In a whirlwind year that saw tragedies play out in so many ways, to say the bar and restaurant industry took a big hit is an understatement.
The compounding figures of restaurant after restaurant, bar after bar, shuttering in 2020 grew to such dizzying heights, it felt like there was never any time to stop and take stock of the aftermath. Eventually, the numbers feel hollow — another statistic from the year that changed everything.
But behind those figures are the individual stories of people: those who invested their lives into these places and cried with staff on the last day open, cleared out the place that felt like a second home and wondered about what happens after a business ends.
We returned to three San Francisco businesses months after they closed to find out about the people who ran the bars and restaurants we loved, what happened during 2020, what these places meant to their communities — and what life is like after the doors shut for good.
Richard Park, left, and wife Pam Schafer, right, outside of new venture OverKill Grill (inside Bender’s Bar & Grill).
Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Richard Park and wife Pam Schafer couldn’t shake the troublesome question that kept looming: What are we going to do now? For the past 13 years, CatHead’s BBQ had been their livelihood, and without it, their future seemed uncertain.
Park recalls the difficulty of running CatHead’s BBQ, which closed forever on Aug. 2, 2020, during the months that led up to the closure. The barbecue restaurant had pivoted to takeout and outdoor dining, but no matter what they tried, money was becoming scarce as sales dipped.
“I remember we were making like $8,000 to $10,000 a month in our peak times,” Park said of his business before the pandemic. “[But then] we were losing $30,000 a month … it was dismal. Without the PPP loan, we would have gone down way before [August].”
Early on, Park and Schafer reached out to their landlord hoping that they could negotiate their lease, but their efforts were futile, Park says, because they didn’t hear back for months until mid-August when it was already too late.
“Right when everything got shut down, we sent a letter to our landlord [saying,] ‘This could affect us, we may need some help.’ One month later … we send another letter saying, ‘We are being affected. We’re not sure we can pay rent for much longer.’ We did everything we could to reach out to him.”
By July, it became clear that CatHead’s BBQ would have to close. That was when their business adviser told Park and Schafer that they couldn’t afford to hold off until November when their lease ended.
“That was the hardest thing just to come to terms with the reality that we couldn’t make it anymore,” Park says.
Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
The last week of service was overwhelming, Park says, comparing it to July 4 weekend sales — historically their busiest time of the year. The customer support at the very end was the only silver lining, but saying goodbye to their devoted staff was the hardest part.
After the crew cleaned up the space, Park and Schafer treated the staff to lunch and gave each team member a bonus as a form of gratitude.
“We cried,” Park said. “[Pam] still hasn’t gone by [CatHead’s BBQ]. We will go by it occasionally and she won’t look, it’s still a sore subject because we went there every day. I’m tearing up now thinking about it.”
Things did eventually get better. Right after the closure, Park and Schafer packed their bags, loaded their car and took a monthslong road trip across the states to reset. When they came back, they took up walking a few miles every day to get fresh air. And on one of those walks, they ran into a friend who owns Bender’s Bar & Grill. They got to talking and eventually agreed to work together.
On March 18, Park and Schafer debuted OverKill Grill inside Bender’s Bar & Grill, where they’ll run the kitchen a few days a week. The new concept won’t focus on barbecue though. Park said they wanted to stick to Bender’s rock ‘n’ roll theme for the menu, which will focus on burgers, schnitzels and other creative dishes.
“I never thought it would happen this quick,” Park said of opening a new concept. “I’m normally a glass half empty kind of guy, but I’m hiding that and wanting to be more positive. I’m not looking to get rich because I’m in the wrong industry for that. I’m just looking to be comfortable and happy.”
— Susana Guerrero
Co-owners of The Stud, from left to right, Maria Davis, Logan Jonas (standing), John Foster Cartwright (seated), Bernadette Fons and Vivvy/Mica Sigourney.
Mariah Tiffany/ Special to SFGATE
In March 2020, the owners of 54-year-old San Francisco queer bar The Stud took out a measuring tape and started spacing the tables 6 feet apart for their Friday night happy hour drag show, Drag Alive.
They could do this, possibly for a few weeks. They could make it work with limited ticket sales and lots of hand sanitizer until the virus passed. But then events started getting canceled. On March 13, The Stud’s doors closed to the public.
They pivoted to live drag shows on Twitch. They sold merch. But they quickly realized none of this was going to save The Stud. In April, all 17 members of the worker-owned collective met for a Zoom meeting. The decision was unanimous: They had to close for good.
