One startup organization set about solving two problems at once last March, mobilizing to put restaurants to work doing what they do best at the beginning of a highly uncertain and potentially disastrous year, and delivering meals to people who in many cases were newly food-insecure because of the pandemic.
That organization is SF New Deal, and SFist wrote about them last May as they were in their second month, having already funneled $1.5 million in donations to 50 struggling restaurants, paying them to cook meals for homebound seniors and others across the city. The nonprofit was already succeeding in giving work to restaurant workers — at restaurants where they had PPP funds, in many cases, to pay people, but not enough business coming in the door to justify paying them.
SF New Deal marked its one-year anniversary this week, and it's now provided support to 184 small businesses citywide — including restaurants, food trucks, caterers, and courier companies across all of the city's 11 supervisorial districts.
"SF New Deal's first day of meals started with distributing 100 sandwiches in partnership with UCSF Citywide Case Management in the Mission, and we now are a bona-fide organization with 14 employees," says Vinny Eng, community organizer and press rep for SF New Deal. "Undoubtedly, the landscape of San Francisco would be different if these 184 businesses did not have the support of SF New Deal programs — 180 of them are still operational today, whereas across America 1 in 6 small businesses have closed permanently since the start of COVID."
The organization was born out of a conversation between Lenore Estrada of Three Babes Bakeshop and her longtime college friend, Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear. Shear put $1 million of his own money into the organization at the outset, and since then, SF New Deal has raised $2.7 million through private contributions, foundations and corporate grants, 82% of which came from individual donors — 1,800 in total. The remainder of the monies the organization has distributed to small businesses — nearly $17 million — has come from government contracts it is fulfilling to provide meals to vulnerable communities.*
COO and interim Executive Director Jenais Zarlin joined the team, and as she said back in October, the immediate needs created by the pandemic highlighted more broad and long-term issues with food insecurity and inequities across the city.
"Since the beginning, SF New Deal has been working to balance the need to address the symptoms of inequity that have long plagued San Francisco, while simultaneously building community partnerships and engaging in dialogue that endeavors to address the root causes of many of these issues," she said.
And looking ahead to the coming year, as San Francisco restaurants begin to reopen and do more of the normal business of feeding customers that they were used to doing, many see the opportunity presented by SF New Deal as a godsend in what was already a difficult competitive marketplace.
"I think COVID really challenged every operator to reimagine business models and develop a source of income that is not dependent on consumers," Eng says. "As operators continue to shift operations to allow for increasing capacity, I think many of them are reluctant to hire in a significant way because of uncertainty around whether there will be a consumer demand to meet the increased capacity allowances."
When SF New Deal last surveyed its participating restaurants, it found that 98% of them had an ongoing interest in incorporating community feeding as a long-term revenue stream.
And the impact of the organization's work was most widely publicized in the case of Far East Cafe in Chinatown, the 100-year-old restaurant that was saved from the brink of closure by SF New Deal, and a contract to feed SRO seniors and families in the neighborhood — in partnership with the city, and with the help of a $3.4 million targeted fund for Chinatown's recovery called Feed + Fuel Chinatown.
"56 Chinatown restaurants are part of this program with a few more on deck," Eng tells us, adding that at least 20 of these businesses are women-owned and operated. "Because of Feed and Fuel, the iconic Far East Cafe remains open and the landlords of the building they operate in were so moved by the community coming together that they... have extended significant back-rent forgiveness to Far East Cafe."
SF New Deal has now distributed 1.83 million meals to food-insecure residents of the city. And recently the organization worked with the Unidos en Salud/Latino Task Force and the SF African American Faith Based Coalition to help get restaurant workers vaccinated — about half of whom identified Spanish or Chinese as their primary language.
SFist spoke to one of the organization's newer volunteers, Christine Sun, who said the sign-up process and organizational aspects of SF New Deal are all extremely smooth and easy.
"I've done both the deliveries to individuals (3 meals per person to about 9 locations) from the House of Dim Sum and Golden State Grill, and big deliveries (100+ meals) from a restaurant (e.g., Hawker Fare) to churches in the Bayview," Sun says. "It's pretty rewarding to deliver meals to folks because they are very appreciative."
Prospective partner restaurants can apply here — and the organization says it is especially looking for more restaurants in the southeastern part of the city, and "Women-, minority- or LGBTQIA-owned restaurants with fewer than 3 locations are particularly encouraged to apply."
Interested volunteers can sign up here, and if you have the means to donate, you can do so here. For the price of less than many restaurant meals in SF, $30 per month, you can pay it forward and help both the local restaurant economy and the food insecure across the city.
*This piece has been corrected to show that SF New Deal has raised $2.7 million through fundraising, not $19.5 million.