Aperto Closes in the Face of Multiple Challenges

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Aperto, until April 30 located at 1434 18th Street, went out of business last month after 35 years of serving locally-sourced food for brunch, lunch and dinner. Jesse James opened the restaurant 1992.  In 2002, he sold it to Chris Shepherd, who served as chef when the business launched. “My heart and soul has always been in Aperto,” expressed Shepherd. “I love the neighborhood, worked closely with my employees and put a great deal of time and energy into it.”

Shepherd recalled how he strove to make the establishment feel more a part of the neighborhood after he bought it. He improved the exterior signage, created an outdoor seating area and emphasized finer details, such as decorating the place with fresh flowers. “My efforts with Aperto were 100 percent successful in making it a welcoming neighborhood restaurant and it eventually became a mold for my Oakland restaurant, Bellanico, which I opened in 2008. Business was booming back then.”

Shepherd explained that although there may have been an opportunity for him and his wife to purchase the 18th Street building, he was never keen on being a landlord of a mixed-use building that includes three apartments and office space as well as the restaurant. In 2014, Bostke Association, which owns the property, started contemplated a sale. Shepherd, with only three years left on his lease, tried to get a five-year extension. When the three individuals who make up Bostke remained largely unresponsive, Shepherd began discussing selling the restaurant to a local couple. He declined their first offer of $50,000, hoping to continue the negotiations, but was stalled by the landlord’s lack of communication. It wasn’t until July 2016 that Shepherd received the green light from his landlords to actively market the eatery for sale.  By that time, the original potential buyers had moved on.

“Business had started to decline in early 2016 because San Francisco has a very competitive restaurant market,” Shepherd said. “When Plow opened it really impacted our daytime business because they serve UCSF folks. They are packed every single day. Plow has never died off; they hit the market perfectly. The competition at lunch became more intense and there just aren’t enough diners in the area. However, the neighborhood is growing and I could see that there would be potential for Aperto in the future. However, you really have to put the time and energy in to turn a restaurant around.”

Shepherd found himself increasingly busy raising his two daughters, Gabriella and Nicoletta, while managing his Oakland and San Francisco restaurants. He hired a broker to sell Aperto, garnering interest from a half-dozen individuals. In December 2016, he dropped the price from $175,000 to $125,000 in the hopes of reaching an agreement with small a group of potential buyers. In February, they accepted the offer, but couldn’t conclude the transaction because Bostke wouldn’t issue a new lease, citing various excuses.

“Ultimately my landlords wanted to sell the building without any lease in place but didn’t want to come right out and say it,” reflected Shepherd. “They felt that a potential investor wouldn’t want to deal with a lease in place. They eventually sold the building and closed on April 14.”

Shepherd had dealt mostly with one Bostke Association member, and had been told that a new lease would be offered before the building sold. In retrospect, Shepherd believes that the owners wanted him to continue on at Aperto instead of selling the restaurant. After the property was sold to Oregon Village Pizza, LLC the only communication Shepherd received from the new landlord was a letter indicating where to send the monthly rent and who to contact about property maintenance. Despite the company’s food-related name, it’s unclear what the restaurant space will be used for in the future.

Feeling unfairly treated by Bostke, Shepherd hired a lawyer, who ultimately determined that it was unclear whether or not anything illegal took place. Shepard hadn’t anticipated that he’d have to shut down a business before he could sell it, but is looking forward to spending more time at Bellanico, located at 4238 Park Boulevard, and with his family, forgoing the Bay Bridge commute. He said he’d lost 40 pounds over the last two years due to frustration over the experience.

“The sale of the restaurant was to get out of debt, not to make me rich, so now I need to figure out how to break even,” commented Shepherd. “It’s a hard industry, and it’s become harder in recent years in terms of finding people to work in the kitchen. I hope that Bellanico will grow; it hasn’t reached its potential yet. We are constantly short staffed in the kitchen. The next step is to spend more time there and with my two teenage daughters.”

Five years ago, Shepherd would’ve considered opening another East Bay restaurant, but feels that current challenges of retaining adequate staff has made the industry prohibitively difficult. There’s only so much people are willing to spend on a meal, prices can only be raised so much, eateries need to figure out ways to grow sustainably, he said. All former Aperto staff members have been offered jobs at Bellanico.  Given the long working relationship he has had with many of them, Shepherd expressed hope that they’ll accept.

Potrero Hill resident, Judy Baston, said she frequently had lunch at Aperto, and was sad that it closed, recalling fond memories of the service she received.