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Checks, Please!

By Catherine Bigelow

Chef Mourad Lahlou and his wife, ballerina Mathilde Froustey, work the kitchen at Lahlou’s popular Outer Richmond restaurant, Aziza. Froustey has DIY’ed an exercise barre there. (Onome Uyovbievb)

Pardon: Tyler Florence, Mourad Lahlou and others follow José Andrés’ lead in galvanizing their communities to support the restaurant and hospitality industries. Will the City’s culinary character be changed forever?

The dynamic San Francisco dining scene that, for decades, reigned as a five-star culinary beacon to the world was dimmed in a flash.

Three months into 2020, the global COVID-19 health crisis kicked the legs out from under a bright, shiny San Francisco available only to some. By mid-April, 3.2 million unemployment claims had been filed by Californians, many of them restaurant employees whose paycheck-to-paycheck existence imploded. Cultural institutions shuttered. And sidewalk tent cities erupted like mushrooms after an elusive rain.

Last year the national restaurant industry was a $1 trillion behemoth. Today some San Francisco establishments limp along with curbside takeout. Yet most eateries are ravaged by massive furloughs, staff layoffs, bills and, potentially, game-over closures.

Rewind to November 2019: Michelin-star chef Mourad Lahlou and Mathilde Froustey, a San Francisco Ballet principal dancer, celebrated their epic romance with a glamorous wedding at St. Joseph’s Arts Society.

Lahlou, a Moroccan native, founded two wildly successful restaurants: first Aziza in 2001, his groundbreaking Outer Richmond establishment, then Mourad, a glitzy boîte straddling downtown’s fin-tech geography.

A month before their nuptials, Lahlou reopened Aziza after an extensive three-year renovation. Froustey dazzled balletomanes in December with her Nutcracker star turn. And the City’s bustling, IPO-dizzy, culturally dynamic, Uber-choked landscape littered with overpriced condos was their oyster.

But amid our shelter-in-place lockdown, most restaurants — from treasured mom-and-pop burrito joints to multi-Michelin-starred temples of epicurean excellence — are, currently, screwed.

“Mourad is totally dark, the neighborhood is a ghost town: No one’s working in an office, hotels are empty, the convention center is shut down. Affluent condo dwellers left for second homes in Napa or Tahoe,” explains Lahlou. “Aziza is different: It’s surrounded by full-time city dwellers grateful for a well-prepared, take-out meal.”

Lahlou established a GoFundMe to support staff. Froustey now spends her days at Aziza, redeploying unused kitchen counters as exercise barres and assisting her husband’s skeleton crew prep take-out orders.

Even three-star Michelin French Laundry founder-chef Thomas Keller feels the heat: Most of his 1,200-person staff in the award-winning establishments in his Keller Restaurant Group empire is furloughed.

Keller is straddling a multi-pronged strategy. For employees, he established the “Feed it Forward” relief fund. He’s also urging Congress to restructure the federal Paycheck Protection Program so independent restaurants receive assistance.

Yet some chefs are vexed: Keller accepted an invitation from President Trump to serve on the Great American Economic Revival Industry Group with fellow heavyweight chefs, including Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, all white-tablecloth restaurateurs who attract the elite 1 percent.

Typically mum on social media, Keller fired back with a five-part Twitter thread, concluding: “This is not a partisan issue; millions are struggling to put a meal on their table. … I urge all haters and cynics to stop and join meaningful actions. Shout less, act more.”

Meanwhile, Mourad joined with local chefs to found the Bay Area Hospitality Coalition, an open information platform for anyone in the industry who’s struggling. “We’re also an advocacy group seeking a seat at the government table,” says Lahlou. “When Ruth’s Chris, a steakhouse chain annually raking in $468 million, gets a $20 million bailout, I mean, what the f—?”

