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Dec 28, 2013 10:06 AM

Why cooks are leaving SF?

Interesting article that may impact our ability to get more of the good stuff in the coming months.

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  1. That's not about any recent change that will make a difference in the short term. Those are all long-term trends that have been going on for years. They're not likely to make any difference in the quality of the food we can get.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Didn't the article say that the average rent in SF went up 20% in the last year. That sounds pretty recent to me.

      1. re: c oliver

        Cooks have been leaving restaurants for tech company cafeterias, pop-ups, food trucks, private chef gigs, and so on for years.

        SF rents have been out of reach for people without big paychecks for years. For an SF resident to get by on line cook wages they'd need a rent-controlled apartment.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          But it appears to have gotten worse. At least that's what our mid30s kids have said. And what this article said. And what the restauranteurs are saying.

          1. re: c oliver

            I didn't say the trends had changed, only that it's wrong to characterize them as new, expect big near-term changes, or worry about any decline in the diversity and quality of our food.

            The changes for the most part are positive. The dearth of line cooks encourages chefs to open smaller places where they're more hands-on.

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            When a tenant leaves a rent-controlled apartment (which is basically never), that unit is re-rented at the market price as I understand it.

              1. re: monfrancisco

                Correct, vacant apartments can be rented for what the market will bear. Average / median rents are misleading to anyone looking to move to SF since what's actually available to rent is much more expensive.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Precisely. That's why I didn't understand your point about line-cooks (and similar) needing a rent-controlled place; it keeps rent increases down, but not initial rent.

                  I do realize this is chowhound not renthound!

                  1. re: monfrancisco

                    When a line cook who has been living in SF for a while vacates a rent-controlled apartment to move to another city, the new tenant's not going to be a line cook, so that's one of the trends.

                    I think that's another trend that's benefitting Oakland at SF's expense. Cooks working in the City live over here because it's more affordable, and then take jobs over here because the commute's easier.

              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                And or Plenty of Roommates. We had 6 in 2.5 Bedroom Flat in the Mission when I was on the Line..

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I thought it was a decent summary of the state of the back of house union, and shed some light on a situation that many readers of CH who don't live in the Bay Area or aren't close to the industry might not be aware of. And I did say "may" impact :-).

              1. re: grayelf

                Those trends have been going on for years as the quality and variety of food has continued to improve. There's no reason to expect that to change.

                Ambitious young chefs may find more corners to cut, though with people eating fried chicken in an unheated loading doc I'm not sure there's much farther things can go. I keep expecting someone to open a pop-up in the off hours at a sewage plant.

            2. Rent control always drives rents higher!

              1. A 1-bd rm apt is now going for $3k+/month. If you use the standard calculation that rent (housing) should cost 1/3rd of your income, that means the average line chef would have to make $108,000+ per year.

                Given, "restaurant cooks in San Francisco make an average annual salary of $27,660, well below the average San Francisco salary of $62,680," it's NOT JUST chefs that are being squeezed but anyone not making 6-figures, and you still have to find an apartment.

                Perhaps restaurant owners will take a page out of how they dealt with healthcare and add a "rent affordability surcharge" to the bill, so workers can live in the same city and let customers know things cost a lot in SF...least of all the meal you're stuffing down your face!

                Of course that's not going to happen...but I can see a "worker transportation surcharge" so workers can be bussed in from Stockton. Okay I jest sorta...but unless restaurants start paying talent everyone will suffer.

                If the average worker can't afford the product they produce, it's really about income disparity and it's going to get worse. So buckle up boys and girls...your fancy meals are going to cost more or go away.

                Next up: restaurant rankings according to who pays their workers fairly. If people want guilt-free workers along with their guilt-free produce and animals parts, it's going to cost. Pony up or LET THEM EAT CAKE!

                43 Replies
                1. re: ML8000

                  Even in the 70s one-bedroom apartments were beyond the budget of people with low-paying jobs. The only people I knew with their own apartments had unearned income.

