In 2019, Delfina, arguably the Mission's most iconic restaurant, celebrated its 20th anniversary. 7x7 wrote about it. Next year, 7x7 will also turn 20. I've been an editor here, off and on, for 16 of those years, and somehow I have never met Annie Stoll, Delfina's co-owner, in person. But that didn't stop us from pouring our hearts out to one another and sharing a cry over the phone today.
I caught Annie at home, of course, sharing office space with Craig Stoll, her husband and partner in the Delfina restaurant group; their daughter, a high school senior, was doing online school in the next room. Walking downstairs in search of some privacy, Annie was candid from the start: "Locanda is done," she said. Her tears were audible.
As many San Franciscans have heard by now, beloved sister restaurants Delfina and Locanda have both closed their doors in the wake of COVID-19. The Stolls hope to be able to reopen Delfina when all is said and done but, Annie says, "we definitely won't be able to get Locanda back up. That's over."
She cites the reasons we all already know—high costs, razor thin margins, a $15,000 per month mortgage loan on a coveted Valencia Street address that will now be impossible to pay. ("Have you seen Valencia Street?" She all but gasps for air trying to process the many businesses there that have been boarded up.) And while she does muse aloud about what the bank might do when the Stolls' can't make Locanda's mortgage payment, it is clear that Annie is more deeply worried about her people—the 100 or so employees who received their final paychecks on Tuesday. Craig and Annie handed them out personally.
"I had somebody come in with their three-year-old to pick up their last check and I wondered, how will they feed their child? We've had to turn 95 percent of our staff. These workers live paycheck to paycheck, some of them have five roommates to live in SF. How are they gonna live? What are they gonna do without income?"
She notes that some of her laid-off workers have already moved "back home."
But while many Bay Area restaurants are scrambling to figure out the takeout and delivery business—as is the Stolls' own Pizzeria Delfina (all four locations in SF, Palo Alto, and Burlingame are still operating)—the to-go model just isn't suitable for a pair of restaurants that, together, employed more than 100 people and relied on a level of service, hospitality, fresh ingredients and, the kicker, customers who are out clinking glasses and ordering extra appetizers for the table.
This is the part where I tell Annie that, in everything that's happened over these past several days, I didn't really stop to cry until I read on SFGate that her restaurants had closed. Not just for the loss of Delfina and Locanda, and not because the closure of restaurants is sadder than the loss of health and lives (obviously it's not), but because the headline came like a sucker punch to the gut at the end of a prolonged beating: Even when we do emerge from this shit storm, life may never be the same.
Gone already is the simple pleasure of grabbing a bite and a drink with friends. Gone will be many a favorite neighborhood restaurant. Gone are the jobs of so many Bay Areans already, and there will be more to follow. Locanda might be the first beloved SF restaurant to go, but it will not be the last.
Just ask Che Fico's David Nayfeld, Mourad Lahlou of Mourad and Aziza (both restaurants are currently offering takeout and delivery), and Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu's, all chefs who have put out the plea, across their social channels, to Mayor London Breed and to Governor Gavin Newsom and to anyone who will listen: save the restaurant industry.
While the team at Che Fico Alimentari is crushing out takeout/delivery and has teamed with its investors to give out free meals to anyone who needs them (sister restaurant Che Fico, meanwhile, is closed), Nayfeld has posted a passionate call on Instagram, with the hashtag #savehospitality, for increased unemployment benefits for furloughed employees; a temporary freeze on unemployment insurance taxes; and rent abatement.
Lahlou has posted the same, along with phone numbers for followers to call their representatives and ask that these small businesses be included in stimulus plans. Jew, meanwhile, has noted that it took years to get his Michelin-starred restaurant off the ground and just a few days to shut it down; via GoFundMe, Mister Jiu's has raised over $25,000 in the past 24 hours alone to help support its staff while the restaurant is closed.
Now, it's worth taking a pause here to note that all of these restaurants are award-winners and mainstays; they are among San Francisco's best. They are not too big to fail. I don't know where this hashtag started but I saw it on Mourad's page: They are #toosmalltofail. The are key to San Francisco's indie identity.
Today countless restaurants from San Francisco to San Ramon to Napa are figuring out how to get their food on the road. But there's little certainty about whether revenue from to-go orders will be enough to sustain them even with skeleton crews.
"We haven't even had time to do the numbers to see if we're making enough to keep the staff that we have," Annie says. "We're scrambling. We've never done these family meals before, and how do we do all this while keeping the distance between our people?" If you've ever been to Pizzeria Delfina's 18th Street locale, you know that space is tight.
I asked Annie how we could help her—we being be me, 7x7, and all of you who might be reading this. She said she didn't know about the campaigns of Nayfeld and Lahlou and the like—"we've been working so hard, we haven't even had time to call our friends. We haven't been able to reach out to Anthony to see how he's doing." (Anthony Strong, Locanda's OG chef, is meanwhile busy turning his own restaurant, Prairie, into a general store for meal kits, pantry staples, and supplies.) But Annie did say that the outpouring she and Craig, and all the Delfina team, have received is the thing that's keeping them going now.
"This sounds so dorky but I don't know how to put it better," she said, "but as we've been forced to separate, it's brought us closer together and to our community than we've ever been before. The Instagram notes, the Facebook notes that Craig and I are getting...so many people are going through their own hell and still reaching out to others. It's been so beautiful."
From the office of 7x7—which is to say from my kitchen's breakfast bar, where I've been hunkered down furiously publishing in my PJs these last several days—I too have seen the outpouring. My inbox, 7x7's Instagram and Facebook pages, are flooded with notes from local businesses of every kind asking that we share their stories, their merch, their hashtags, and more, all in a unified effort to save this place as we know it. A simple thing like a share to our Instagram stories gets us a flood of hearts and happy face emojis. And yes, that's keeping us going, too.
Today I did what I often do when times are tough and I need perspective: I texted Traci Des Jardins. You know her as the restaurateur who said farewell to her own beloved, namesake restaurant, Jardinière, last year; I know her as a friend and a downright sage.
"The entire industry is going to be deeply and irreversibly impacted," she replied, from seclusion somewhere in Tahoe. But, "We will rise from the ashes."
We will. Until then, you can support your local restaurants by purchasing gift cards from those that are temporarily closed, and by ordering takeout and delivery from those that are still chugging along—7x7 is keeping an ever-growing list here. Now is the time for emotional eating.