The new local

Not business as usual
Shoppers and diners are returning to Union Street. Photo: Naomi Rose

As San Francisco gets back to business, Union Street begins to wake up. For merchants, shaking off the effects of an imposed four-month sleep isn’t easy. Everything has changed. We left our businesses as usual one day, and returned to the Twilight Zone another, an alternate universe where people wear masks, discuss hand sanitizing, check maximum capacity everywhere, and contemplate how best to navigate the new abnormal. In our existing dimension we take our temperatures regularly, figuratively and actually, monitoring changes, gingerly stepping into a world where the way we work, eat, drink, and play is radically different.


Like all retail and restaurant corridors, Union Street has had to adapt to the coronavirus world at lightning speed. We haven’t a template or a playbook. We’re making it up as we go, adjusting to the obstacle course of ever-changing guidance affecting every part of our operations. This is especially stressful and confusing for the smallest of businesses already walking a razor-thin line to stay relevant and connected to neighborhoods and customers. Still, we are nimble. We can do this. “Dude, you gotta be fluid,” I overheard one of our UPS drivers tell a merchant. Exactly. For those able to open, fluidity and creativity are vital requirements, especially for hard-hit restaurants. “We are flying by the seat of our pants,” said Carolyn Cherry of Perry’s (1944 Union Street) as she mounts the 11th health guidance poster to the wall. “We’re doing whatever it takes.” A year ago, Perry Butler was celebrating his 50-year anniversary on the street with a week of celebration and guest bartenders culminating in a phenomenal block party of music, food, and fun for decades worth of customers and neighbors. Today, Perry’s still brings the community together. With expedited permitting allowing seven outside tables, ample standing hangout spots, and a loyal clientele, Perry’s continues to be a go-to local favorite. 


Did someone say al fresco dining? The second the city said yes to going outdoors, not only did Perry’s sign on, but the race was on to build out and take advantage of as much shared public space as possible to create stylish, fun places to have a bite. Adriano Paganini of Flores (2030 Union Street), Wildseed (2000 Union Street), Delarosa (2175 Chestnut Street), and Super Duper (2201 Chestnut Street) renown has been particularly creative in taking it to the streets. After a rough start of having to furlough most of his staff when shelter-in-place went into effect, Adriano went into survival mode. He streamlined menus, navigated safe curbside and to-go deliveries, and perfected the “cocktail to go” concept. Then, rather than just plopping a few tables outside, he created environments specific to his food with music, plants, and lighting and began to rehire. Fortunately, it all worked and it’s been super (duper) busy. 


Palm House (2032 Union Street) has also taken their outdoor dining experience seriously. I love the Caribbean beachy flair enhanced with French-style cane chairs, space dividers with mini plants and the casual vibe. Makes me feel like I’m on vacation and makes for a great Union Street a hotspot. On the 1800 block, the Peruvian Japanese restaurant Kaiyo (1838 Union Street) also signed on to outside dining the French way with huge St.-Germain umbrellas and space heaters. The food is inventive, beautiful, and delicious. So are the cocktails, which are reason enough to visit! 

Speaking of reason to visit, one word — Italy. Thank goodness for The Italian Homemade Company’s (1998 Union Street) pasta, Bolognese, and lasagna during lockdown, for Gio Gelati’s (1998 Union Street) stellar Italian gelato, and for Carlos Pillado at Pane e Vino (1715 Union Street), who embraced the neighborhood with unwavering kindness, buckets full of Peroni, Pellegrino, and wine along with plenty of yummy Italian goodness. Without the benefit of an online delivery service, Pillado became a truly essential business one meal at a time, often showing his gratitude with a surprise slice of cheesecake or tiramisu.   


On the other end of Union, Rose’s Cafe (2298 Union Street) has finally, thankfully, opened. This is a neighborhood gem, the end. Begin with brunch, finish with dinner, remember to take your dog, and soak in the atmosphere of our favorite tasty corner. And don’t forget to try the assorted house-baked goods, including dog biscuits. 

Nearby, Regan Caponi from The Comet Club (3111 Fillmore Street) and Chris Cheeseman from Tacko (3115 Fillmore Street) are adding the finishing touches to paperwork for their combined pop-up “backyard barbeque,” which will actually be a frontyard barbeque boasting weekly surprise menus. They’re due to open within a week, which will surely bring some added flavor to the street.  