                  From the dot-com era on, if not before, a line cook who wanted to work in SF would be looking for a room in a shared house or flat in an outer neighborhood, or near BART in the East Bay.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    I was a secretary in SF in the 70s and always had my own one bedroom apt. I just read that in the Mission it takes, IIRC, five incomes for that size apt.

                  2. re: ML8000

                    >> "so workers can live in the same city"

                    why is this important? what's the problem with "workers" commuting?

                      1. re: Dustin_E

                        No problem with workers commuting if they choose to do so. Not everyone wants to commute. Some workers (high and low paid) wish to be part of the community they work in.

                        Given the thriving food culture in SF, I think it's beneficial for restaurant workers to live in the community since it can influence their work and contribute to the economy, community and their work...or they just don't want to commute.

                        Commuting isn't cheap, time or money wise. Round trip from Dublin to SF is about $12 bucks, and 50 mins ea way. That's $60/wk, or about $3,000 a year, or about 10% of an average line chef's average pay of $27k. If I were in that situation, I'd rather not commute.

                        Beyond that, healthy economies are diverse and that includes high, medium and low wage earners.

                        1. re: ML8000

                          i guess i see not-commuting as a luxury not everyone can afford.

                          of course, ideally, everyone would walk to work and income disparity would be modest.

                          but in a place with crazy-expensive real estate, workers commuting in from less expensive areas seems inevitable.

                          1. re: ML8000

                            A huge reason that I would not want to commute as a line cook, is that if I am already working a 10-16 hour day, my time is extremely precious. That extra 45 min on way or whatever is going to really grow extremely old. Work me 8 hours, yeah maybe, but when we are talking about kitchens time is always going to be a really thing in restaurants. Plus chefs need you to be on call and need you committed to the craft and if you are a long ways away it becomes more difficult and you don't always have that small cutting edge over your other employees.

                          2. re: Dustin_E

                            I won't be losing any sleep over whether a line cook or a bartender who works in SF actually lives here. I'd be more concerned about first responders being priced out and living far away. If firefighters and police officers, who are usually better compensated than line cooks, are not readily available when the next big earthquake hits, it's a bigger concern than whether a bartender takes BART in from Oakland.

                            Labor costs, including various SF mandates, do affect the the restaurant picture in SF, including making some restaurateurs opening up new restaurants outside the City. However, that's a slightly different issue than whether the restaurant employees live in SF proper.

                            1. re: nocharge

                              Wage disparity, economic inequality effects everyone in modern communities. The line chefs are simply the "canary in the mine" and the first to send a warning signal.

                              Today in SFGate was an article about how two teachers in SFUSD can no longer afford to live in SF. Call them the "oxygen sensor" in this situation because the first responders are next.

                              Or maybe SF should just evict all children. They don't really don't contribute to the local economy or pay in. In fact education costs $$$ and takes from the economy. Or maybe they can commute to school. Outsource education to somewhere else.

                              Seriously, while you're not losing sleep now, consider the warning signs have been sent.

                              1. re: ML8000

                                I believe a fair percentage of first responders already live outside the City and I find that more worrisome than whether line cooks, bartenders, or teachers do.

                                But, yeah, wouldn't it be great if housing was dirt cheap and everybody was making a million bucks a year?

                                1. re: ML8000

                                  It's funny to me that anyone thinks of this as a recent problem. Most people I know were priced out of SF years ago, and we were all making a lot more money than line cooks.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    This round is a little different. The past isn't anything compared to the current round.

                                    I did the compatibles, adjusted for inflation current housing is way more than in the past. I have a friend who still has a rent control apt in SF, he started paying $350/month in 1981. Adjusted for inflation today that would be like $1,000. Current average apt is $3k/month. 3x over the rate of inflation. Also know of a house bought in the late 90s in the Mission for $350k...recently sold after a renovation and a couple of ownership changes for $3m...yeah $3,000,000.00.

                                    Like I said, this round is different. I also have had the experience of being ellis acted in SF. I left in 2003 and it was nothing like today.

