A server delivers wine to diners at Portofino in North Beach. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

North Beach restaurants turn to alcohol sales to survive

Legislation would allow businesses to apply for temporary liquor licenses

A handful of North Beach restaurants may soon get a lifeline in the form of a chance to apply for liquor licenses long prohibited by zoning.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will vote on whether to allow food establishments currently zoned as “limited restaurants” in a certain area of North Beach to convert to regular restaurants and, therefore, apply for a liquor license. The Land Use and Transportation Committee unanimously supported the legislation on Monday.

It could end up applying to about 10 businesses, including East African restaurant Massawa, Japanese-inspired Family Cafe, and seafood-centric Italian restaurant Portofino, which just reopened in February after a more than two-decade closure. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the area, brought forward the legislation.

“To those 10 businesses, this is a lifeline now,” said Lee Hepner, legislative aide to Peskin, to the Planning Commission in late August. “I think this moment has really put urgency on the table.”

Businesses must have opened by March 1 and operated as a “bona fide eating place,” like a pizzeria or sandwich shop which has kitchen facilities and serves food during regular meal times, for four calendar months in the year before that. They have six months from the effective date, which is 30 days after Mayor London Breed’s signature, before the allowances expire.

A similar effort in 2015 was opposed by the North Beach Business Association, Hoodline reported. North Beach has one of the highest concentrations of liquor licenses in The City, but allowing a temporary window for these businesses can keep that under control while providing relief, Lee said.

Jessica Furui, co-owner of Family Cafe on Columbus, had sought a chance to apply for a liquor license for years but pushed it harder once the pandemic hit. Seeing businesses close on a weekly basis has been tough, she said.

“From a leadership aspect, at this point, you do have to ask yourself what are all the things we can do in order to keep these businesses alive?” Furui said. “Because it’s very dark. I find myself contemplating, god am I ever going to have to write this kind of letter or press release?”

Family is building a parklet for its one-year anniversary next week, which will help expand the small space that’s available while allowing for social distancing. Furui is planning to adjust the menu and make one special for outside to have food that goes with sake and other drinks.

Once the legislation goes into effect, businesses like Family can apply for ABC license for beer and wine.

At the Planning Commission in late August, commissioners expressed enthusiasm for the change and sought to explore bringing it to other neighborhoods.

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Massawa Restaurant is one of the North Beach restaurants that may benefit from legislation that will allow temporary liquor licenses. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Patrons dine outside Family Cafe in North Beach. The restaurant is building a parklet and hopes to serve food with sake and other drinks. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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