San Francisco’s mobile gourmet eateries venture into bricks and mortar
After studying architecture at the University of California Berkeley, Evan Bloom found himself stuck in a cubicle, yearning for more than a nine-to-five job. That’s when he started making pastrami ham in his cramped kitchen. His friends were impressed; soon a business idea was born.
Together with his friend Leo Beckerman, he decided that San Francisco needed a proper Jewish deli, the kind where generations of families get together on weekends. Without any training in cooking, they quit their careers and spent months in their apartment kitchens perfecting the basic foundation of a good Jewish deli: pastrami and rye bread.
In the first half of the 20th century, several thousand Jewish delis operated in New York alone, where new immigrants served comfort food like potato kugel to displaced Jews yearning for the old country. They were institutions of nostalgia and homesickness. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Bloom and Beckerman’s Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen (wisesonsdeli.com) was born as an itinerant restaurant without a home.
“I never wanted to do a pop-up,” Bloom says. “I was afraid there was a stigma. A lot of people were cooking at home and trying to sell it. It seemed amateur.”
But that’s exactly what Bloom and Beckerman were doing. In January 2010, they paid USD150 to rent a tiny downtown café for one day and participated in Off the Grid (offthegridsf.com), the San Francisco event that attracts dozens of food trucks and pop-up eateries in one place.
“We got our butts kicked,” Bloom says. “We had never really cooked professionally.”
By the middle of February, the queue of customers stretched around the corner. Bloom and Beckerman didn’t know how to take the orders fast enough or heat up the matzo ball soup and brisket sandwiches properly. It was
Their hard work paid off. As they hopped from one place to next, they began to attract a loyal following. By February 2012, they could afford a permanent location in the Mission, San Francisco’s district of cool bars and
“Starting as a pop-up was the best thing we could do,” Bloom says. Before they ever opened the doors to their restaurant, loyal fans were already clamouring for traditional Jewish dishes like chopped liver, which combines chicken liver with hard-boiled eggs, cracklings and fried onions.
“I would guess most pop-up owners want to have permanent locations,” says Richard Park, a big, soft-spoken man covered with tattoos. He and his wife Pam Schafer opened their first restaurant, CatHead’s BBQ (catheadsbbq.com), in January 2013.
They met in culinary school and dreamed of opening a restaurant together, but had to put their real aspiration on hold as they worked corporate and fine dining settings. After working 40-some hours a week in their respective jobs, they spent all their spare time shopping, cooking and advertising for their pop-up.
“It was a chance to test our market,” says Park. “San Francisco eaters are finicky.” Though their focus is barbecue, they realised that for a restaurant to survive in San Francisco, they had to also serve vegan dishes like cornmeal-crusted tofu and portabella mushrooms marinated in whiskey.
“California has so many fresh ingredients that a lot of restaurants are ingredient driven,” says Schafer. “We’re very recipe-driven because we want to have good home cooking. But like everyone else, we have to prove we’re using fresh, local and sustainable ingredients.”
As a pop-up, they only had two part-time helpers; now they’ve grown to over 15 employees who help them make classic bourbon- and mustard-marinated barbecue as well as enormous biscuits that flake at the fingertip.
“I just worked 30 hours in the past two days,” says Schafer. Still, they don’t miss their previous life. “Having a restaurant has always been our dream,” Park says.
Finding a permanent home also connects restaurant owners to their communities. Suite Foods (suitefoods.com) – born as a pop-up waffle stand – settled on Cortland Avenue, an up-and-coming dining and shopping corridor on the sunny slope of Bernal Heights.
Owner Sivan Wilensky is happy that he doesn’t have to lug 25-kilo waffle irons in search of customers around the city anymore. But more than anything else, he’s excited to be part of a community. “Bernal Heights is definitely not a name-brand neighbourhood – yet,” he says. “But there are a lot of hidden gems here, and there’s no other place I’d rather be.”
Settling down has also allowed Wilensky to expand his menu. In addition to the classic, fluffy Liège-style waffles Suite Foods has become known for, he experiments with combinations like maple bacon waffle stuffed with a poached egg or sun-dried tomato waffle with homemade pesto and mozzarella.
And if you want to feel like an insider, order fresh orange juice mixed with frozen custard. It’s not on the menu, but Wilensky is happy to serve his personal drink to those in the know.
Temporary eateries adopt more or less the same formula: whether a food truck, a pop-up stand or a supper club, they offer a limited number of dishes quickly served by one or two employees, usually the owners themselves. They move from one place to another to where customers are. Their advertising consists of word-of-mouth and the Internet – which means they either get buried in obscurity or create cult followings. But when they grow up, they evolve into different business models.
San Francisco is blessed with California’s abundant natural resources and the West Coast can-do attitude. Combine those with well-moneyed techies, and you get America’s most food-obsessed city. It’s no wonder that the city now has over 400 food trucks. On every Friday night, some 30 food trucks congregate at the historic waterfront park of Fort Mason; at the SoMa StrEat Food Park (somastreatfoodpark.com), a rotating roster of pop-ups serve anything from Taiwanese sandwiches to Cajun gumbo.
Most of them will never raise enough money to open a physical location. But the lower threshold for entry means more and more young cooks are willing to take big chances to experiment. The Gold Rush has long ended, but it turns out agility and entrepreneurship live on as part of San Francisco’s zeitgeist.