Restaurants Wage a Bitter Battle as San Francisco’s Food Scene Expands

Scott James/The Bay Citizen Ryan Scott in the kitchen at Bruno's in San Francisco's Mission District Source: The Bay Citizen (

By Scott James |

Scott James/The Bay Citizen Ryan Scott in the kitchen at Bruno's in San Francisco's Mission District
Competition from food trucks, farmers markets and unlicensed vendors is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar establishments

San Francisco has long had a competitive restaurant scene, but recent changes like a surge in the number of food trucks have made it more so.

In the Sinatraesque Bruno’s bar and restaurant in the Mission last week, the chef, Ryan Scott, presided over his kitchen staff to prepare meals, gave a reporter a whirlwind preview of his impending hip weekend brunches and paused briefly to sign over the title to sell his 2000 Dodge Ram Sport pickup.

“It doesn’t get more real than this,” said Scott, a former reality TV contestant on “Top Chef.” “I’m selling my truck to buy plates.”

Doesn’t the restaurant already have plates?

“I’m picky,” he said.

And busy. Scott is among a growing number of city restaurateurs now engaged on multiple battlefronts in the city’s increasingly combative food business. To some it is no longer enough to simply have a space with tables, chairs and scrumptious fare; the war for hungry stomachs also means going mobile, embracing social media and using locally sourced ingredients.

San Francisco has long had a competitive restaurant scene, but recent changes have made it more so, giving consumers new options and leaving some traditional restaurants feeling the pinch and looking for the city to intervene.

San Francisco has the highest number of restaurants per capita in the nation — 3,588, according to health department records; one for every 227 residents. (New York City has one restaurant per every 347 people.) Add to that a growing fleet of about 200 (and counting) licensed food trucks, some serving upscale fare like ahi tuna sliders and crème brûlée.

Unlicensed dining options are also proliferating: underground dinner parties that siphon customers from traditional restaurants and popular makeshift street-food vendors, like the soup guy on Valencia Street.

New competition has also come from the city’s 24 mobbed farmers markets, many of which serve either hot prepared foods or goodies to construct dinner on the spot.

“Restaurants need to be sharp and realize they are facing very diversified competition,” said Alison Bing, food writer and Lonely Planet guidebook author.

“It does create better prices” for consumers, Bing said, but it also puts “more pressure on restaurants.”

For example, she said, upscale food trucks have recently started parking outside bars that don’t serve food. “Bars are colluding with trucks to create a food and wine experience,” Bing said, with diners paying less than they would at an established restaurant.

Grilled brie with red onion marmalade sandwich and fries from the food truck Curbside

J.D. Petras, owner of Café Flore in the Castro, said food trucks represented “unfair competition” because their overhead was minimal compared to what restaurants must pay.

A food truck can cost less than $20,000 to start, including city permit fees as low as $1,660. By comparison, permit fees alone for the new Ike’s Place sandwich shop on 16th Street totaled $17,000.

Petras said he had seen as many as seven trucks in his neighborhood, “a heavy restaurant zone,” and he would like to see limits.

Case in point: one recent afternoon the food truck Curbside sold grilled brie and red onion marmalade sandwiches with fries ($7) parked across a narrow street from the longtime Castro diner Orphan Andy’s, which sells standard grilled cheese and fries ($7.35).

Truck locations are supposed to be managed by the city to avoid conflicts, but it is a system that officials concede is a work in progress.

Some restaurateurs, however, seem to relish the new competitive spirit.

Scott, who was once told on TV to “pack your knives and go” for overthinking football tailgate cuisine (poached pears?), has embraced fender fare and opened his own food truck, 3-Sum Eats.

The name stands for the trios of dishes on his menu, although Scott thought San Franciscans would appreciate the double-entendre. Customers are greeted with the question, “Would you like a threesome?”

Curbside, seen parked at the intersection of Market and Castro streets

The truck is just one-third of his business. In addition to the restaurant at Bruno’s, Scott also caters meals for companies eager to increase productivity by keeping employees from having lunch out.

“We’re fighting for our market,” Scott said.

He is not alone. Other upscale brick-and-mortar restaurants, like Chez Spencer (French) and Namu (Korean), have also expanded into trucks, luring customers to their locations using social media websites, like Twitter.

That type of buzz pleases Bevan Dufty, a current mayoral candidate who as a city supervisor advocated for changes that have helped increase the number of food trucks.

“If you have this drawing people into a neighborhood, it’s good for everyone,” Dufty said.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

Source: The Bay Citizen (