Farmerbrown in the Tenderloin Shut Their Doors
How is that an establishment like farmerbrown could fall from grace in an age of culinary renaissance inside a city brimming with obsessive foodies? The Tenderloin soul food restaurant mixed up the right ingredients for success when they opened their doors in 2006, but a lot has changed in the past 13 years. Businesses in San Francisco now have to contend with a new reality: success alone does not precipitate survival.
For chef-owner Jay Foster, the brick and mortar 70-seat diner was a labor of love and shutting it down Sunday was a painful exercise in shrewd business management, the kind you need to employ in order to make it in today’s urban food scene. Closing up shop in the TL means Foster can focus his energy and resources on sister restaurants he has since created, but it also means one less black-owned business in a city with dismal black ownership and an increasing exodus of residents of color. Adding insult to injury is the fear that some techie or hipster chain will pop up in the space where the mom-n-pop shop once toiled over expertly-fried chicken and perfectly fluffy waffles, where people from the community came to eat together, where real people filled themselves on laughter and plates of love.
The demise of farmerbrown mirrors the fate of many quality and appreciated dining staples. The problem wasn’t demand, they had that in spades. The problem wasn’t the food, people were still packing in to place orders up until the end. The problem was, is, gentrification. Period.
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Rising costs to lease and operate a table-service restaurant, even in the TL, became too much of profit-eating burden, as did the lack of seasoned and consistent labor. Old school kitchen crew staff can no longer afford to live in San Francisco, making it harder and harder for restaurant owners to find and retain quality employees, which decreases quality and in-turn decreases profit. Eventually the circumstance, not the food, chokes out the dream of longevity.
Here’s the crux.
Jetsetter named San Francisco #2 in their 2018 America’s Best Food Cities list, second only to New York. Some would argue that Los Angeles has the edge over our Bay Area grub scene, and they would be wrong based on the superiority of our sourdough alone, but I digress. The point is that the city is a hot spot for great food where tourists will travel just to get a taste and locals frequent out just to get some dinner (yes, because they like to eat out, but also yes, because the apartment they sell their soul to pay for likely has a kitchen the size of a shoe box).
On one hand, we have a booming urban city filled with people who will support (i.e., will consume mass amounts of) fresh, locally-sourced, scratch-made food served up at an affordable price. But on the other and diametrically opposite hand, we have a city with an infrastructure seemingly hell-bent on the destruction of small business owners with a well-honed aim at anyone with the gall to break into the restaurant industry.
So, how can restaurant owners capitalize on the city’s food appeal and manage the nearly insurmountable financial barriers to success? They downsize and look for corporate opportunities, that’s how. Foster accepted that reality and watched as his smaller-scale, counter-service restaurants carved out a new path to success. Little Skillet, a farmerbrown offshoot operating out of an alley window in SOMA, is alive and well and Foster and his partners plan to keep it that way. The same can be said for Isla Vida, a newer Afro-Caribbean spot in the Fillmore, and farmerbrown itself may not live on in the TL but it will be dishing out their signature catfish in the slightly less culturally interesting SFO concessions area.
Is it a shame to lose a well-established soul food restaurant in the TL, owned and operated by a black chef (a practical unicorn in these parts)? Yes, it absolutely is a damn, dirty shame. Is it sad that Foster’s recipes will have to be ground out under the harsh airport fluorescence? Yes, yes it is sad. But inside this story of shame and sadness is one of resilience and adaptation to meet the changing tides. Measures of survival are not always pleasant or in the least bit comfortable, but they are often necessary evils required to live on and try another day. Foster intends to do just that, even if it does take a miracle to get there.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, the chef said:
“SFO Farmerbrown is now where the legacy has to live on unless we find another place to be and an angel to take us there.”