                                    1. re: ML8000

                                      It's just the continuation of trends that have been going on for a long time. In the late 80s I went to a garage sale in Noe Valley, two partner-level lawyers I knew were moving to Berkeley and talking about how they'd never be able to afford to move back to SF because the bankers were pricing out the lawyers (and this just 10-15 years after the lawyers priced the hippies and working class out of NV).

                                      I couldn't find a decent *flat* for $350K in the late 90s. The only houses I could afford were in neighborhoods I'd never visited and in some cases even heard of before. That's why I moved to Berkeley.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I wouldn't say that what we're seeing now is the continuation of a long-term trend. It is more of a peak, similar to the peak we saw in 1999-early 2000. Overall there is a long-term trend of housing prices going up, but when it gets really out of whack like it is now or like it was 14 years ago, we see crazy things happen at a much higher rate than usual.

                                        1. re: calumin

                                          Whether this is a peak depends on when it stops.

                                          Whether the current tech boom is a replay of the dot-com bust or sustainable growth is anybody's guess.

                                      2. re: ML8000

                                        I don't really understand all the hand-wringing. Manhattan has had far higher rents than SF for a long time, and still does, but they still have plenty of food in Manhattan. At this point, even places in west Brooklyn and north NJ are beyond the price range for a lot of these people. Mind you, restaurants often stay open a LOT later in Manhattan as well.

                                        I agree that a lot of the young energy in the food scene in places like Portland or Philly is being sapped from the City, but them's the breaks with gentrification. It is what it is. At least Oakland is right there.

                                        1. re: dunstable

                                          SF is now the most expensive rental market in the country and public transit for cheaper outlying areas is much better in NYC, especially in the wee hours.


                                            1. re: drewskiSF

                                              Odd that the median two-bedroom Oakland apartment is cheaper than the median one-bedroom.

                                              I suppose that could be because the fancy new condos near BART are mostly studios and one-bedrooms, while many two-bedroom places are in old buildings in less desirable neighborhoods.

                                          1. re: dunstable

                                            When I asked someone how to get a good meal in NYC without a reservation, he said "flee the island". On a recent trip, I went just over one of the bridges and ate at Traif --- great meal, really great, better than I've eaten in Manhattan outside of the michelin-3-stars. Certainly better than the 1-star places.

                                            I'd still rather eat in oakland, there are plenty of chefs, plenty of interesting places opening up, places that can take more chances.

                                            Handwringing about the City --- puuullleeeese. They were probably doing that in 1880. Whatever, I'll just eat in Oakland. Or Napa. Whatever.

                                            1. re: bbulkow

                                              If you're willing to sit at the bar, then it becomes more or less the same as SF. I've gone to Momofuku Ssam without a reservation, no problem. Just did the same at The Modern yesterday.

                                              Yah I do think Oakland is the Brooklyn of the Bay Area, at least where food is concerned.

                                              1. re: dunstable

                                                It's better than that, as NYC Hounds steered me to Le Bernardin's counter, where I was able to walk in, order the chef's menu with truffle extension, a few years ago. Do any of the SF 3-stars have open bar seating where the entire menu is available?

                                                In SF, I feel like I have to know the restaurant and timing well to hit bar seats reliably, which I can do. Cool snags, getting MS and The Modern with no rez.

                                                1. re: bbulkow

                                                  Part of it is you just went in and did it, and expected it was okay. Chances are if you tried that here, some would turn you away, but many would do their best to accommodate.

                                                  1. re: bbulkow

                                                    If by SF-3-stars, you refer to Michelin-starred places in San Francisco proper, there aren't any. Among the two-star places, only Quince and Saison have real bars. I believe you can get the entire menu at the bar at Quince and even get stuff a-la-carte off of the tasting menu. Saison is so quirky that I have no idea what you can order at the bar.

                                                    As for the discussion about NYC, I've eaten at both Ssam Bar (without a reservation) and Ko. Completely different animals with Ko having two Michelin stars and Soup-Nazi-like procedures (for a place with little ambience) and Ssam Bar being just cool and without any stars.

                                                    Le Bernadin, in my opinion, is just an old-school seafood restaurant that is extremely well executed and that happens to have a bar. It's not particularly rare for old-school restaurants in Manhattan to have a bar.

