Restaurants strive, artists thrive: A heartening tale from S.F.’s pandemic dichotomy

They say every story has two sides. This one is a tale of darkness and light. We’ll see if it...

They say every story has two sides. This one is a tale of darkness and light. We’ll see if it has a happy ending.

On the dark side, we have San Francisco’s restaurant industry, which is struggling through its third major slowdown since the start of the pandemic. While many have managed to survive, many more are reaching their limit during this latest omicron surge. A group of the surviving kitchens called on Congress to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, hoping an influx of cash will help them weather the storm. Paging Nancy Pelosi. Your table is ready.

On the other side, a group of local artists came together during the pandemic to paint murals on boarded-up storefronts around town, including some of The City’s beloved restaurants. They call themselves “Paint the Void,” and a collection of the artwork will be on display this weekend and next at Pier 70 out in the Dogpatch neighborhood.

It’s the ultimate San Francisco story. When one group finds itself in dire straits, another brightens the picture.

Let’s take a closer look at how this pandemic dichotomy is playing out:

Pete Sittnick remembers 2019 fondly. The managing partner of both Waterbar and Epic Steak on the Embarcadero told me his restaurants set records that year, surpassing $14 million in revenues… each. Then the pandemic hit and it’s been a struggle since. The restaurants closed down, twice. He had to lay off all 250 employees, including himself. Revenues dropped 65% in 2020.

Pete Sittnick, owner of Waterbar and EPIC Steak restaurants, said his restaurants lost more than $3 million in 2020. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Pete Sittnick, owner of Waterbar and EPIC Steak restaurants, said his restaurants lost more than $3 million in 2020. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

“The restaurants lost about $3 million in cash over the course of 2020, based on continuing expenses during closures, higher-level expenses for reopening and higher-level of expenses to deal with PPE and sanitation from COVID,” said Sittnick. “The climb back in 2021 was grueling and brutal. We were dealing with our second reopening, and many staff members did not come back the second time around. Finding new staff was super challenging, and then needing to train during slower revenue periods is costly. The dining public was still fearful of going out. And for those that did go out, many (more than prepandemic) were more demanding and certainly less forgiving. There were continuous shortages of product and supplies. There was a real shift in clientele — no after-work bar crowds and no business or corporate dining guests. And then, to start 2022, we are dealing with omicron and COVID-positive testing for guests and staff.”

It’s a recipe for financial disaster, so Sittnick is looking for help.

Cue the federal government. If you remember, Congress created something called the Restaurant Revitalization Fund in 2021, earmarking $28.6 billion to bail out distressed businesses. Unfortunately, that money went quick. About 100,000 restaurants received funding. Another 177,000 did not, including Sittnick’s properties. That’s why he joined the national call to action Tuesday, urging Congress to replenish the fund and do what it had promised. Restaurant industry sources estimate another $43 billion is needed.

“We did not get any of that money. We got a big goose egg,” said Sittnick, who opened the restaurants with partners Pat Kuleto, Mark Franz and Parke Ulrich, in 2008.

Line cook Juan Cetina carries out orders of blackened rockfish sandwiches and brussels sprouts in the kitchen at Waterbar. Owner Pete Sittnick said bringing back staff was very challenging following COVID surges that forced him to shut down his restaurants. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Line cook Juan Cetina carries out orders of blackened rockfish sandwiches and brussels sprouts in the kitchen at Waterbar. Owner Pete Sittnick said bringing back staff was very challenging following COVID surges that forced him to shut down his restaurants. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Mayor London Breed has also endorsed the letter to Congress, joining more than 25 other metropolitan leaders to replenish the restaurant bailout fund. Laurie Thomas, executive director for Golden Gate Restaurant Association and owner of Cow Hollow eateries Rose’s Cafe and Terzo, hopes they get the message on The Hill.

