Nopa Restaurant has been an anchor establishment on our merchant corridor since they opened their doors in 2004. Many heads of state, celebrities, and everyday neighbors have passed through their doors to enjoy their cuisine.
At our Evening with Supervisor Preston event in October, the supervisor shared that the 21 Hayes bus line was scheduled to tentatively return to service in February 2022. So that got us wondering- How has Nopa been doing since the pandemic began, and what will happen to their parklet that has offered their customers an alternative to indoor dining?
We caught up with the Nopa owner Laurence Jossel to chat about how the restaurant has been doing post pandemic.
Q: How long has Nopa been in the neighborhood?
We opened the restaurant in 2006. Last April Nopa turned 15.
Q: What were the challenges keeping Nopa going through pandemic/quarantine?
Restaurants in San Francisco and around the country were literally decimated by the pandemic shut down. In March 2020 we were forced to lay off 90% of our staff and we immediately pivoted our service model from full-service to takeout overnight. We sourced from our favorite farms and purveyors to fill farm boxes of produce for weekly distribution to our unemployed staff, we even drove our own delivery. Working with organizations like Dine11, SF New Deal, and Food Runners, we prepared over 75K meals to feed the most vulnerable residents in San Francisco. Throughout the shutdown we did our best to support our staff, purveyors, guests, and neighbors. Our goal was to be a source of nourishment and a beacon of normalcy for the community. Like everyone else, we’ve been forced to evolve and adjust to the easing and tightening of Covid restrictions.
Q: How did the business change as a result of these overnight changes?
N: As a takeout and delivery restaurant we withered, especially as other restaurants began to offer outdoor dining. We couldn’t build an outdoor dining parklet on Divisadero due to the limited space, dangerous traffic, narrow sidewalks, and encroaching on BiRite’s loading zone. Directly to the side of our building on Hayes the wide sidewalk and light traffic presented a great place for outdoor dining. However, a bus stop for the 21 Muni line prevented us from utilizing the sidewalk/street for a parklet. That was particularly frustrating because the bus stop had been out of service since April 2020. The stop had become a magnet for drug use, litter, public urination, and disorderly conduct, and we were cleaning and monitoring the space on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
It became clear that the future of our restaurant depended on outdoor dining and that we needed help to relocate the bus stop structure. If the structure wasn’t there, we could build a generous, vibrant outdoor dining area and bring energy and life to the neighborhood. We became relentlessly focused on exactly that, contacting 311, SFMTA, shared spaces, planning, speaking with the Mayor, our supervisor’s office, calling into a local radio show, finally identifying the right resources to support our effort. It was a truly unique, creative collaboration that sprang from the lowest, darkest point of the covid shut down.
The bus stop structure was disassembled, we miraculously found a contractor who had time in his schedule for our project, and we started to build the parklet that became a lifeline for our restaurant.
Q: This is quite a structure--what went into designing and building it?
Our goal was to build a safe, accessible, warm, inviting space that feels like an extension of our indoor dining room. We didn’t have budget for an architect or designer, so we designed it ourselves. The wood walls are thick, decking floor is solid, plants bring life, and built-in benches allow us to flex seating capacity as distancing guidelines change. We love serving guests in parklet and we are constantly working to improve the outdoor guest experience.
Q: What was your understanding of what would happen to the parklet after the bus starts running again?
The past 18 months have been a sea of constant change. What we understood when we were seeking a permit for our parklet was that the 21 was not a priority line, and the earliest it could return wouldn’t be until 2023 – if it came back at all. At the same time, word was circulating that London Breed supported making parklets permanent. We weren’t clear if (or when) the 21 would start running again, but we were desperate and building an outdoor dining area was our last best hope to make it through the shutdown.
Not long ago there were two bus stops for the 21 on this block – one at our corner, and another one on the corner at Scott Street. When our permit was approved and we began building, we felt confident that if the 21 started up again there would be options for where the bus stop could be re-situated.
Q: What's your solution to get the bus line up and running and still have a viable neighborhood restaurant?
We treasure being a part of this neighborhood and we want it to be vibrant and accessible for everyone. Bringing the 21 back will make District 5 better. Outdoor dining spaces also make this city and our district better. There is absolutely no reason there can’t be an operable bus stop and an outdoor dining space at the intersection of Hayes & Divisadero. Relocating the bus stop just across the street to the southwest corner of Divisadero & Hayes is a viable solution that would work for the neighborhood and give our restaurant hope for making it through the pandemic.
Even though many in SF are vaccinated it seems there are still folks who don't feel comfortable eating inside.
Q: How many people specifically request to sit outside?
Depending on the day and the weather, between 30-40% of our revenue is generated from our parklet. Some vaccinated guests simply aren’t comfortable dining indoors yet. We think a significant percentage of our guests will want to continue dining in our parklet until the pandemic is over, or at least until we make it through this next winter.
Losing the parklet at this time would completely devastate our restaurant.
Q: How many of your employees are from this part of the city?
N: Once our parklet was complete, we were able to increase our staff by 30%. We now employ over 75 people, all but four live in San Francisco.
Q: Do you want the 21 line to come back?