SF restaurants turn to helping others during coronavirus crisis

Local chefs survive pandemic by cooking for people in need aided by angel investor Twitch CEO Emmett Shear

Kristin Houk, owner of Tato, delivering produce to Mother Brown’s, a local shelter in Bayview. Monday through Friday I pick up produce from the SF Market that is generously donated via a food recovery program. (Courtesy photo)

In March before COVID-19 became a signifier of isolation, illness and infelicity, the Three Babes Bakeshop in Bayview employed 26 full-time staff. Then, as offices and businesses shuttered in compliance with The City’s shelter-in-place order, the bakery laid off 20 employees — over 75 percent of its staff — and put the remaining on reduced hours.

Lenore Estrada, co-owner of the bakery, recognized the challenge as both personal and communal when businesses like hers started losing revenue. Having grown up in Stockton, one of seven siblings, Estrada said that she was no stranger to the signs of economic distress and instability that can quickly overtake families and whole communities.

It was fortuitous then that a Yale college classmate, Emmett Shear, the CEO of Twitch, contacted Estrada to propose an opportunity to help restaurants survive the economic ravages of the coronavirus, while helping people, a heartbeat away from calamity, who have limited access to food in The City. Estrada jumped on it, and the San Francisco New Deal was born on March 23, with a $1 million investment by Shear.

“Within five days we filed for a nonprofit license and began operating. That first week, 1,000 meals were delivered, the next week 18,000 and by the third week, 24,000. “Over 117,000 meals have been distributed to people in need, and we’ve disbursed $1.25 million to 45 restaurants partnering in the program,” Estrada said, conviction lacing her tone.

Estrada narrowed her restaurant selections largely to Bayview and Fillmore areas. To multiply the effect, she said, and it makes sense since workers in retail kitchens who wash dishes, clear up plates, serve food and cook, are mostly women, people of color and immigrants who come from hardscrabble neighborhoods, like Bayview.

According to a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency report, Bayview’s demographic mix is over 90 percent people of color, with over half the population speaking a language other than English and “the share of Bayview households living in poverty (42 percent) is almost double that of San Francisco (24 percent) .”

Kristin Houk, a beneficiary of the SF New Deal, who owns three Bayview businesses — All Good Pizza, Tato and Café Alma — observed that Bayview is underserved, food-wise, even as the neighborhood is “responsible for feeding so many people across the Bay Area (and nationally).”

Houk took me through her early years, working as a 13-year-old teenager at a lunch counter serving milkshakes in Des Moines, Iowa, to her first job at Dolores Café in The City and finally as the owner of several small businesses. “I realized I like feeding people,” Houk said, acknowledging a lifetime spent in the food industry.

The SF New Deal program provides food cooked daily by restaurants like Houk’s to vulnerable populations including the homeless, recently homed and seniors across a network of shelters, single room occupancy hotels, churches and assisted living facilities.

Estrada manages the distribution of food by teaming up with community organizations who have what she calls “domain experience in the communities they serve,” like the San Francisco African American Faith Based Coalition, Refugees and Immigrant Supports in Education San Francisco and UCSF’s Citywide Case Management.

Estrada has a long list of waitlisted restaurants hoping to join her program, but she had to close out the waitlist to ensure that each restaurant in the program had enough resources to survive. “Daily volume is critical to maintain staff,” she explained. SF New Deal gives $8,000 per week to each business to provide meals every day. Creditably, Estrada and her restaurant are not fiscal beneficiaries of the program.

Kristin Houk in her restaurant Tato. “Tato is my son’s nickname and he (and his Mexican heritage and his father’s family traditions) is the inspiration for this restaurant.” (Courtesy photo)

Every chef operates independently to produce signature meals for delivery. Houk’s entrees for this week are Reubens with Evergood corned beef on Semifreddi’s rye bread, grilled tandoori chicken tacos, pesto pasta with Kalamata olives, Calabrian chilis, grilled squash, walnuts and parmesan, carnitas burritos and chicken in tarragon dijon cream sauce, in addition to vegetarian options.

Interestingly, Tato, named after Houk’s son, was inspired by her mother-in-law, a chef in Mexico City, who cooked by “letting the freshness of the ingredients themselves carry the dish.” Houk designed the menu at Tato to be a hybrid of traditions and cultures, and so you’ll find “Shredded Chicken Tinga” sharing the bill of fare with “Indian Stewed Chickpea.”

In the post-COVID world, Houk hopes to continue her work with SF New Deal, packing produce bags and take-home boxes to be delivered to at-risk people. For as Houk put it, “It is important to recognize that the populations we are feeding were in need pre-pandemic.”

Estrada, too, can’t conceive of quitting the non-profit post-COVID. She plans to leave the day-to-day running of her bakery to her partner and management team, and continue the task of finding new sources of funding to scale up the nonprofit.

The initial investment that Shear and Estrada started with is long gone. Last week, Estrada raised $46,000 from “everyday San Franciscans,” but the shortfall is significant since the weekly spend is close to $200,000. With Shear’s help, Estrada is relentlessly pitching community and political leaders to take on the task of building food resiliency in The City. It’s a struggle, Estrada admits.

Food-centered businesses are the barometer of the economy and society. When people have more spending power, restaurants flourish and the economy swells. Food is also a leveler, separating the haves from the have nots in the most basic and evolutionary way. Bravo to Estrada, Houk and the SF New Deal team for finding a critical intersecting pathway to a more equitable world, even in the midst of a crisis.

If you would like to donate, check out SFNewdeal.org.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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