Merchants Struggle to Survive, Thrive, During Historic Challenge

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A distillery switched from making spirits to hand sanitizer. A factory that normally manufactures messenger bags and backpacks is fabricating fabric face masks. The COVID-19 pandemic, and associated shelter-in-place (SIP) orders, have caused businesses deemed non-essential to radically alter their operations to stay open, forced others to temporarily close, and demonstrated the adaptability of production, distribution and repair companies to meet a pandemic head-on. 

In response to the public health emergency, the City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) moved to shutdown most social interactions on March 17, 12 days after the City’s first two confirmed COVID-19 cases. Cessation of normality was intended to slow the contagion’s spread, giving hospitals time to prepare for a surge in patients gravely ill with the novel coronavirus. Two days after the SIP went into effect, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home directive. 

San Francisco recorded its first COVID-19 death on March 24. Confirmed cases climbed, the death toll rose. The City’s SIP order, originally scheduled to expire April 7, was ultimately extended to the end of May. As this article went to press, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health had reported 1,216 COVID-19 cases, with roughly 20 fatalities.

The Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association (PDMA) responded to members’ pleas to publicize businesses that remained open, adding an online Open for Business directory to its website, 

“This Open for Business campaign is in response to some of our members asking, ‘Can you help us get the word out,’” said PDMA president Keith Goldstein. “I saw some scattered approaches on I figured PDMA would be a really good centralized resource.”

Goldstein emailed more than 3,000 residents, asked other community groups to post the Open for Business link on their websites, and advertised in The Potrero View. ARCH Art Supplies, Christopher’s Books, Centered Body Pilates, Center Hardware, and Triple Voodoo Brewing are among businesses offering wares or services via livestreamed classes, curbside pickup or delivery. 

Rickshaw Bagworks’ owner Mark Dwight pivoted his Dogpatch factory’s production to fabric masks. The bags his workers usually make aren’t considered an essential item. After a three-week closure, Dwight retooled his plant, selling coverings, reversible with a pattern and solid color, for $22.  The masks can be ordered via the company website,, shipped or picked up at 904 22nd Street. Dwight noted that the masks must be washed before reversing; they’re machine or hand washable.

In mid-April CCSF ordered its residents to wear face coverings when waiting in line, shopping, riding public transport, and engaging in other social activities. Although the evidence is inconclusive, masks may prevent the spread of viruses from the wearer.  Though not medical grade, multiple layers of fine woven fabric covering the nose and mouth filter aerosol droplets.  

In what seems a throwback to the 1930’s Great Depression, it’s become commonplace to see long lines outside grocery stores. Today’s queues are spread out along sidewalks, with six feet separations. Markets limit the number of people allowed inside to maintain physical distances. The Good Life Grocery’s Potrero Hill market allows no more than five shoppers inside simultaneously.  Owner Kayren Hudiburgh said the number wasn’t mandated, but made sense given the store’s size. A worker stands at the door; after each visitor leaves, beckons in another. 

Potrero Stage, a 99-seat theater at 1695 18th Street, livestreamed a Monday Night Playground, first-time play reading, for 180 ticketholders via Zoom. Directors and actors rehearsed online, nobody in the same location, according to Jim Kleinmann, PlayGround’s artistic director. “We’re scheduled for a festival of new work in May and June.” 

Enterprises that already operated on slim margins are adjusting to even more modest revenue due to the shutdown, strategizing how to sustain themselves until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. 

“Even when the shelter in place order is lifted, how long will it take for public spaces to reopen, and how long after that will people take to return to public performances?” Kleinmann queried. “The upside; theaters are very adaptable and flexible and working creatively to bring theater to audiences.”

During a Sunday noontime visit to the 18th Street commercial corridor prior to the SIP order, restaurants were packed with families and small groups of merry millennials. On a more recent walk, tantalizing cooking smells wafted in the April breeze, whetting the appetite as lunchtime approached, confirming that many eateries are open for takeout. A customer emerged from Cracked and Battered, at 18th and Connecticut streets, carrying two large bags to a nearby car. Customers waited for their orders outside other establishments.

Still, Irfan Yalcin, owner of Papito’s and Pera, predicted that one-third of Dogpatch and Potrero Hill eateries will close by the end of the year, with another third going under by the 2022. “The takeout business model just doesn’t work for most restaurants,” he said. “And halving the number of eat-in tables to ensure social distancing isn’t financially sustainable.” 

Every seat was vacant at the parklet outside Farley’s. A sign in the window read, “Farley’s was open 364 days for 31 years. Lots of conversations, connections and caffeine.” 

The sudden stop threw an especially wet blanket on just-launched businesses. Row House fitness studio, at 1375 Fourth Street, opened in March after five months of contractor delays.  It closed four and a half days later to comply with the SIP order. Emile Kfouri, Row House owner, promptly loaned his newly installed rowing machines to the first 25 members who requested one. In lieu of live classes, he’s offering on-demand recorded lessons, a weekly online “happy hour” to combat feelings of isolation, and one-on-one telephone fitness consultations with a coach.  

“As long as we all pull together, we can get through just about everything,” Kfouri said.

When Kfouri spoke with The View in April, he’d had to reapply for a $10,000 United States Small Business Administration loan after the website crashed. He didn’t know when Row House would be able to reopen. “I’ve worked with my landlord. I’ve worked with my lender. Most of my service providers have helped me reduce costs as much as possible,” Kfouri said. 

“This has been a really tough blow,” he acknowledged. “My days are 13, 14 hours. I joke that I didn’t realize it was going to be more work to run a studio closed than to keep a studio open. As the Center for Disease Control has said, you also need to exercise. If you’re not healthy, it’s a lot more difficult to fight this virus.”

When Row House does reopen, Kfouri said there’ll probably be fewer rowing machines reinstalled, and smaller class sizes, to allow more space between participants. 

Seven Stills, formerly located in Bayview, opened a new distillery at 100 Hooper Street last fall, along with a large restaurant, tap-, and tasting room. The distillery produced whiskey, gin, vodka, and beer, before the public health crises changed how it uses ethanol. 

When the SIP order took effect, “We had to shut everything down. Lay off workers. Then we saw there was a shortage of hand sanitizer,” said chief executive officer and co-founder Tim Obert. “The CDC put out guidelines on how to make hand sanitizer. We started doing it on a trial basis, then Kaiser reached out and said they needed hand sanitizer for hospital workers in Northern California. It went from being regional hospitals to hospitals for the whole country.” 

Seven Stills had just completed a 10,000-bottle order for Kaiser when Obert spoke to The View and was preparing another 20,000 bottles to ship. 

“There’s a ton of other people, not just health care, that need it,” Obert said, naming the San Francisco Police Department, Department of Public Works, and a slew of nonprofits. “Every police officer is going out there and there’s no sanitizer. We’re trying to make as much as we can for them.” 

Seven Stills is producing sanitizer for 67 nonprofits that advocate on behalf of low-income, under- or uninsured people, monolingual immigrants, as well as homeless shelters, nursing homes and senior centers. “Anything for those populations is what we’re focusing on,” he said. Donors can choose a specific nonprofit for which to buy sanitizer via a dropdown menu on the company website.

“We’re going around the clock making it,” Obert said. “This is something people need right now.”