Not all of our favorite restaurants will be reopening, sadly. After 25 years of serving up great breakfasts, lunches, and neighborhood chatter, Tony Giannini from Caffe Union (1830 Union Street) is hanging up his apron. “I never expected to be here for this long,” he said emotionally. “I have loved being a part of the community and daily life of so many people.” I for one will miss his crazy good huevos rancheros and the vibrant personality he brought to the neighborhood.  

Capannina (1809 Union Street) will not be reopening either. The struggle was simply too much for this established beloved cozy Italian hideaway. We will so miss Michele Di Ruocco, his staff, his food, and the tenderness in which he welcomed each customer and every dog in the community.


On the retail front, businesses are evolving daily to adjust to our tricky new circumstances. I mean who could have predicted this? Yet, here we are, shifting focus, making things happen. No one has done this more fervently than Donna O’Leary, owner of iconic women’s clothing store Ambiance (1858 Union Street). When the mayor said curbside, O’Leary said go and embraced it with a virtual shopping experience that expertly mimicked shopping in her well-stocked store. When that wasn’t enough, she dove into launching a new website. When she was finally open (yeah!), she did it with a huge welcome-back sale including enticing markdowns and a great customer loyalty program. “It will take a lot, but we’ve got to do it. We have to do it all in order to survive,” O’Leary said in her candid manner. As one of the best and one of the most original boutiques in San Francisco since 1996, we expect she will. 

So too will Caroline Patterson from Shaw Shoes (1869 Union Street), the family-owned shoe store since 1970 who expects business to come back slowly but surely. That should be possible when people get a look at their new fall styles.

Birdies (1934 Union Street) has also stepped up in their cute shoes to adjust to awkward retail 101. Despite a stringent protocol for distancing and trying on shoes — each pair that’s tried gets a 48-hour quarantine — Birdie’s will do anything to help find the right fit and style for you. Once the perfect pair is found, which is not hard, believe me, Birdies then makes it easy to get more with the least amount of contact. Free shipping, easy returns, and great communication combine to ensure a good, safe experience. All this plus a great product should be enough to keep them from flat sales and everyone else in wonderful flats.

Smaller owner-operator businesses on Union Street such as Current Clothing (1738 Union Street), Danielle San Francisco (2278 Union Street), Isalis (2127 Union Street), and Morning Lavender (1846 Union Street) are doing what it takes to inspire confidence and loyalty, working hard to build brands, a clientele base, and solid place in the community. Each notes that the way in which they do business has changed in terms of sanitizing, distancing, and in tracking traffic flow. So too has the way in which people shop. Everyone’s needs have changed. People are coming off of months of isolation, no shopping, and living in sweatpants. Most are working from home and still want that comfort level. Clothing that is easy, functional, and looks great from the waist up for Zoom meetings is what’s selling. 

Other retailers like fine jewelers Carats & Stones (1833 Union Street) have decided to open by private appointment only. This allows dedicated time to check out the unique and beautiful selection of gems in a comfortable setting or to discuss a special custom-made design for a wedding, anniversary, or just because.  

And in answer to several questions about our own store Jest Jewels (1869 Union Street), Eleanor Carpenter says this: “Yes, we are open. Yes, we are still retiring, though postponed by the pandemic and months we were closed. No, we don’t have an exact closing date because nothing is that exact at the moment . . . and yes, we are continuing to have a big sale — at the moment it is a happy-to-be-staying-in-business-for-a-while sale.” She added how lucky we are to have such dedicated lovely customers and such a solid place in our community. People seem to be looking for connection and stability in this very unstable time, and we are glad to be able to provide a little of that. 

Now more than ever because we are home, we are truly shopping, living, and working local. As a result, we are experiencing our neighborhood with new clarity. The way I see it, Union Street will thrive in this homey role. The outside dining feels good, the relationships between neighbors and merchants are stronger than ever, and the natural beauty of our wide streets and Victorian architecture provide a great backdrop in which to step out and back into life as it is.   

Leslie Drapkin is the co-owner of Jest Jewels (1869 Union Street, 415-563-8839)

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