Three days before opening day at Trade Routes, a new neighborhood bar on Polk Street, there was nowhere for new customers to sit. Thanks to the pandemic, the barstools were severely back-ordered.
This was a lifelong dream for Jay Ryoo and Chen-Chen Huo, two college friends. Now, 72 hours before doors opened, they had to scramble to find replacements from an online distributor. They recruited family and friends to help unpack and assemble the new stools once they arrived.
“There have always been little supply chain issues,” Huo said, who is involved with other hospitality businesses in San Francisco. “This is probably the worst it’s been, and we definitely noticed it as we were building out the bar.”
According to city data, there are at least 1,746 businesses that have secured new registrations in 2021 alone across four categories: food services; retail; arts, entertainment and recreation; and “certain services,” includes laundromats, auto repair shops, beauty salons and more.
Though the pandemic has taken a mighty toll on San Francisco’s vibrant small business community, the exact scale of which remains unknown, it’s also ushered in new storefronts.
Some of these merchants are chasing a lifelong dream. Others are seizing new opportunities brought by the pandemic. And there are those with a history of small business ownership who want to continue to make an imprint on their neighborhoods.
An unreliable supply chain is just one of the challenges these new businesses face.
Santana Tapia said it’s been uniquely difficult to conceptualize and lay out a brand new physical pace when you can’t bring people together.
That work is especially important for Fluid Cooperative Cafe, a coffee shop and gathering venue in the La Cocina marketplace on Hyde Street specifically designed to be a safe space for trans individuals. Events such as drag brunches and book readings will be accompanied by an extensive coffee menu named after icons of San Francisco’s storied queer community.
“It was the most difficult thing when you can’t go up to someone and tell them how you’re going to do something, or how you’re going to make a space safe,” Tapia said.
Changes to consumer behavior have also turned traditional business models on their head.
Storefronts used to rely largely on foot traffic to generate revenue and word-of-mouth attention.
That all but disappeared with the shelter-in-place order in March 2020. The steady drumbeat of passersby has slowly returned with the advent of parklets and car-free streets, but it now skews more towards neighborhood commercial corridors instead of areas near commercial office buildings such as downtown, for example.
This difference has changed the calculus for some business owners.
Take Kingston Wu, who owns two restaurants and bars in the Marina.
He opted to temporarily close Westwood, a country music watering hole on Lombard Street, and instead pool his resources for a new restaurant location that was in the works on Union Street called Wilder.
“While it probably has less street traffic than Chestnut Street, we knew the corner would give us more eyeballs during the pandemic, which would be necessary to make the food sales necessary to survive,” Wu said. “We also had a hunch, which didn’t prove out until later, that the large sidewalk on both sides of our restaurant would be popular with diners who wanted to avoid enclosed space.”
Finally, it’s always been difficult to run a small business in San Francisco, known for its expensive real estate, high operational costs and oppressive permit bureaucracy. Things got worse as the pandemic decimated demand and wrought havoc over operational regulations.
The City has distributed $52 million through a slew of grants and loans to help businesses cover expenses including rent and payroll, according to the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and state and federal relief provided temporary cash flow to keep them afloat.
But developing any kind of sound financial plan in the throes of all this uncertainty proves a difficult task.
Many business owners say the community has stepped up to support.
Fog City Community Fitness launched in August 2020, first in a virtual or outdoor environment before moving into its physical space on Valencia Street in November. The member-owned gym started when a group of gym-goers all put money in to take over a fitness business that was on the verge of closure.
Hillary Terry, co-owner and president, said the venture would be impossible without the contribution of community members, many of whom also teach fitness classes, clean the bathrooms and manage the front desk in addition to having full-time jobs.
Merchants also said regular customers have generally been tipping better than before the pandemic, generally show more patience if things aren’t going perfectly and are devoting more time to their hobbies and passion projects.
“We decided to move forward with our business because we truly believe in what we are doing,” said Kevin Gondo, co-owner of Shared Cultures, a fermented food product provider. “Our passion for our craft is what drives us, and as we continued to connect with our community during the pandemic, we felt such genuine support that it felt like despite the challenges, we were on the right path.”
Challenges aside, these new businesses all hold in common the firm belief that The City will bounce back, and they want to be part of that story when it does.
“I truly, deeply love San Francisco. It goes beyond forecasting what The City is going to be like,” said Huo, a lifelong resident. “For me, it’s always been about wanting to build a business in The City, wanting to be a part of the local community here, especially the community that raised me.”