As Workers At Big Businesses Stay Home Small Businesses Suffer

By Phil Matier
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Phil Matier takes a look at the effect of big Businesses pulling the plug on downtown San Francisco.

San Francisco

For Ladle & Leaf and other small businesses in San Francisco’s nearly empty downtown, prospects of staying alive just keep getting dimmer and dimmer.

First came the COVID shutdown, then the surge, and now the town’s biggest private employers are saying that even when they reopen, workers may continue working from home for another year. That means downtown is likely to remain empty.

“All of our neighbors are shuttered. It’s devastating,” said Steve Sarver, who, along with business partner Jennifer Sarver, started Ladle & Leaf 21 years ago.

“The light at the end of the tunnel just keeps getting pushed further and further back,” he said.

The partners had eight Ladle & Leaf soup-and-salad restaurants in the Financial District before the March 14 shelter-in-place order emptied downtown of tech and office workers.

They employed 100 workers. Today only one restaurant remains open, with two workers behind the counter.

“We tried opening our other locations, but we couldn’t maintain sales to cover the costs,” Jennifer Sarver said.

It’s much the same story in storefront after storefront.

Look at the numbers.

Credit card transactions are down 80% in the Financial District compared with this time last year, according to a recent analysis by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Mastercard.

Before the pandemic, on average about 98,000 BART riders got off at the Embarcadero and Montgomery stations each weekday. Today, the workday rider-exits average is about 6,000.

“We’ve seen the estimated daily high-rise occupancy rate of people working in the downtown drop by 90% since March,” said San Francisco Building Owners and Managers Association Executive Vice President Marc Intermaggio.

Downtown has become a ghost town. The homeless tents that began setting up at the base of the empty Facebook office on Main Street in April now stretch for almost the entire block. And without the crowds of workers to help camouflage their presence, the mentally ill stand out more than ever as they huddle in doorways or wander up and down the sidewalks talking to themselves.

“Our Financial District and SoMa neighborhoods have been hollowed out,” Chamber of Commerce President Rodney Fong said. “Those streets and storefronts are shadows of their former selves.”

Initially, the hope was that big employers like Salesforce would start bringing back workers in June. Then the COVID-19 numbers surged and the city hit the brakes on offices reopening.

“Then we thought things would start to reopen around Aug. 1, then Labor Day, then the end of the year, now many are talking about summer 2021, and some are talking even later,” Intermaggio said.

Salesforce, the city’s largest private employer, has extended the work-from-home option for their 9,000-plus San Francisco employees until at least August 2021.

Or maybe even later.

“Currently, we don’t have a timeline available for when we’ll begin returning to our San Francisco offices,” a Salesforce representative said in an email.

It’s a message being repeated across the city.

Twitter, Facebook, Google, Square and Uber have told their workers they can stay at home well into next year.

Even when the major employers return to their offices, chances are the employees will work on staggered work schedules, alternating between working at home and working in the office.

“The fact of the matter is, the extended workplace is here to stay,” Intermaggio said. “We have stumbled into this grand experiment — like it or not.”

The grand experiment may work for the big companies, but it means less foot traffic and fewer customers for Ladle & Leaf and other small businesses.

Still, everyone expects the downtown workers will eventually return, if for no other reason than human nature demands contact.

“People want to be with each other and work with each other,” Intermaggio said.

But while he is optimistic about the long-term survival of downtown, he’s also concerned about the accumulated damage from being empty for so long.

“I am deeply troubled by the current condition of the economy and by the condition of the mentally ill and homeless that have taken over the streets,” Intermaggio said. “If we don’t get the streets cleaned up and build up trust in the public transportation system, it’s going to take us even longer to dig out of an even deeper hole.

“We need people back downtown to support the Steve Sarvers of our town,” he said.

When they do come back, Ladle & Leaf intends to be there.

“We are entrepreneurs,” Sarver said. “We have been doing this for 21 years, and we will figure out how to make it work.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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