“We need that done at a federal level. And the Feds are the ones who have the money,” said Thomas. “That’s not something San Francisco can do. If the RRF doesn’t get refunded, there’s gonna be significant closures in the independent restaurant community. That’s why there’s such a push. Omicron gives Congress reason to take action. Just do what you promised.”

Get to work, Congress. Nobody wants to see more restaurant closures.

Shannon Riley was one of them. When the pandemic hit and storefronts started to board their windows with giant sheets of plywood in 2020, Riley felt an almost oppressive sadness in The City’s streets. So she decided to fill the void with art.

This mural was one created by artists affiliated with “Paint the Void” on display at San Francisco’s Pier 70. (Al Saracevic/The Examiner)

This mural was one created by artists affiliated with “Paint the Void” on display at San Francisco’s Pier 70. (Al Saracevic/The Examiner)

Riley had experience with art installations, running a production and consulting agency called Building 180. Looking at those blank storefronts sparked an idea: to create a nonprofit that matched local artists with shuttered businesses, with an eye toward painting murals on the sea of plywood. The results are magnificent, and you can see 49 of them at Pier 70, where “The City Canvas: A Paint the Void Retrospective” has been installed inside the massive, renovated warehouse space.

“Those businesses, seeing them shuttered up was absolutely terrifying and sad,” said Riley. “As a gift to those small businesses, and as a gift to the community and to people who walked by, the main goal was really just to give them light and hope. And so we did our best to match local artists that could walk to the small businesses in their neighborhood. And then we also asked the small business what sort of aesthetic they were interested in, what really represented their business.”

Shannon Riley, executive director of Paint the Void, stands before a mural painted during the pandemic. Her program sponsors public art and creativity in San Francisco’s urban spaces. (Al Saracevic/The Examiner)

Shannon Riley, executive director of Paint the Void, stands before a mural painted during the pandemic. Her program sponsors public art and creativity in San Francisco’s urban spaces. (Al Saracevic/The Examiner)

It was a win-win-win, with artists finding gainful employment, businesses dressing up their properties during shutdown and the community benefiting with vibrant public art.

Max Ehrman, who lives in the Lower Haight and goes by the name Eon75when he paints, was one of the lead artists. “I was first approached to curate murals in Hayes Valley. And the irony in this realism was that I was taken on board at storefronts and restaurants I frequent,” he said. “These restaurant owners, whom I had never met before, would come out and talk to me and I’d listen to what they were going through … the struggle. I was just happy that I was able to, at least in some way, add a little bit of color and joy and interaction with the community through the art.”

San Francisco’s art world and its restaurant community have always been tight.

“Yeah, there’s a strong connection with the restaurants,” said Strider Patton, another one of the muralists whose work is on display at the show. “I mean, I met Max working at a restaurant. A lot of artists hold restaurant jobs, bar jobs on the side.”

Patton painted at Flour + Water in the Mission, where he said, “I’m dear friends with the chef and some of the employees there. I just took that energy and just let it flow through me as to what was happening at this time. And then, as people started to go out in the neighborhood, I just got so much love. People I don’t know, they found me there and just said, ‘Thank you so much for this, you know, it’s given us something to enjoy and look at as we all navigate these like really difficult times.’”

Now, many of the shuttered restaurants have come back to life, and the art work they hosted during the darkest times of the pandemic have come to light through the “Paint the Void” exhibition.

Take some time to check it out. Reach in your pocket to fund the ongoing effort. And find the courage to visit your favorite San Francisco restaurant. Art. Food. Community. Be the light.

Editor’s note: Welcome to The Arena, a new column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic. He’ll be exploring San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

Max Ehrman, also known as Eon75, stands before a mural he painted during the pandemic for a shuttered CVS on Kearny Street. He calls this piece “Duality of Worlds.” (Al Saracevic/The Examiner)

Max Ehrman, also known as Eon75, stands before a mural he painted during the pandemic for a shuttered CVS on Kearny Street. He calls this piece “Duality of Worlds.” (Al Saracevic/The Examiner)

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