“It was a sad, hard moment, but it did feel like we were cutting off our leg to save the body,” said co-owner Maria Davis.
Their rent for the space at 399 Ninth St. was $13,000 a month, so “it did not take long for us to see how devastating it would be with each month that we kept racking up that cost,” said Rachel Ryan, president of the 17-person Stud collective. Giving up the physical space was a sacrifice to enable The Stud to live on through its weekly online drag shows and history podcast, and eventually, a new space (more on that later).
The Stud, which originally opened in 1966, held the title of San Francisco’s oldest queer bar until it closed at the end of May. The public reacted to the news with an outpouring of grief, turning the outside of the building into a makeshift memorial with flowers and candles. It seemed everyone had poignant stories to share of how the bar had changed their life.
Honey Mahogany first found The Stud at a time when she was feeling disconnected from the S.F. queer scene.
“The Stud scene felt much more welcoming and much more like family to me, whereas Castro felt a little bit more uptight, or less of a welcoming vibe,” she said. “… I’m a person of color and I have that experience also as a drag queen. … But The Stud was always just incredibly welcoming and felt like home. It felt like my living room.”
In May, Stud collective members began packing up the bar, an emotionally draining process that took weeks.
Co-owners of the Stud meet up at a friend’s garage where relics of The Stud are safely stored.
Mariah Tiffany/ Special to SFGATE
“There’s nothing like crying while cleaning out a disgusting basement,” Ryan said. “There’s a layer on the basement floor of dead spiders and glitter from the last several decades, and you’re wearing gloves and a mask and goggles and just weeping and fogging the goggles.
“It was very bittersweet … on the one hand, during a time of such strict lockdown, it felt like a treat to be able to see each other, but it was under such heartbreaking circumstances.”
At the end of May, the Stud community sent the bar out in style with a drag funeral on Twitch. It was six hours long.
“It was really wonderful to see all of the love,” said Mahogany. “… I think everyone who watched it left feeling a bit of closure, considering the fact that we weren’t able to go and say goodbye in person, or have one last dance on the dance floor.”
While Ryan says that she cried from March to May straight, The Stud’s story isn’t an entirely tragic one. Because their closure comes with a caveat: They promise to return. It may sound a little pie-in-the-sky, but if you hear how passionately the Stud collective members talk about reopening, you’d be hard pressed not to believe them. This also isn’t the first time the bar has been saved from the brink. In 2016, the building experienced a massive rent hike that would have led to The Stud’s extinction if not for the newly formed collective that stepped in to save it.
“Part of what makes San Francisco so special is these cultural cornerstones, and there needs to be activism around getting them solid footing so they don’t keep closing,” said Ryan. “The Stud collective is certainly a group of people who’s got a lot of fight left. I felt like we moved mountains four and a half years ago, and now there’s definitely just that sense of like, OK, global pandemic, come at us, but we’re not going down easy.”
Currently, the Stud is still in hibernation mode apart from livestreamed drag shows and merch pop-ups at the Slow Streets Noe Art Mart, but Ryan says she is constantly on the lookout for a new space (“Those tabs never close on my browser,” she said). She expects the search to ramp up this summer depending on the state of COVID.
While everyone misses lively Friday night drag shows and the charming divey-ness of the old Stud building, the promise of moving into a newer space has its draws.
“I do not miss every part of that building falling apart,” recalled Ryan. “Oh my gosh, that building was held together with Scotch tape and a prayer.”
It’s been a challenging year for the legendary bar, but Ryan likes to remind people that this is not the first time The Stud has moved locations: In 1987, the bar moved from 1535 Folsom St. to 399 Ninth St.
“Every 25 years she gets a little restless and decides she wants a new location,” she said, laughing.
“It’s her Saturn’s return,” joked Mahogany.
— Madeline Wells
Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Just a year into owning and running popular San Francisco restaurant Prairie, chef Anthony Strong felt the time was right for his next move. He had done decently for his first year in business, by his own estimation, and what he really wanted to do next was to build out a private dining room.
It was February 2020, and Strong was paying attention to news reports about COVID-19. He lightly joked about the possibility customers would never use the large redwood table he was building, due to this new virus, but internally he was worried.
“When you’re in fight or flight mode, your senses are super-, hyper-attuned cause you’re watching for danger all over — that’s basically how you are during the entire first year in business as a restaurant,” Strong said. “… You’re sweating bullets as a small business owner in a city that is very hostile to small businesses, and that makes it very difficult to run one successfully. And so, I hate to put it this way, but you’re basically looking for the next shoe to drop, you’re on the lookout all the time.”
