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In the Wake of California’s Wildfires, Bay Area Restaurant Workers Get Smoked Out

Days before the holiday season, restaurants have closed early and sent staffers home as business drops

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

“I didn’t know what was before this year,” says Joe Wolf, owner of San Francisco’s Marla Bakery Restaurant. Since the smoke from the Camp Fire that’s decimated Paradise, California reached San Francisco last week, it’s become all anyone talks about. On Friday, the air quality index [AQI] reached 271 in the Bay Area, the worst in the state’s history, shooting far past the AQI “unhealthy” mark of 150 that necessitates wearing protective masks. Photos of the Bay Area taken in the last few days make the city look like it’s been stripped of all color, turned permanently black and white.

Nearly two weeks after the Camp Fire started burning in Northern California on November 8, it’s still only 70 percent contained. In Paradise, at least 79 lives and 15,000 structures have been lost to fire, with a staggering 700 people still reported missing. In San Francisco and Oakland, nearly 200 miles away, the smell of smoke has forced the area into an uneasy standstill. Poor air quality forced schools to close through this week, starting the Thanksgiving break early, and public officials urged people to stay indoors.

Many of those braving the still-unhealthy air are delivery couriers from popular third-party services like Caviar or Postmates. According to many restaurant owners, delivery orders are up — in the case of some restaurants I spoke with, they’ve doubled — whereas the number of people going out to eat has dwindled down to nearly nothing.

Though they’re trying to keep things in perspective, this week has been tough for Wolf and many others in the Bay Area’s restaurant industry. Many businesses have closed or cut hours. Others have stayed open so employees could at least get their hourly wages — California is one of the few states that does not have a lower tipped minimum wage, which in San Francisco is $15 an hour — even if the shift was slow.

“We try to pay people fairly and provide them with healthcare, but if someone loses a day of work right now, they’re fucked for rent for the rest of the month,” Wolf says. For the bakery, losing income at a time of year when there’s typically a big rush before the holiday slow-down has been tough. “We scrape the bottom of the barrel every week to break even because of the expense that comes with living in the city and having a small business in the city. Every time we lose a dollar we feel it.”

Wolf says that about seven percent of their week’s revenue comes from weekend farmers markets. Though this weekend’s markets decided to open for pre-Thanksgiving shoppers, Wolf says they were down about $400 from the previous Saturday, as would-be shoppers stayed home: Wolf says he was the only vendor without a mask on at the outdoor farmer’s markets, and the air has “created a lot of slowness at the restaurant too,” he adds. The typical topics of conversation aren’t focused on people’s plans for the upcoming holiday — it’s whether people have filtration systems in their homes or businesses; what kind of mask they’re wearing; whether the forecast storm on Wednesday will finally make the smoke go away. “California has gotten a little air crazy.”

The last four days, Rene Colorado, operations manager at Lers Ros Thai restaurants, has come into work to open the brand’s Larkin, California location and its sister restaurant ESAN Classic and found several things waiting for him: orders through third-party delivery services. “That’s never happened before,” he says. The only people coming in are the “die hard regulars,” he says, describing it as “deserted and dead” in the restaurants. “There’s been at least an 80 percent decrease in house sales,” he says.

Meanwhile, Lers Ros’s delivery orders are the most the staff has ever seen since signing up with third-party services. According to Colorado, the delivery drivers have adjusted to the outdoor conditions: Usually they’ll come up to the counter and give a name for the order they’re there to pick up. But since the air quality got bad, they don’t even take off their masks. “They come in and just hold up their phone so I can read it and see the order is for Cathy,” he says.

Because of the uptick in delivery business, the bottom line at Lers Ros Thai hasn’t been affected, but Colorado says “people who depend on tips — they notice it.” Colorado adds, “People live off tips, not the minimum wage,” even though most of their employees make $15 to 17 an hour, depending on how long they’ve worked there. When shifts have been slow, Colorado has offered employees the option to go home — “and they usually do,” he says.

At many restaurants, masks have become part of the employee uniform. At Flour + Water and Central Kitchen, two restaurants in the Mission District owned by Thomas McNaughton, nearly 75 percent of employees also elected to wear masks while working on Sunday. Berkeley restaurant Bartavelle even has them out at the cash register to give out to customers who need them. “At first everyone was blasé about [the smoke] — as depressing as this is, everyone is used to there being a terrible fire nearby now,” says co-owner Sam Sobolewski. By Tuesday, four days after the fire started, the customers stopped acting like the air was just business as usual. “We had a completely dead morning and we were not feeling great and [thought], you know what, let’s just call it,” he says of the decision to close up shop two hours early. He describes it as “feeling like Blade Runner out here.”

