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Sky-high rents in San Francisco chefs opening underground restaurants

Sky-high rents in San Francisco have chefs opening underground restaurants


You hear about the tech boom sending apartment rents through the roof in San Francisco, forcing tenants to move out of the city. But you don't hear as much about what the high cost of living is doing to aspiring chefs.

"You're hustling to pay your rent for your restaurant and then for your home in this city, [in which] prices are going up," says Gracie Schatz. The once-aspiring restaurateur ditched the dream when she realized just how expensive it would be to pay the lease alone.

Pop-ups are the easiest way for someone like us to be like, 'I want to cook for people. How do I do that?
Amberle Blake, Private Dining Room SF

So she opted instead for what people are calling "pop-up restaurants," which are like underground private dinners that happen once a week to once a month, where guests pay for a seat at the table. They can be at existing restaurants, people's homes, in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, or anywhere, really. No leases, no permits (depending on the location) and no health care required.

Gracie's and her co-founder's happens twice a month, and it's called Bread and Bones Supper.

It can be more flexible, more creative and more exciting without the tie-down of the brick and mortar.
Courtney Blake, Private Dining Room SF

"We do one pop-up one night. We don’t ever have to do that menu again," says Schatz. "It’s over."

Across town, Courtney and Amberle Blake are doing the same thing. Theirs is called Private Dining Room SF.

"Pop-ups are the easiest way for someone like us to be like, 'I want to cook for people. How do I do that?'" says Amberle Blake.

By "someone like us," she means two recently married 20- to 30-year-olds who are full-time cooks at fancy restaurants in San Francisco but aren't filthy rich enough to afford live alone in the Bay Area city. The couple said they were looking at opening a brick-and-mortar but the monstrous costs made them edit their dream. So they opted for something with fewer strings attached.

"It can be more flexible, more creative and more exciting without the tie-down of the brick and mortar," says Courtney Blake.

Tickets for Private Dining Room SF go for about $95 for a three- to five-course meal. The Blakeses' pop-up and Bread and Butter Supper are more so word-of-mouth private dinners with a light social media presence, but there is also a site dedicated to getting you tickets to these private dinners. It's called Feastly, and chefs from amateur to pro list dinners on the platform. You'll mostly find listings in San Francisco on the site, but more are starting to pop up in other major U.S. cities.

Last year, the cost of renting office space in San Francisco officially surpassed Manhattan's, making it the most expensive in the United States. But thanks to the pop-up model, cooks like Courtney and Amberle get to live our their dreams of owning a restaurant, even if for just one night a month, though they say they'll probably have to move back home to North Carolina to continue their dream.

"The cost of living is not sustainable for a chef or for a cook," says Courtney Blake. "There's no scenario where the two of us could earn enough money to raise a family here as chefs."

(Header image above from Airyka Rockefeller Photography)

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