- Melia Robinson/Business Insider
- Housing in San Francisco is so costly, restaurant workers are leaving the city for more affordable regions, according to a report in The New York Times.
- Some of the city’s restaurants can’t find – or can’t afford – front-of-house workers. They’re finding solutions for operating without helping hands.
- Some restaurant that look like full-service spots have diners seat themselves, fetch their own water, bus their table, and more.
There’s something different about San Francisco’s restaurant scene these days.
Its workers are vanishing.
A new report in The New York Times posits that in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in America, rising rents and labor costs have forced some restaurants to go without servers. In their absence, diners at popular restaurants such as Souvla and RT Rotisserie seat themselves, fetch their own water, bus their table, and more.
Restauranteurs call it the “fast-fine” or “fine-casual” model of dining.
Part of the problem is that restaurant owners can no longer afford staffing their front-of-house. Commercial rent prices have soared alongside housing costs.
But the Bay Area also faces a dire shortage of restaurant workers, as those who can’t afford to live near their place of work move away to more affordable regions.
Restaurant workers in San Francisco earned a median income of just over $30,000 in 2017. That makes them some of the highest-paid restaurant workers in America, according to a study by real-estate site Trulia. But their income still isn’t enough to buy a home.
Approximately 0.1% of homes on the market are affordable for the city’s restaurant workers, Trulia found. The median list price in San Francisco was $1.477 million at the time the study was conducted. By comparison, restaurant workers in Detroit can afford 50% of homes on the market, while only 2% of homes are affordable in New York.
“We can sit around here, and we can complain and whine and moan,” said Charles Bililies, owner of Greek restaurant Souvla. “We can be very negative about this.”
“Or we can sort of turn this on its head and see an opportunity,” he told the Times.
At Souvla, the counter-service restaurant has the look of a full-service spot. Diners sit at copper tables and wood counters under the windows, which flood the airy, high-ceilinged dining room with natural light. Copper pans and fresh herb sprigs hang on the walls.
A simple menu offers just two entrées – a sandwich and a salad – made with diner’s choice of meat or vegetables. Prices range between $12 and $15 a plate.
There are no servers at Souvla, though runners do bring food to your table.
“Souvla was the beginning of this whole new onslaught of things that in every single way look like a full-service restaurant – nice décor; good wine list; tasty, healthy foods. It’s much more chef- and ingredient-driven,” Gwyneth Borden, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told the Times. “But it’s ‘take a number and go to a table.'”
It’s worth noting that the counter-service model is fairly common outside the US, in places like the UK, Norway, New Zealand, and plenty other nations.
One restaurant in San Francisco has hatched a more surprising way to operate without restaurant workers. The buzzy new burger joint, Creator, which soft-opens for lunch on Wednesday, uses a robot to prep, cook, and assemble hamburgers with no human help.
Founded in 2009, the startup formerly known as Momentum Machines has been quietly tinkering with its mechanical line cook out of a vacant retail space in SoMa for almost two years. Its robot uses an array of sensors and computers and makes up to 130 burgers an hour.
It eliminates the need for line cooks, though as many as nine “robot attendants” will be on the floor to take orders, deliver burgers and drinks, and restock ingredients.
Creator isn’t the only restaurant putting robots to work. Cafe X relies on a robotic coffee bar to take your order and make your drink – no human interaction required.