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COVID-19 keeping you from SF? These restaurants come to a corner near you

Isaac Yosef was in Israel when the shelter-in-place first took hold of San Francisco. He caught one of the last planes home on March 16, took a look around his eerily empty SoMA eatery, Frena Bakery & Cafe, which is usually packed with customers waiting for bagels and burekas, and knew he had to do something. Fast.

“Downtown was dead,” Yosef recalls. “Half of our business was corporate catering and that was gone, too. We quickly decided that if people can’t come to Frena, Frena will come to them.”

During the pandemic, pop-ups and other forms of geographic outreach are becoming an essential way for established San Francisco chefs to reach customers outside the city. Some, like Frena, drive a van to corners across Northern California. Others, like China Live’s George Chen, have opened ghost kitchens —commercial kitchens for delivery-only fare — from Berkeley to Belmont, so loyal customers who used to drive into Chinatown for his dumplings can enjoy them in the comfort of their homes.

The tactic is not new, especially for Frena. Before opening their brick and mortar in 2016, Yosef and his partners cooked their kosher dishes in a commercial kitchen and popped up in San Francisco and around the South Bay.

But this roadshow is different, with a rigorous weekly schedule that clocks hundreds of miles.

At night, they bake and prep everything from falafel mix to pizza babkas, pack up each morning and head to Chabad centers and other gathering places, hitting three to four cities per day. On Wednesdays they’re in San Mateo, Menlo Park and Palo Alto; Fridays in Oakland, Walnut Creek and Pleasanton, often in little to no traffic. Yosef says the response has been amazing and that it currently accounts for the bulk of their business.

“We now have clients who have never been to the bakery,” he says. “We are lucky to have this supportive community and not have to rely on tourists and business professionals in San Francisco.”

Last week, they went to Morgan Hill, Santa Cruz and Monterey for the first time. “We go where people ask us to go,” Yosef says.

On Fridays, Frena synchronizes its stops with the Richmond District’s Hummus Bodega and Walnut Creek-based Afugã Coffee Break so customers can have creamy, authentic hummus and lattes to go with Frena’s freshly-baked pita and chocolate babka. This little culinary pod, at first unexpected, is now a pandemic mainstay, tucked into the suburbs, of all places.

“This is probably the first time Israelis are enjoying standing in line,” Yosef says, joking.

Executive chef-owner George Chen, pictured here in 2017, has launched ghost kitchens across the Bay Area so customers can enjoy his China Live dumplings and other favorites delivered from their own neighborhoods.(Courtesy of China Live) 

George Chen considered the food truck model as a way to curb lost revenue during COVID-19. But it wasn’t the right fit for China Live, a massive culinary destination for modern Chinese cuisine. “We have five kitchens. You can’t put giant dumpling pans in a truck. And the heat required? It wasn’t feasible,” he says.

Chen ramped up retail with meal kits and condiments, but knowing that 70 percent of his clientele was driving 10+ miles to reach China Live before the pandemic, he found a more relevant and long-term solution in Virtual Kitchen Co.’s Local Food Halls. The San Francisco-based company helps restaurants prepare local executions of their most popular menu items.

Among the new China Live signatures items: Shen Jian Bao (“SJB”), Dungeness Crab Spring Handrolls, Sichuan “WorkingHands” Dumplings, Slow-Roasted Kurobuta Pork Loin Char Siu and Yangchow Fried Rice. (Courtesy China Live) 

Last month, Chen launched 10 satellite kitchens in neighborhoods around the Bay Area, from San Jose’s Willow Glen to Sunnyvale and Berkeley, offering China Live Signatures, like the Shanghai-style shen jian bao, for delivery via DoorDash and other apps. To ensure the food meets Chen’s gourmet standards, he adapted some of the recipes so that the pre-finished dishes travel well.

He hopes to add kitchens in Oakland, Walnut Creek and Marin County next.

“This geographical distribution model has been very good for us,” Chen says. “They’ve added more than 30 percent to our to-go revenue in a very short time. This is here to stay. If you don’t pivot you’re gonna die like a dinosaur.”

Chef-owner Brandon Rice of San Francisco’s forthcoming Ernest has been doing pop-ups in Walnut Creek to broaden his audience during the pandemic. (Daniel Brooks) 

That’s why Brandon Rice of the Mission District’s forthcoming Ernest is thinking ahead. Rice, the former chef de cuisine at Rich Table, is weeks away from opening his highly-anticipated first restaurant — for takeout only. To preview his globally-driven cuisine to the San Francisco public, Rice has been offering Ernest at Home dinners, everything from porterhouse steaks to prawn and scallop dumplings.

On Fourth of July, he offered a wildly-popular barbecue menu, complete with baby back ribs, buckets of fried chicken and New England-style lobster rolls. But it wasn’t just in San Francisco. Rice drove out to Walnut Creek, popping up near a park where his girlfriend’s sister lives.

Chef-owner Brandon Rice of San Francisco’s Ernest popped up in Walnut Creek with this menu of Glazed Roasted Chicken, Summer Pepper Shish Kabob and Cucumber Salad with Miso and Sesame. (Courtesy Annie Rainero) 

Naturally, news of a Michelin-cred chef bringing his food to Larkey Park traveled quickly on Facebook. Rice sold out for the holiday and at the two pop-ups that followed. He plans to return to Walnut Creek again, at least until he feels ready to open Ernest’s patio for outdoor dining.

“It was great,” he recalls. “We had a ton of return guests. This is a way of broadening your audience, especially right now. And being able to give people something during this time is important.”

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