                                              2. re: dunstable

                                                I was just in Manhattan and my wife and I were surprised to see that you can get much more for your money than in SF. Numerous 1- and 2-br apts in the city for less than $2500. Good luck finding that in SF.

                                                1. re: Josh

                                                  I would guess that SF has a lot more SFRs (single family residences) than NYC and NYC has more and bigger apartment buildings. At least that's how it looks to me when we visit.

                                                  1. re: c oliver

                                                    NYC has more of every kind of housing. SF has less than 400K units, a third of which are officially single-family (though many of those have an illegal second unit). NYC has over 3.3 million, 30% are one- and two-family houses.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      You seem to be including information about all five boroughs, which is factually correct but still a little misleading when it comes to these sorts of discussions. A person who lives in Woodhaven is not flitting back and forth to Manhattan very easily. It would not be that much easier (nor, in my opinion, more desirable) than commuting from SF to Oakland.

                                                      1. re: dunstable

                                                        The question isn't what's easy, it's what's possible.

                                                        NYC's 8 million residents are spread over 300 square miles. Some of the neighborhoods where Manhattan line cooks can afford to live have decent public transit 24/7. Obviously they'd want to live near the subway instead of a bus ride away.

                                                        The SF-Oakland-Fremont metro area's 4 million residents are spread over 2,400 square miles. The closest counterpart to Astoria for SF line cooks would be cheaper parts of the East Bay near BART, e.g. San Leandro.

                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          Be that as it may, it is "possible" to commute from the East Bay just fine; plenty of people do it every day, including me. The other day on the bus, I overheard a woman say she was on Section 8 housing, but also commuting from Antioch. To San Francisco! San Leandro should be a piece of cake, then.

                                                          Anyhow, a lot of commenters on this thread are talking about the commute time like it's some sort of barrier to being a cook in the City, but that subway ride to the outer boroughs can be an equally long hike. You can be stuck in there over an hour late at night -- and as a longtime former resident of Flushing, I unfortunately know this firsthand. It's not any easier than taking the BART to San Leandro, although it is admittedly a little cheaper.

                                                          And again, it's been over a decade since low-end cooks have been realistically able to afford Manhattan. They still have food there.

                                                          1. re: dunstable

                                                            Here's the deal, many people do not want SF turning into Manhattan. Economic and ethnic diversity really makes SF a more interesting place, including food-wise.

                                                            Manhattan is also obviously a very interesting place but at the core so much of the place is about $$$ and has been forever. That's a part of SF as well but all the weirdos from the beats to hippies to gays have been accepted. Also SF is the City of St. Francis.

                                                            People who like this vibe or have long roots don't want to see the ability to enjoy and live in such a place to be exclusive based on $$$. This has always been part of SF's charm.

                                                            Again, the issue of restaurants staff not being able to afford living in SF is really just a "canary in the mine" warning.

                                                            1. re: ML8000

                                                              Frankly, I think that torch has already been passed to Oakland, and probably a couple of years ago at that. I don't think there's any stopping the g-word in sf.

                                                              1. re: ML8000

                                                                It was the construction of BART in the 1960s that first got San Franciscans worrying about "Manhattanization." The city's paved with dead canaries.

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  The definition of "Manhattanization" refers to the skyline first and not about BART. The FiDi was aiming to expand into Chinatown and North Beach and the prevailing design and planning think was build vertical. Neighborhood activist in both Chinatown and North Beach got involved and stopped it.

                                                                  One of the galvanizing issues was a planned building near the TransAmerica building that would have blocked morning sunlight in Portsmith Square, one of the very few open spaces in Chinatown.

                                                                  As a result, developers went to SOMA, and thus you got highrise development around Mission/Beale/Rincon, etc.

                                                                  Also as Manhattanization sprouted and left, the new millennium came, income disparity was not the same issue as it is today. There was a housing squeeze during the first dotcom boom but the income disparity didn't appear like today.

                                                                  The building of the BART system is another story. San Mateo and Marin both rejected it. The conventional wisdom is they didn't want urban riff raff coming into their white(at the time) suburban communities.

