Gyms, Restaurants Grapple with an Uncertain Future, Some Gone Forever

in / by

Struggling San Francisco businesses were allowed to partially reopen in late-January after nearly two months of being largely banned from operating, bringing a cautious optimism to fitness companies and restaurants plagued by more than a year of restrictions and associated lost income. Shortly after the state lifted a regional stay-at-home order implemented in early December, Mayor London Breed announced that a limited set of activities, such as outdoor dining and indoor one-on-one personal training at gyms, could resume. 

Kwanua Robinson, who owns personal training studio, PowerPlay SF, in Mission Bay, said that considering she lost 75 percent of her members over the past year, the Mayor’s announcement was a step in the right direction. But while she’s ready to welcome back clients for inside in-person training, she’s unsure whether people will come flocking back. 

“The early stigma that was attached to exercising around other people is definitely lingering,” Robinson said. “Just because an announcement has been made that, ‘Hey, gyms are open,’ does not mean that tomorrow my business will be restored in any way close to where it’s been.” 

Since the public health crisis started more than a year ago, a steady trickle of businesses have closed or dramatically reduced their operations, with numerous storefronts throughout the City featuring freshly papered windows. Sally’s Restaurant, a classic breakfast joint with more than 30 years at 16th and De Haro streets, recently locked its doors with several months left on its lease, its phone number disconnected. The pandemic may have hastened the eateries’ demise; the lot on which it was located was purchased in 2019, with plans for a 13-story, 141 feet high development. 

As reported in Eater SF, Serpentine, in Dogpatch, transitioned from a restaurant to a “staples and spirits” shop at the start of the pandemic, then tried takeout service and outdoor dining before shuttering after 13 years in business. Its still-active website suggests that the closure is temporary. 

Many businesses depend on their landlords’ willingness to offer reduced rent to survive. “Our landlord has been supporting us a lot,” said Gilberth Cab, owner of Gilberth’s Latin Fusion, located in the American Industrial Center. “That’s one of the good things about all of this.” 

Despite opening a parklet to accommodate outdoor dining, Cab said that without the daily influx of office workers demand for restaurants has substantially shrunk. Before open air eating resumed in January, the restaurant was making just 15 percent of its typical earnings. His wife stopped taking a salary and found a parttime job to enable the few employees they weren’t forced to lay off to stay on payroll. 

World Gym, on 16th Street, recently named a San Francisco Legacy Business in honor of its 32-year history, closed permanently in February after being unsuccessful at negotiating a lower rent. According to one of the franchise’s owners, Joseph Talmadge, “We were hopeful that we were going to be able to work something out. But, you know, the landlord was not willing.” He hopes to reopen somewhere else on Potrero Hill. 

Oakland’s Bakesale Betty and Parklab Gardens’ Filipino-inspired The Sarap Shop on Fourth Street, which’d opened not long ago inside the brand new, now empty, Chase Center, shutdown temporarily to focus their efforts on their home locations. Mediterranean restaurant, Pera, permanently closed in August after 11 years in business, allowing its sister restaurant, Papito, to move around the corner into its place on 18th Street. Town’s End bakery went under in November after 30 years in business. “We’ve tried to endure the pandemic but have found that we can’t fight the battle on all fronts,” reads the note on its website. 

Larger companies and franchises with multiple locations can shutter one location and maintain operations elsewhere, outside San Francisco or even California. Potrero Hill’s Mac Daddy closed immediately after the first shelter-in-place order was issued last March, directing potential customers to purchase cheesy delights at its sister restaurant, Chez Maman, a couple doors down. 

High-touch spots like Dogpatch Boulders, a climbing gym, and South-of-Market’s Woodenman Muay Thai, a boxing center, promise they’ll return when allowed. Some fitness hubs, like Mission Bay’s CorePower Yoga, closed their facilities but offer classes online. Others host outdoor classes. Robinson holds sessions at Mission Bay’s SFF Soccer field; 3rd Street Boxing Gym built its own parklet. 

With Zoom fatigue and rainy weather, many lose the motivation to attend remote or outdoor sessions, and instead opt for solo workouts at home. But a large part of what fitness centers like Robinson’s do, she said, is create accountability and community around regular exercise. 

“Peloton is recording all of these record sales, but I’d really be interested to see; what is the usage rate?” Robinson said she’s heard of people buying the machines only to have them turn into clothing racks. 

Barrios Martial Arts on 18th Street teaches primarily children and qualified as an Out-Of-School Time (OST) program, allowing it to offer indoor classes based on a Department of Public Health directive issued last October, an option many gyms don’t know about, said owner Carlos Barrios. According to its website, San Francisco Unified School District’s Early Education Department launched OST to help elementary school children “use their free time by building on what they’ve learned during the school day, by developing new skills, and by discovering new interests.” 

Bay Area franchise Fitness SF shutdown most of its locations, losing a third of its clients and putting another 15 to 20 percent of memberships on hold, said Director of Marketing Troy Macfarland. Once outdoor exercise was permitted, designated as an essential service, their landlord, Byer California, allowed them to launch an outdoor gym in its parking lot under the Division Street bridge. 

Fitness SF in SoMa had been running multiple “gyms,” Macfarland said. Until the end of January, the City permitted 12 people to exercise in an outdoor space at once; Fitness SF cordoned off five or six separate miniature outside gyms that could handle a dozen individuals each. 

“Every hour of every day that we’re open, is booked fully,” Macfarland said. Even so, it was unsustainable given the loss of members and lower capacity. Now that outdoor fitness classes can host up to 25 people, and inside workouts are allowed with restricted occupancy, Macfarland hopes that better days are coming. 

Robinson said PowerPlay SF has taken on a new role for its members. Originally a fitness studio focused on women at different life stages and classes for children, Robinson said the quarter of her clientele who stuck around when they moved online are more dedicated than ever and get more than exercise from their membership. 

“We instituted a sort of biweekly check-in …because there were so many things happening, you dealt with BLM and politics and just the strain of being home,” Robinson said. “We found that some of our sessions were sort of turning into more therapy sessions instead of people working out.” 

Robinson noted a common tone among her fellow studio owners. “If you go on Instagram today, I think every single studio that is opening or thinking about opening in San Francisco has the same message: Please come in, please…We’re safe, we’ve done everything you told us to do. We know how to clean now.” 

Robinson said any business analyst would tell her she’s in the wrong industry. But then she thinks of the “actual real humans that we connected with during this period. The belief that somebody somewhere needs me, is what propels me.”