Why San Francisco Restaurants Are Suffocating


Why San Francisco Restaurants Are Suffocating
What I witnessed during my two years in the industry
[Go to the profile of Azhar Hashem]<https://thebolditalic.com/@azhar.hashem?source=post_header_lockup>
Azhar Hashem<https://thebolditalic.com/@azhar.hashem>
Feb 17
At Tawla during dinner service // Photo by Azhar Hashem

One Saturday in June of last year, six months before we closed our beloved restaurant, Tawla, we said goodbye to our lead line cook — one of the last three people left from our original 25-person team when we opened in the Mission two years prior.

I had watched him grow and take on more responsibility, got to know his family — recently celebrating the arrival of his fourth child — and worried constantly after he was forced to leave his rent-controlled apartment, another victim of the loopholes landlords exploit to get rid of tenants under rent control.

Our cook, his wife and their four kids struggled for months to find a place to live, moving from couch to couch. Many of us tried any way we could think to help, from tapping our networks to find more dignified temporary housing to figuring out how to pay him more without having him lose access to various low-income programs his family relied on. We gave him time off to apartment-search and attend city-run seminars that are required for one to qualify for low-income housing. Yet he never found success—there were always higher-priority people in line before him.
I quickly learned that no matter the amount of knowledge or preparation, you can’t fight the desperate realities of San Francisco’s restaurant market today.

This has become almost a cliche story in San Francisco’s food industry. When I set out to open a restaurant in the city in 2016, I intended to successfully employ what I had learned from an MBA and more than a decade of launching and managing successful businesses for Google and other tech companies. But I quickly learned that no matter the amount of knowledge or preparation, you can’t fight the desperate realities of San Francisco’s restaurant market today.

When I opened Tawla, I wasn’t so naive as to think that I knew better than all those tenured in the industry. I actively sought out mentorship from titans, who were generous with their time. I had hoped the restaurant would provide a fresh, more humanizing lens on the culinary cultures of Turkey, Greece and the Levant area. I aspired to present home-cooked food from the region, source local ingredients, create a healthy environment for our employees, maintain reasonable prices accessible to many and be a good citizen in our neighborhood.

In today’s climate, that is a tall order — much taller than I knew at first, and one that I can now say confidently that very few independent eateries can attain. It became quickly apparent that there’s nothing a small, young business in SF can do to make the city a living option for its employees. There is no amount of money an owner can pay an employee within the economics of a small business to allow them to live within the city’s borders or even within a reasonable radius.

This is the reality of where we live. Our cook’s story is one of many we’ve experienced within our business and have heard from others.