                                                                  1. re: ML8000

                                                                    The earliest published uses of the word "Manhattanization" with regard to SF predate the opening of the Transamerica Pyramid in 1972.

                                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                      The TA pyramid in '72 isn't the point. Manhattanization does pre-date TA but so what. Manhattanization means high rises and skylines, in this case the fear was the whole of SF was going high rise, because like Manhattan SF has a very limited size. The fear was a big part of the city was going to become giant gray canyons stuck in shadows.

                                                                      The mention of the Pyramid was in reference to a proposed building that when protested, stopped the high rise encroachment in Chinatown and North Beach.

                                                                      1. re: ML8000

                                                                        My point is that SF has been pretty Manhattanized in the 40-plus years since people started worrying about it. The Proposition M "growth cap" voters passed in 1986 only limited highrise office development to 475,000 square feet per year through 1999 and twice that since then.

                                                                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                        The term originated in the 60's, but the idea likely even predates the skyscrapers of the 20's.

                                                                        Can't forget suburban expansion itself.

                                                                  2. re: ML8000

                                                                    I'm afraid that SF is nearing the tipping point of becoming the worst of Manhattan. Let's not forget that Washington Heights, Harlem and Greater Chinatown remain solidly on the island. San Francisco won't turn to Walnut Creek, but the city does seem to be losing diversity in many neighborhoods.

                                                              2. re: dunstable

                                                                Probably does not include near the PATH stations in NJ, which run 24 hours unlike BART.

                                                              3. re: Robert Lauriston


                                                                NYC is actually more "affordable" as far as % of income going towards rent. SF only hits that 30% mark if you consider only "middle class" and that's a HIGH income indeed. Certainly nothing that a line cook could afford.

                                                2. re: Dustin_E

                                                  One problem with commuting for line cooks is that working at restaurants is a job with long hours, finishing late at night. Getting public transportation back to the suburbs, or a nearby city, at 3 am is problematic, and carpooling difficult. So they need to buy a car, and insure it, and pay for city parking, and be sober/clean/awake enough at the end of the end of a shift to safely and legally drive home.

                                                  Commuting for low-paying jobs is a related issue. If people who do they low paying generic work are able to move out of the city, they might as well go for a similar low paying job where they end up living, and skip the 3 hour public transit commute every day.

                                                3. re: ML8000

                                                  What would a housing surcharge have to be? 200%?

                                                  SF is a victim of its own success here. Rich people from all over the world want to live there, so they bid up property prices and rents. Politicians are worried about people who make $100K no longer being able to afford to live in the City, which is to say not just line cooks but executive chefs can't afford to move there.

                                                4. There's also the fact that this is another tech boom era so that drives down vacancies.

                                                  1. I am so glad this was written I have been working on my own op ed about this for a few months however I just opened a restaurant, so I haven't had the time.

                                                    A few things: it is not just line cooks and the BOH. Its FOH also, Hosts and managers specifically. And commuting is just fine, however Bart does not run late enough and no one knows if they will strike again. I can speak from experience of how many employees I list during the Bart Strike. Our kitchen closes at 10:30, so my staff usually isnt done till midnight at the earliest and they have to take Muni to get to Bart. How do they make it back to Oakland?

                                                    If they drive, then they have to move their car every 2 hours, since there are no garages in this neighborhood.

                                                    I know this is chowhound, but it is not just in the restaurants. I am noticing it in retail, vet techs, customer service of any kind really.

                                                    Next year there will be an article about the the services are leaving/closing and how you can not get good customer service anymore. A vet tech can not afford to live here. A sous or AGM can not afford it. not if they move here today.

                                                    I am lucky I found my place in 2008, and even at that rent, it is half of my salary, not 1/3 and that is just fine. 1/2 I can handle.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: smatbrat

                                                      Has it gotten so bad that the hostesses at the front are forced to smile?

                                                      1. re: smatbrat

                                                        sb, I would really like to try your restaurant as you have always given me good advice, and I admire your palate! my blog is on my profile and my email is on my blog. Please LMK! ~ K