COVID-19 keeping you from SF? These SF restaurants come to a corner near you

Isaac Yosef was in Israel when the shelter-in-place first took hold of San Francisco. He caught one of the last planes home on March 16, took a look around his eerily empty SoMA eatery, Frena Bakery & Cafe, which is usually packed with customers waiting for bagels and burekas, and knew he had to do something. Fast.

“Downtown was dead,” Yosef recalls. “Half of our business was corporate catering and that was gone, too. We quickly decided that if people can’t come to Frena, Frena will come to them.”

During the pandemic, pop-ups and other forms of geographic outreach are becoming an essential way for established San Francisco chefs to reach customers outside the city. Some, like Frena, drive a van to corners across Northern California. Others, like China Live’s George Chen, have opened ghost kitchens —commercial kitchens for delivery-only fare — from Berkeley to Belmont, so loyal customers who used to drive into Chinatown for his dumplings can enjoy them in the comfort of their homes.

The tactic is not new, especially for Frena. Before opening their brick and mortar in 2016, Yosef and his partners cooked their kosher dishes in a commercial kitchen and popped up in San Francisco and around the South Bay….

…George Chen considered the food truck model as a way to curb lost revenue during COVID-19. But it wasn’t the right fit for China Live, a massive culinary destination for modern Chinese cuisine. “We have five kitchens. You can’t put giant dumpling pans in a truck. And the heat required? It wasn’t feasible,” he says.

Chen ramped up retail with meal kits and condiments, but knowing that 70 percent of his clientele was driving 10+ miles to reach China Live before the pandemic, he found a more relevant and long-term solution in Virtual Kitchen Co.’s Local Food Halls. The San Francisco-based company helps restaurants prepare local executions of their most popular menu items.

Last month, Chen launched 10 satellite kitchens in neighborhoods around the Bay Area, from San Jose’s Willow Glen to Sunnyvale and Berkeley, offering China Live Signatures, like the Shanghai-style shen jian bao, for delivery via DoorDash and other apps. To ensure the food meets Chen’s gourmet standards, he adapted some of the recipes so that the pre-finished dishes travel well.

He hopes to add kitchens in Oakland, Walnut Creek and Marin County next.

“This geographical distribution model has been very good for us,” Chen says. “They’ve added more than 30 percent to our to-go revenue in a very short time. This is here to stay. If you don’t pivot you’re gonna die like a dinosaur.”…- The Mercury News (08.17.20)