It was only in an offhand comment with his business adviser in February that Strong began seriously contemplating what his next move would be if the coronavirus impacted San Francisco in a big way.
“I’m sure grocery stores would get ransacked, maybe I’d start selling wholesale groceries,” Strong recalled musing to his friend, who in turn replied to him, “That’s actually a good plan. You should probably plan for that.”
Reservations for the newly constructed “Campfire Room,” as Strong called it, began to pour in once they were made available at the end of February. But then those reservations started falling off. That’s when Strong hit “crisis mode.” Rather than being excited about his new dining room, instead he was sitting at the massive redwood table he constructed until 2 in the morning, looking up pricing for pallets of paper towels or pasta sauces, in preparation for a pivot he felt he would be forced to make in just a few weeks.
“It was just this very, very sickening moment where I was like, ‘OK, so I shut down now and I don’t know how long this is going to go on, and I know that I’m going to be completely screwed, that’s guaranteed,’ or, ‘I can make a Hail Mary shot and press send on $20,000 worth of groceries and launch an online store and see if I can sell tinned fish and flour.’ So I went for the latter.”
Anthony Strong prepares dinner for guests in his new venture, SuperStella Catering.
Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
On the Friday before shelter-in-place orders were launched in San Francisco, Strong and his girlfriend decided to take the plunge, bought the food and set up an online site to purchase groceries. By Monday, the grocery supplies arrived at the restaurant and Strong informed the staff that they will not be closing, but instead, Prairie would become a grocery store. By Tuesday, the lockdown orders were in place, and the restaurant’s store was opened to the public. Meanwhile, Strong was still figuring out how to run a grocery store on the fly while the first week as a general store was “utter chaos.”
“I’ve never been a grocer before, like, I don’t know how to price this stuff,” Strong said. “It was totally pricing things by looking on Instacart to see what they’re charging. … How are we going to be able to price this and still make money? What are grocery margins supposed to look like?”
Still, despite the mayhem of running this new shop, Strong said it beat sitting on the couch watching money disappear from the business. He had to let go of most of his staff, except for eight employees. And although Strong was able to secure a small Paycheck Protection Program loan for his business, it wound up not being much of a help (“It actually ended up being kind of a curse,” Strong said). In May, the supply chain imbalance at grocery stores had restored itself and Strong found his general store losing more customers with each passing week, as everyone went back to their chain stores for supplies.
“I could see very clearly once I actually put my ego and my attachment to the restaurant aside, I could very, very clearly tell that the writing was on the wall for us,” Strong said. “… [The store] didn’t make us any money, it ended up losing money. … It just became really clear [we needed to close], and I was like, ‘OK, if I don’t make this call now, we’re going to be closing in a very, very different way.’ I need to make sure that we’re still able to pay all of our vendors and pay all of our employees and close with the amount of integrity that I want to be running a business with.”
Prairie shut down in August 2020, and after that chapter closed, Strong was exhausted. He began camping a lot around this time, spending time outdoors, and was trying to take it easy by meditating. It was during this time that he came up with a plan for his next venture, SuperStella Catering. Fixing up a camper van he found in Oregon, outfitting the interior with a dining table, chairs and lights, Strong figured this was his way to do something new and small while cooking up the type of food he likes for others. Now, Strong books out dinners for four-person parties, driving his van to customers (or welcoming customers to his space at Spark Social SF, the food truck park) and cooking a multi-course dinner, with the “glamping” setup bringing chuckles to all who pass by Stella’s setup, Strong said.
Although Strong is enjoying his new outdoor setup, there is a part of him that does miss having a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he admitted. He’d like to get back into the restaurant game eventually, but said he’d have to “rethink things quite a bit.” But, he’s hoping that in the meantime people will reconsider the role that restaurants play in society.
“During this pandemic, people hopefully will have gained a different appreciation for, and understanding of, what restaurants are and the role that they fill in a community,” Strong said. “They’re never going to be like unicorn businesses, like Tesla, right. And they might not create billionaires like Apple, and they might not employ Harvard grads. [Restaurants] might not make much money, but they contribute in such an important way to the fabric of being social and being in a community. And I think pre-pandemic that seems to really be taken for granted … I hope that people have a renewed understanding of what it takes to actually do this kind of work.”
— Dianne de Guzman