A tech-driven recipe for San Francisco’s restaurant rebound

What fascinated Elena Gomez was how the kitchen worked

Elena Gomez has long been a student of San Francisco’s restaurants. When she was a kid, she would go with her family to a favorite Mission District taqueria and hungrily wait for her food. But she was different, especially for a kid. What fascinated her was how the kitchen worked.

“A lady at the front would write down everything you wanted on a ticket. First it would go to the taco guy. Then it would go to the burrito guy. It was just a little piece of paper she scribbled on, but they all knew what it meant.”

Gomez is the chief financial officer of Toast, a restaurant technology company that has just opened offices in San Francisco. And it is her mission to help the restaurants of her hometown and elsewhere transition from simpler times to a new, post-COVID world.

It is a big transition. If you thought your workplace was now a transformed, hybrid world of in-person and remote workers, consider the new reality for San Francisco’s restaurants.

Delivery orders come in via dueling apps. Takeout cartons stack up on the bar. Customers order and pay from their phones, sometimes from a parklet out front. Inflation is driving up the cost of everything. And restaurants are rushing to rebuild their staffs. More than half the new jobs in San Francisco added in February – around 6,200 – were in the leisure and hospitality sector, data from The City shows. Veteran restaurant job candidates are rarer than anything served at the House of Prime Rib.

Gomez sees a way forward.

“Restaurants need to operate in this new hybrid world,” she says. “But they need an all-in-one platform to run a more efficient operation.”

Coincidentally, her company makes one. Toast, a 3,100-employee Boston company, is a kind of Salesforce for restaurants. Its cloud-based software streamlines operations by managing ordering, delivery, marketing and team management for dine-in, takeout and delivery.

Toast has a $10 billion market capitalization, or total worth, but has seen its stock slump as restaurants were devastated by the COVID pandemic. Around 1,000 Bay Area restaurants use Toast to bundle and simplify their quickly evolving technology.

“The pandemic really pushed and accelerated the adoption of technology for restaurants, which historically have been laggard adopters of technology. The pandemic really changed that. It’s now mandatory to have technology in a restaurant,” Gomez says.

But juggling different apps while you’re trying to run a restaurant is frustrating. The tech needs to be simplified, Gomez believes. “It’s top of mind for restaurants to run a more efficient operation.”

“We now have different expectations than we did pre-COVID,” Gomez says. Instead of going to our favorite places, we expect them to come to us. “There was no scenario before where I would have takeout twice a week. Now my teenagers order delivery. It’s become part of the fabric of everyday life.”

Some San Francisco restaurateurs agree with Gomez. They say they need tech, but also need tech simplified.

“For the hospitality industry, reemergence from the pandemic and becoming more tech-forward is not a question of importance, but rather, now necessary to deliver to guests wherever they are, and how they want to dine,” says Adam Jed, co-founder of Bluestem Restaurant & Market near the Yerba Buena Gardens. “We lean into technology to create a seamless and caring experience.”

“Automating everything as fast as you can is the only way to survive,” says Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and owner of Terzo and Rose’s Cafe, both in Cow Hollow. The labor shortage makes automation even more valuable. “Hiring is really difficult right now. You just can’t find people with experience.”

The restaurant industry in 2022 might seem like an overwhelming challenge, but Gomez believes her life has led her to it.

Her family gave her plenty of chances to watch the process at her favorite Mexican restaurant in the Mission, La Taqueria. She awaited her tacos at the side of a familiar name and voice to San Franciscans: her brother, Sal Castaneda, the longtime broadcast news reporter and anchor.

Would he narrate the meal? “Yeah, he would,” Gomez says, laughing.

They grew up in the outer Mission District “in a house my parents bought for $37,000,” Gomez says. She went to college at UC Berkeley and then launched a finance career that took her to Salesforce and then Zendesk, “my rookie CFO gig.”

Those tech roles taught her a customer-first approach she says is a key to Toast’s business.

Her current role is a labor of love, she says, helping a restaurant industry changed forever by COVID as it gathers momentum for a comeback. Toast data from 1,000 Bay Area restaurants shows a 29% increase in total sales from the week of Jan. 17 to the week of April 4. Tech is needed to handle the added business, Gomez says.

Fortunately, part of Gomez is still a kid, watching restaurants with curiosity.

“I was at a restaurant in Oakland,” she says. “They had two parklets, but the bar was closed. It was stacked up with takeout orders. I asked my server, ‘Why is the bar like that?’ She said, ‘We get so much takeout and delivery that it’s more valuable to us to use it that way. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s fascinating.’”

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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