Bartavelle had scheduled more staff than usual in anticipation of the pre-holiday rush, and now everyone was just standing around, feeling unwell. Sobolewski feels conflicted about whether or not to stay open. “This would normally be the last busy couple of weeks before our slow season in the winter,” he says. Perhaps more crucially, he sees Bartavelle as a community hub, and wants to be there for its customers as well as its employees. “On the other hand it’s like, should anyone be outside?” Sobolewski wonders. “In a perfect world, I’d close for a week and we’d go somewhere else and somehow pay ourselves.”

Restaurants known for their outdoor seating, like Fiorella in SF’s Richmond District, quickly realized no one wanted to dine alfresco. Fiorella’s director of operations, Boris Nemchenok, says they closed the patio on Thursday and had to cut shifts accordingly. Revenue is down by 20 percent but, he says, “nobody is complaining. It’s an inconvenience for SF, but compared to what’s going on in Paradise —“ he trails off, not needing to finish the sentence. “I think being down in revenue and people losing a few shifts here is temporary.” It’s not like the economy is tanking — there’s just a cloud of smoke shrouding the city.

At Flour + Water and Central Kitchen, McNaughton elected to turn off the wood hearths and ovens last Thursday. He just didn’t feel good about making his cook stand in front of a “billion-degree” hearth, burning wood in front of an open flame with all the smoke that goes off it. “Why are we doing this with everything that’s going on?” McNaughton asks rhetorically. Instead of wood-fired pizza, the restaurant switched to a baked Roman-style pizza that McNaughton compares to “focaccia meets pizza.”

“It was a pain in the ass,” McNaughton says of the logistical challenges. “A cook should be able to cook blind and they have to know where everything is.” Without the hearth, four feet of their workspace was suddenly gone. “Logistically, it’s like a brand-new station.”

At McNaughton’s two restaurants, 120 masks were brought in for employees, and most guests are coming in wearing masks. “Some are even dining in them,” he said of guests at Central Kitchen, which has an indoor-outdoor area with a retractable roof that makes it feel like you’re outside. “It’s eerie to see people eat with a mask on — pick [the mask] up, take a bite, then continue conversation in a mask,” McNaughton says.

“People who have the means to escape — a lot of them have,” says Brian Sadigursky, owner of Little Star Pizza on Divisadero in San Francisco. “I’m up in Tahoe and it’s buzzing up here,” he adds. “My wife was buying coffee and everyone was talking about coming up for some clean air.” He didn’t have any staff approach him asking to leave town, he says, though he would have made it work for anyone who did. “I’m not going to have a double standard.” He says that he didn’t cut anyone’s shifts: “That’s not what we do.” Some people were asked, however, if they wanted to go home early when it was clearly too slow to have that many staff. Sadigursky thinks that if he had closed early or altogether, the staff would have understood, “though they’d feel like that’s a bit of a [financial] pinch.”

“People in the restaurant industry, they’re working to live,” Sadigursky says. “People who work in service live in the margins of financial stability. Their hours are critical.”

It’s common knowledge that the cost of living in the Bay Area is the highest in the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California has more waiters and waitresses than any other state — making an average of $36,090 a year in the Bay Area. In most places, that’s a decent living. In the Bay Area, it’s not: According to the Department of Housing and Development, a family of four earning under $117,400 a year is considered low income. Many people in the Bay Area also have long commute times — a recent survey showed that SF had the second-longest commute of included major cities. Together this means that people who work in restaurants might not feel able to avoid going into work, even if they’re worried about the health risks of walking or taking the BART and other public transportation in air classified as “very unhealthy” as it was on Friday. They simply can’t afford not to take the shift — a shift that might see less income as diners stay home.

People are excited for the rain that’s forecast for Wednesday; as Sadigursky says, going out to eat would inject a little bit of normalcy in the midst of a dark situation — no pun intended. But as bad as things might seem for those working in restaurants, he says, “Some in Paradise have lost everything. Some have paid the ultimate price. Many people are trying to hold onto that perspective,” he says. “As shitty as it is having this awful air, we still have somewhere to lay our head at night.”

Tove Danovich is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus