The demand for neighborhood restaurants is shrinking in San Francisco. The beloved independent cafe that could afford to support sustainable farms is quickly becoming a thing of the past. As consumers, we play an important role in the ecosystem of farms and restaurants. According to Yelp research, 2017 had at least 30 percent more San Francisco restaurants closing than opening. Especially in neighborhoods like Bernal Heights and the Mission.
The Hillside Supper Club in Bernal Heights opened in 2012. Chefs Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton have been written up in notable magazines and blogs like Food & Wine, the SF Chronicle, and the Sunset blog. Their success has been in going from neighborhood pop-ups to a full-time restaurant. And also for preparing food that is seasonal, local and skillfully done. But survival for small places without big backing has become unsustainable for many reasons.
We sat down with Chef Tony and Chef Jonathan to talk about how they are facing the changing landscape in a city with over 4,000 restaurants.
Tony: We met in culinary school in Miami. After graduation, we moved to San Francisco and became roommates. We talked about owning our own restaurant back then. It was a goal for both of us.
In the beginning, we started doing Bernal pop-ups in people’s homes. Casual communal dinners with three-course, home-cooked meals. Then, we started cooking two nights a week at a place called The Corner on eighteenth and Mission. It opened up for different chefs every night so we started off with Monday nights. It took off immediately and we got great feedback. We cooked there for about four months before we found another spot.
Friends told us that Cafe Cazzolino near Precita Park was having some problems. They had been in the neighborhood for thirty years. Business was slow. The neighborhood wasn’t supporting them as much as it once did. So we talked to the owners and explained what a pop-up was. They hadn’t heard of it but they were open to trying. So we took over Monday and Tuesday nights for a while and they were amazed. We would pack the place out. They hadn’t had that kind of business in years.
This went on for a year while we built a relationship with them. Then, when they were ready to sell we all agreed on a price. We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money in 46 days and took over the lease. The whole thing happened so fast. On January 20, 2012, we reopened as the Hillside Supper Club.
Jonathan: I think five years ago people were knocking on our door to get experience as cooks and chefs. People cared about learning to prepare quality food. Dining out was a different experience in the city. Customers used to come for fine dining that supported high-quality meats, and fair trade products.
When we started this place, we only worked with small farms. We wanted to build relationships with local, sustainable farmers. Supporting local agriculture was more important to us than serving inexpensive food. It costs to deliver good quality.
This year has been very different. A shift in where and how people eat out is happening. The whole industry is different. There’s no way a dishwasher making minimum wage can afford to live in San Francisco. Our cooks won’t make $100,000 a year, even working ten hours a day, six days a week. How can we possibly support them?
Tony: The last couple of years we’ve seen an influx of new people who want a different experience. The majority of people I talk to aren’t interested in neighborhood dining anymore. They’re looking for something easy and inexpensive. Make it Instagramable and they’re sold.
So this year we’re responding to those demands. We’re figuring out how to bring cheaper food to the people who think it’s too expensive.
The bigger picture is that we’re still here. We’re able to support the local farms and deliver a high-quality product. We make well prepared, quality food with a story behind it. We’re still serving the neighborhood and sustaining the relationships that matter.
Being in Bernal is amazing. We love that people have been here twenty plus years and still know their neighbors.
Jonathan: Our lease is coming up for renewal soon and so many restaurants are experiencing the unknown. Rent spikes in San Francisco are something we all have to anticipate and hope for favorable terms.
Honestly, it’s hard to make a return on the investment for any restaurant. Even if you pack a place every single night there’s still a cap on how much money you can make. The numbers just don’t add up. So you have to do it because you love it and because other people love and support it. Otherwise, it’s not sustainable.
Because of that, we’re not exactly sure if our business is.
We’ll have to see what happens. A worst case scenario is we close the restaurant and the best case is we’re here for another ten years.
Support the Hillside Supper Club:
300 Precita Avenue, Bernal Heights, San Francisco
Tel: 415- 285-6005
Brunch: Saturday – Sunday 10am – 2pm
Dinner: Monday – Thursday (Closed Tuesday) 6pm-10pm
Friday – Saturday 6pm-11pm