By Thomas K. Pendergast
For the owner and employees of Underdogs Too restaurant on Taraval near Ocean Beach, 2020 kept getting worse.
On the morning of Dec. 15 at around 7:15 a.m., Doug Marschke, the owner of the bar and Mexican food restaurant at 3600 Taraval St., woke up to find neighbors texting him that his business was on fire.
“I jumped out of bed and ran down here. By the time I got here, there were probably 30 or 40 firefighters and two trucks,” Marschke said. “The fire was already out. They had the chainsaws out; they were just tearing things up to try to make sure there was no other kindling somewhere.”
Fortunately, there were no injuries because no one was there.
Doug Marschke, owner of Underdogs Too bar and restaurant at 3600 Taraval St., points to the spot where he thinks a fire started on Dec. 15. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.
Marschke said there was no indication of arson or the use of an incendiary device, so he suspects the cause might have been faulty electrical wiring. He said there are no gas lines or pilot lights in that corner of the kitchen that could have started a fire.
“That’s the only thing it could be,” Marschke said. “It was 7 o’clock in the morning and there was no one there. There was nothing on; it was in the corner where there’s no heating element. There’s nothing over there. It has to be something that was plugged into the wall or something in the wall or in the ceiling that shorted out.”
The fire came on top of the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic – inc–luding mask requirements, social distancing rules, customer capacity restrictions and another forced shut down – plus major street and infrastructure renovations along the western end of Taraval Street.
“It’s been a tough 2020, to say the least, both personally and for the business side,” he said. “We’ve only been open for two years. We were just kind of finding our own way. We were fighting through all the restrictions. We had just got shut down again for outside dining. It was a huge blow.”
Marschke said the restaurant was funded with a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, which he has to pay back.
“All that’s tied to my home; all that’s tied to me and I’m not getting any income, so it’s hard to pay things back when you’re not making any money,” he said. “It’s kind of a crazy time.”
Indeed, 2020 was hard on him in a way that he didn’t see coming at all. Last August he began feeling sick and thought perhaps he had contracted COVID-19, so he got tested. But, instead of COVID-19, he tested positive for kidney failure. This means that he has a serious previously existing condition.
“I have to get a kidney transplant next year. So that’s another layer of enjoyment, right?”
There was one bright note, however. Before he had to lay off his staff for a second time, during the most recent statewide lockdown, Marschke was able to raise more than $45,000 as of the end of December from a GoFundMe page set up to help them and the restaurant out. Thanks to the kindness of donors, he was able to cut checks for his staff before the Christmas holiday.
Nevertheless, it was not any easier to have his employees file for unemployment for a second time.
“This last one was kind of brutal, this last closure,” he said. “And no relief at all; that was hard, to close everything down like that and not really have anything to fall back on. Last time we had a PPP loan and other loans. This time we have nothing.”
He is married and raising a teenage boy. He owns his own home so he’s not facing eviction due to back rent (although of course he has to pay the mortgage).
There is yet another complication in the mix. Marschke is right in the middle of moving out of his original restaurant, TacoshopSF, at 1824 Irving St., and into a new restaurant, Underdogs Tres, in the former Nopalito spot at 1224 Ninth Ave., which he is hoping to open soon.
“Our lease was up,” he explained. “With COVID, it kind of showed we have a really small kitchen in there and we didn’t really have outside dining. We had no store front. So COVID really hurt us when we were there because we couldn’t do much outside dining. There’s the street closure (on Irving Street, between 19th and 20th avenues) that helped on the weekends, but you can’t run your whole business on weekends.
“And the kitchen was so small that it made our ticket times long, especially when delivery kicked up. I decided to look around a little bit and I found that spot. The kitchen is double the size. It’s got an outdoor patio so it seemed like a good place to move.”
He does plan on re-opening at the Taraval location, but he doesn’t see that happening before sometime this summer, at the earliest. They are currently going through the insurance process, and he says the landlord for that property has been “awesome” about it all.
“We don’t have a big check that we can write to fix it. We need the insurance money to cover it,” he said.
He’s also worried that in the interim he might permanently lose some of his current staff.
“They’re going to go off and get jobs. The restart’s going to be hard because we’re going to have half, maybe more, new staff.”
At this point, he has no solid numbers on how much it will cost to get the restaurant back into shape and ready for business. He estimates it will likely cost several hundred thousand dollars.
For information about the restaurant’s GoFundMe campaign, go to http://www.underdogstoo.com.