Also riding to the rescue: World Central Kitchen, brainchild of chef José Andrés, a heralded culinary nemesis of President Trump. As indie restaurants wait for a crumb left over from the federal $2 trillion CARES Act or the already depleted, but recently replenished, $349 billion PPP pie, Andrés is activating smaller kitchens, like Aziza, with Chefs for America relief subsidies to feed Family House, which shelters parents of sick children nearby at UCSF Benioff’s Children’s Hospital, first responders or vulnerable populations — including furloughed restaurant employees.

Chef Tyler Florence, the beloved Food Network star and Wayfare Tavern founder, is juggling multiple band-widths: Design work continues on his yet-to-open Miller & Lux steakhouse at Chase Arena. With a skeleton staff, he offers Wayfare Tavern takeout and launched a fried chicken truck, providing safe, socially distanced curbside dining that serves rotating Bay Area curbsides. He also films a YouTube cooking class, Wolf It Down, paired with a companion website of online recipes.

Chef Tyler Florence. (Iris Lei)

“What I love about our industry is that we always stand together to support our community. We make a couple runs each day, delivering donated SF New Deal meals to churches and hospitals,” says Florence. SF New Deal is a new nonprofit founded by minority-owned Three Babes Bakeshop with a $1 million grant from Twitch CEO Emmett Shear. “On my daily to-do list, I reach out to 10 people, checking they’re safe and coping. Empathy is crucial, whether just listening or dropping off a fresh head of lettuce.”

Florence also partnered with Patreon, a crowd-funding subscription platform where fans fund a creator’s work, to reimagine a post-COVID-19 dining scenario.

“Diners assume a beautiful restaurant — with fresh floral displays, excellent service and awesome food — is dripping with money,” explains Florence. “The reality is, our profit margins are tiny. No restaurant has more than 30, 45 days of cash on hand. Not to mention, paying taxes or investors.”

His Patreon page offers tiered monthly Wayfare Tavern memberships, priced at $10 to $500, with amenities like recipes or private, livestreamed Florence cooking lessons. When the restaurant reopens, patrons might access a VIP reservation hotline or private concierge service.

“No one wants to dine at 5:30 or 10 p.m. So Patreon members might score a 7-8:30 p.m. reservation. With their support now, we’ll deepen relationships with loyal customers,” says Florence. “If Uber can charge a surge fee for supply and demand, why can’t restaurants?”

But Florence isn’t counting on receiving a government check. As he knows from the 2008 crisis, restaurants didn’t get a bailout — the banks did.

“No one is going to pay you to be terrified. So dreaming up new revenue streams no one’s talked about before is exciting,” enthuses Florence. “San Francisco is a hub of strategy; we’ve got to be creative. It’s like pulling on an oxygen mask: restaurateurs able to fortify their situations now can then assist others.’’

When the shutdown is lifted, Mourad presumes the state and city will enact new protocols and capacity limits for restaurants and public spaces.

“But people may not feel comfortable anywhere — the ballet, a concert or basketball game — until there’s a vaccine,” notes Mourad. “Even if we operate at half capacity, our rent and insurance remains the same. Our PGE is still running, whether it’s 10 diners or 200. Before this crisis, the red-hot momentum of our industry was already broken. So just reopening the door won’t do much.”

With government funding adding more financial might to corporations, Mourad worries the PPP stimulus is a real estate opportunity for chains to sweep through San Francisco, scooping up any restaurant space they desire — even Mourad. “If the shutdown continues and I can’t pay rent for six months, Ruth’s Chris can offer the landlord something crazy, like $100,000 per month,” he sighs. (In April, the steakhouse chain, caving to backlash, returned its $20 million from the government.)

“Out of this chaos, there is beauty working closely with colleagues to support our industry. But what hurts my heart, if this stimulus isn’t handled with care — for a small Richmond District bakery or the Chinese restaurant, now subject to hate and bigotry — these precious, unique places, in every single neighborhood, the gems of our city, will just disappear.”

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