By Thomas K. Pendergast
Parklets and “shared spaces” are popping up like mushrooms on the streets in front of restaurants, diners and other services throughout the Richmond District as businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic’s economic chaos.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed streamlined the bureaucratic process at City Hall in June, so it seems that now commercial corridors are finally showing signs of life again.
The parklet in front of the Balboa Theater has become a Richmond District gather place. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.
Adam Bergeron, owner of the Balboa Theater, had a parklet built in front of his business and turned it into a different kind of social gathering space.
On a sunny and warm Sunday afternoon a jazz band played just outside the doors, people sat in the parklet stalls listening while others placed orders for buttered popcorn with the guys staffing the foldup tables a couple of feet off the sidewalk. And above them on the marquee were the words “Black Lives Matter.”
“In late May, early June, we all went to protest rallies as a group, as a full staff” Bergeron said. “I think that that’s important. It has come to be a stark reality that there are inequities in this country and we don’t have anything else to advertise on the marquee. We might as well continue to put our position out there.
“We just had a whole social movement. That’s the motto of the movement. That’s a movement we agree with.”
While they mostly serve popcorn, hotdogs and beer these days, they are trying to serve the neighborhood as a social hub.
Bergeron said that by August they had hired back the same folks they laid off.
“We’re using the PPP loan we got for payroll,” he said. “We sort of kept it in our pocket and waited. Unemployment was generous for a while with the $600 a week that everyone was getting. It seemed like it was fiscally smart for everyone to stay on that, as long as that was reasonable to do and as soon as it seemed like we could see the tide changing on that we put them all back on payroll.”
He said that the entire parklet amounted to an investment of about $5,000. This would presumably include the $100 Alcohol Beverage Control fee and if they want heaters out amongst the diners then that is another $375 for a permit from the fire department.
According to city data, as of Sept. 15, there were 1,559 “sidewalk and cubicle” applications filed with the City and 46 street opening applications. Of those, city records indicate that most of them have been approved. Street opening applications show that 56.5% have been approved, 6.5% are “on hold,” and another 37% are “in progress.”
On the 100 block of Clement Street, Philippe Gardelle, the chef at the restaurant Chapeau! said when he heard the City was smoothing out the process to get a parklet, he waited 15 days before applying because he was skeptical this was really happening. However, it seems that he is OK that he did.
He said the application process was surprisingly easy for a change.
“The City, for once, I mean it hurt the restaurant business like crazy so it was very easy,” Gardelle said. He also mentioned that they had to pay the $100 for the ABC liquor license, the $375 for the fire permit to have his heating lamps out at night, and then another $8,000 to actually build the parklet.
Yet, early on a recent Saturday night, he already had more than 80 reservations, he said. He admits that being a 28-year-old establishment meant they probably would have survived without the parklet, but then they would get way behind on the bills, so he is glad the City loosened things up a bit.
But he is not looking back, so much as toward the future.
“What I’m hoping more is that the City keeps this one forever because it’s beautiful,” he said. “Everybody does his own style and I think it adds an atmosphere to the City.”
But the “atmosphere” of the City can be a make or break thing with parklets. If, as was the case the weekend after Labor Day, the air turns foul and unhealthy, then hardly anyone wants to come out and dine.
Daniel Indelicato runs Gaspare’s Pizza House and Italian Restaurant on Geary Boulevard. He has nine tables outside, six of which can seat four each and still be adequately social distanced. The other three tables can serve two each.
“Labor Day weekend we opened up and yeah we filled the tables and turned them over multiple times, so we only had a total of nine tables,” Indelicato said. “But throughout the course of the evening, we had 20 separate checks, so the tables got seated 20 times.
“And then with the smoke the last two weeks, it was just horrible. We only had two-to-three tables every night when there was the smoke but finally this weekend things bounced back. We had the tables fully seated, a couple of people waiting here and there.”
People ask Indelicato if he will get tents in the rainy season but he said he doesn’t think it is worth the investment.
It helps if a restaurant is already established with loyal customers but for those who opened up only recently, like the sushi restaurant Izakaya Mayumi at 2221 Clement, it is extra difficult.
Hirohiko Sato opened this business in September, 2019 so he was just starting to build a clientele when the shelter-in-place order was put in place the following March and he had to shut down. Since then, until he recently had outside seating, the restaurant had to survive with takeout orders only.
“We don’t have regular customers yet,” Sato said. “That’s why we had a harder time. We need more regular customers to survive.”
Not only did he have to pay the aforementioned fees to serve alcohol and use heaters, he also had to pay a contractor almost $10,000 to build his outdoor seating area.
Before the shut down his restaurant was open until 10 p.m. but now they have to close at 8:30 p.m. He also had to lay off four servers, but now he has filled those positions again.
“With outside seating we can probably stay open until the end of the year,” he said. “So we have three more months … but we’re going to get the rain soon and business might be slower. This is my first time so I can’t imagine anything, just try to survive.”
Categories: Richmond District