SF New Deal Connects Restaurants and Residents in Need
Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
May 1, 2020
Weeks before the shelter-in-place order hit San Francisco, Lenore Estrada of Three Babes Bakeshop knew there was trouble ahead. March 14, known as “Pi Day,” was one of the shop’s biggest events, when they counted on selling 3,000 pies, mostly to local tech offices. But by mid-February, pre-orders were 10% of normal, as companies began requiring employees to work from home.
By early March, Lenore knew she had to make difficult staffing cuts if Three Babes was going to survive the months ahead. They laid off 20 of their 26 employees, with the remaining staff going to half time. “We had plans A through F, and we immediately went from plan A to plan F in half a day,” says Lenore. “It was very painful.”
As Three Babes adjusted to a new reality, with a small crew managing online orders and farmers markets, Lenore simultaneously launched a new project called SF New Deal, a nonprofit designed to meet the urgent needs of small food businesses like hers while feeding the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Pivoting from Pie
Three Babes was founded on a simple premise of selling delicious handcrafted pies made with seasonal ingredients from local farms. Over the last nine years, Three Babes grew steadily through relationships with corporate dining programs, which made up more than 80% of their business.
“Corporate wholesale was really transformational for us in being able to have the predictability and stability to employ our staff, start giving people benefits, and have a growth trajectory,” says Lenore. But with tech offices closed, that business model collapsed.
Three Babes was also preparing to open a pie shop in the Mission—another plan that immediately came to a halt on March 16 when San Francisco ordered all residents to stay home and restaurants to close their doors. Three Babes quickly scrambled to vacate the space and plan for the future.
A few days later, Lenore shared her story with friend Emmett Shear, founder of tech company Twitch, who wanted to find a way to support San Francisco’s small businesses on a large scale. He pledged to donate $1 million, if Lenore could make it happen.
A New Deal for Restaurants and Communities in Need
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the deep vulnerabilities and inequities in our food system, especially among small food businesses operating on the slimmest of margins, and food workers, the lowest paid workers in our economy. Sixty percent of pandemic-related layoffs have happened to workers in the food and beverage industry, and current estimates indicate that 50% of restaurants may not reopen.
With the goal of using Shear’s pledge to keep local food businesses open, Lenore and her friend Jacob Bindman quickly launched SF New Deal, a nonprofit that would pay restaurants to prepare meals for the city’s most vulnerable residents. They began by reaching out to community groups like Citywide Case Management and San Francisco African American Faith-Based Coalition to find out how they could support their efforts.
“The people we’re serving have been in need for a very long time,” says Lenore. “Our community partners have decades of relationships and experience serving these people, but they’ve been operating with little recognition and low resources.”
On the first day of SF New Deal, Jacob and Lenore made 100 sandwiches themselves for Citywide Case Management. Later that week, they brought on three restaurants, who made 1,000 meals. The project has continued to grow each week, now with 43 participating restaurants who have distributed 100,000 meals so far.
A key feature of SF New Deal is providing predictable sales for restaurants so they can keep staff on payroll. On average, restaurants receive about $8,000 a week to provide meals at $10 apiece. It’s a costly program that will need lasting support as the economic toll of the pandemic continues to grow.
Stability for Restaurants
Founding member of the Bay Area Hospitality Coalition, another restaurant relief project, chef Kim Alter of Nightbird became an early participant in SF New Deal. Between SF New Deal and Frontline Foods, Nightbird has been able to keep their 12 staff members employed so far.
Preparing up to 2,000 meals week for hospitals, public housing, and churches has meant a big shift from Nightbird’s usual fine dining menu, as dishes have been streamlined for a $10 budget. Still, Kim continues to source as much as she can from the farmers market, knowing that many small farmers depend on restaurants for their livelihoods.
“Even though we’re only given $10 a meal, I still feel it’s important to use the same farmers, ranchers, and fisherman,” says Kim. “I’m trying to support as many farmers as I can without losing money. We’re just trying to pay our staff and provide health insurance.”
Chef Adam Rosenblum of Causwells is now making 200 meals a day for SF New Deal, which offers a steady source of revenue to supplement their takeout service. “There’s so much uncertainty right now with loans and funding,” he says. “Being able to count on the meals that were doing through SF New Deal allows us to continue to be a part of our culinary ecosystem.”
Keeping Farmers in the Deal
This moment has also helped Adam reconnect with local farms and get creative with surplus produce. “When I did my first market run with SF New Deal, I filled my cart as full as I could. Because we can cook anything, I could say to a farmer, ‘What do you have a ton of that you’re just not moving? I’ll take 15 cases off your hands.’ There was an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction to be a part of that cycle.”
While SF New Deal may only provide a stop gap for restaurants, being an essential connector between local farms and the community offers purpose and grounding for participants as they brace for an uncertain future.
“Being able to go to the market and talk with the farmers gives me a sense of normalcy in the not-knowing-what’s-going-on world,” Kim says. “Thinking about this long-term, I want to make sure that the farmers I’ve supported and who have supported me for the last 10 to 15 years are going to still be there when we get out of this.”
For now, SF New Deal is keeping lifelines open between farms, restaurants, and the community. “It’s of vital importance that we help our small businesses and farmers overcome the challenging times at hand,” says Lenore. “Long term, the government has to step in with support, but our local farmers and businesses can’t wait. We have to act now to bridge the gap and support our neighbors.”
CUESA is a fiscal sponsor of SF New Deal. Learn more and donate here.
Support Three Babes Bakeshop on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
Restaurant worker photos courtesy of Nightbird and Causwells.