Farmerbrown, the city’s most celebrated black-owned restaurant, closed Sunday after 13 years in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Sister restaurants Little Skillet and Isla Vida will remain open, as will a newly opened San Francisco International Airport outpost of Farmerbrown.
The reasons behind the closure are all too familiar. Farmerbrown, with more than 70 seats, had become unwieldy, chef-owner Jay Foster said. Restaurateurs are increasingly favoring smaller spaces friendly to counter service, which keep rent and labor costs lower.
Toss in higher operating costs, upticks in rent, worker shortages and the like, and Foster said the decision, which he’s been mulling over the past few years, made itself.
“I’m overwhelmed with loss, and devastated at the terrible ending to 13 years,” Foster said. “It’s been the most incredible journey to be a part of Farmerbrown.”
Farmerbrown opened in 2006 as a passion project of Foster, a young black chef in a city devoid of them. Its closure raises a simple question: Is San Francisco a city for soul food?
Soul food as an idea isn’t tied to culinary technique. It’s an emotion, one poured through brown hands into recipes rarely confined by exact measurements and timing. Chefs operating soul food kitchens, like Foster, talk about the work as though it’s a spiritual exercise. The food is edible improvised jazz, or blues consumable with a knife and fork.
But the San Francisco restaurant world is unforgiving. Farmerbrown and soul food businesses like it have had to adapt to survive.
“Sadly, we were busy as we ever were, but operations and labor for large formats are increasingly challenging in San Francisco,” Foster said.
While the Tenderloin restaurant is closing its doors, Farmerbrown lives on at SFO in a 90-seat space. Next door is a Little Skillet, an outlet of Foster’s South of Market restaurant. The airport operations are a joint venture with High Flying Foods, the concessionaire that also operates Gott’s Roadside and Peet’s Coffee at the airport.
Foster, along with business partners Matthew Washington and Erin Traylor, also recently opened Isla Vida, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in the Fillmore. The business, smaller than the Farmerbrown flagship, provides counter service and will eventually deliver meals as well.
In many ways, Foster’s circumstances mirror those of chef Tanya Holland in the East Bay. The soul food maven of Oakland closed her flagship Brown Sugar Kitchen restaurant on Mandela Parkway this year.
She plans to open counter-service versions of the business called Brown Sugar Kitchen Counter in Uptown Oakland, San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Oakland International Airport.
Both chefs have described similar conundrums when it comes to running soul food restaurants in the Bay Area. Part of it has to do with establishing what diners are willing to pay for fried chicken, waffles or catfish. Then there’s the issue of being able to draw destination diners from outside the neighborhood.
Foster still hopes a soul food restaurant like Farmerbrown can find its place in San Francisco. It just takes the right opportunity and location, he said.
“SFO Farmerbrown is now where the legacy has to live on, unless we find another place to be an angel to take us there,” Foster said.
There’s no word yet on what will become of the Farmerbrown space at Mason and Turk streets, which is owned by American Pacific International Capital.
Justin Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JustMrPhillips
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