of the pre-pandemic hangout: all those people, all that proximity, all those germs. As California opens back up, Mike Finley — owner of Bierhaus, with two locations, in Walnut Creek and Oakland, in various stages of closure and anticipated reopening — isn’t sure the “social-centric” model has a near-term future. When it reopens, for example, his Oakland location will take on a new name (TBD) and concept (seafood). “It’s probably going to be more like a New England lobster shack,” he says. “It’s a pretty big turn for us, but the upside to the pandemic is what I haven’t had access to before: There’s some good talent in the market.”
The Walnut Creek location will undergo its own evolution. “Simplicity and specialization — those are kind of the two buzzwords for me,” Finley says. “We’ve got to keep things really, really simple. And by specializing, what I mean is we’re going to have a smaller menu — maybe five main items on the menu. And they’re going to be really, really good. If we do a roast chicken, it’s going to be one of the best roast chickens you’ve had.” Once these two locations have stabilized, Finley says he hopes to expand on his dreams for a new biergarten — perhaps, he says, in Tahoe. “Imagine just coming off the slopes, right into a biergarten,” he says. “I could just have a little cabin — just roll out and start serving beers and barbecue. I’m not pessimistic — I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities.”
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