Bay Area's High Cost Of Living Squeezes Restaurant Workers, Chefs And Owners

Mar 6, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 4:40 pm

Every morning at around 5 a.m., Armando Ibarra wakes up in the back of his van. He has been living there for the past couple of years. On his dashboard rests a holy candle. A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror.

Ibarra walks over to his job at a chain hotel near San Francisco's airport. He says that at least he can wash up there. "I take a shower, drink my coffee, smoke a cigarette and ready to work."

Armando Ibarra, a hotel restaurant worker in San Francisco, lives out of his van to save money — and to avoid an hours-long commute from San Jose, Calif. A holy candle rests on his dashboard; a rosary hangs from the rearview mirror.
Jasmine Garsd / NPR

The hotel restaurant where Ibarra works as a food runner boasts creative, artisanal and healthy meals. People in the San Francisco Bay Area are known for being foodies (the city now has the most Michelin three-star restaurants in the U.S.).

But behind kitchen doors, tension has been stewing for years: Service-industry workers like Ibarra say they can no longer afford to live in the Bay Area on their wages. And restaurant owners say the high cost of living has made it hard to retain staff and even to stay in business.

The Bay Area is notoriously expensive. As the tech industry grows, rents have soared. A one-bedroom apartment costs well over $3,000 a month. The minimum wage just went up to $15 an hour, but the cost of living also keeps rising.

Ibarra makes around $15 an hour. He used to commute from neighboring San Jose, one of the most expensive cities in the United States. He paid $800 a month for a room, but just slept there.

When traffic was bad, the drive back from work could take as much as three hours. "You would go bumper-to-bumper, bumper-to-bumper sometimes. You get crazy," Ibarra says.

He considered renting near work. But he couldn't afford it. He figured he was already spending as much as four hours a day in his vehicle, so he might as well just sleep there.

The plight of low-wage workers like Ibarra is affecting the restaurant business. Just last year, several high-profile eateries shut down. One of them was Camino, known for its wood-fired cuisine. Co-owner Allison Hopelain says the restaurant took a major hit when its chef moved to Seattle because he couldn't afford to live in the Bay Area.

"[He] felt like he would have better opportunities there in terms of opening his own place, buying a home," Hopelain says. She says things started unraveling when he left. Last year, after about a decade in business, Camino closed.

Hopelain went on to open The Kebabery in Oakland. It's a small, cafeteria-style joint. You just pick your food and find a table. She says it's a much more affordable business model, but she also thinks it's what a lot of customers want.

Decades ago, eating out was a special occasion, but these days Hopelain says people want to grab a quick, affordable bite of good food and head back to their lives.

Allison Hopelain, owner of The Kebabery in Oakland, Calif., says the cafeteria-style restaurant reflects the changing tastes of customers who now want to grab a quick, affordable meal and head back to their lives.
Allison Hopelain / Courtesy of The Kebabery

A few minutes north of Oakland, Peter Levitt says his restaurant, Saul's, with waiters, hosts and food runners, is part of a dying breed. "Your old diners with booths and breakfast and lunch table service — it's over," he says.

Saul's, a Jewish deli, is a landmark in Berkeley near the University of California campus. Professors and locals hold meetings in the cozy booths over bagels, blintzes, smoked fish and warm matzo ball soup.

Peter Levitt, owner of Saul's, a Jewish deli in Berkeley, says that as the minimum wage and housing prices climb, "the menu prices have to go up, because you have to pay more to retain your labor force."
Emunah Hauser / Courtesy of Saul's Restaurant & Delicatessen

Saul's was established in the 1980s, and Levitt has seen a change in the cost of living here unfold before his eyes. With workers getting pushed out of the Bay Area, he says, "we've seen our staff coming from further and further away." One of his cooks sleeps at his extended family's house nearby, on workdays, to shorten his commute.

Levitt says Saul's might have to adapt to the changing times. "As minimum wages go up, and particularly as housing prices go up, the menu prices have to go up, because you have to pay more to retain your labor force," he says. "And at some point maybe there won't be enough clientele out there to pay the cost of table service to sustain this kind of restaurant."

Some restaurants in the area are even turning to automation. Located in San Francisco's Financial District, Creator offers burgers created by local celebrity chefs.

But the burgers are made by a giant robot that slices the brioche bun, grates the cheese and cuts the tomatoes. The end result: a $6 burger.

The burger-making robot at Creator, an automated restaurant in San Francisco.
Aubrie Prick / Courtesy of Creator

Alex Vardakostas grew up flipping patties at his parents' restaurant, a burger joint in a little California surf town. He says the robot can flip burgers better, and more cheaply.

"The only way you can make a burger of this kind of quality at that price is using a device that's going to grind meat to order. It's going to slice the tomato to order, slice the bun to order," Vardakostas says.

Meanwhile, at the hotel restaurant where Ibarra works, a burger costs about $20.

"You know, even when I get the discount, that's too much," he says.

He says he usually just goes to Burger King or Taco Bell or stops by a gas station to eat before heading back to his van to sleep.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To another story from San Francisco, where there are more Michelin three-star restaurants than anywhere else in the U.S. But the Bay Area has become a notoriously difficult place for the food industry. All sorts of restaurants are closing their doors. One reason they're struggling - the cost of housing. It has soared, and restaurant workers say they can't afford to live in the area. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Every morning, Armando Ibarra wakes up in the back of his van. He's been living here in his car for the last couple of years.

ARMANDO IBARRA: I wake up in the morning - 5:00 in the morning.

GARSD: On the dashboard rests a holy candle. A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror. Ibarra parks a few blocks from his job. He works at a chain hotel, so at least he can wash up there.

IBARRA: I take a shower, I drink my coffee, I smoke a cigarette, and I'm ready to work.

GARSD: The hotel is located near the San Francisco airport. Ibarra is a food runner at one of its restaurants. He makes around $15 an hour. He used to commute from neighboring San Jose, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. He paid $800 a month for a room but just slept there. When traffic was bad, the drive back from work could take as much as three hours.

IBARRA: You would go bumper-to-bumper, bumper-to-bumper. Sometimes you get crazy, like when is this going to be over? When?

GARSD: Ibarra considered renting near work, but he couldn't afford it. He figured he was already spending as much as four hours a day in the car, might as well just sleep there.

Over the last decade, as the tech industry expanded, rent has skyrocketed, and people who don't work at high-paying Google or Facebook jobs are finding it increasingly hard to live here or even commute.

It's affected the restaurant business. Just last year, several high-profile eateries shut down. One owner told me in this area, even the chefs...

ALLISON HOPELAIN: They also can't afford to live, even on $18 to $20 an hour here anymore, so they eventually move, become private chefs, go work at Google. And it sort of just leaves you, like, constantly behind.

GARSD: That's Allison Hopelain. Her restaurant, Camino, was known for its wood-fire-cooked food. After a decade, she closed last year. She says they took a major hit when the chef moved away to Washington state.

HOPELAIN: Because he couldn't afford to live here, felt like he would have better opportunities there in terms of opening his own place, buying a home.

GARSD: Hopelain went on to open The Kebabery in Oakland. It's a small cafeteria-style joint. You just pick your food and find a table. Several owners I speak to say the days of the affordable diner with a host and waiters - that's just over.

And some restaurants in the area are even turning to automation. Located in San Francisco, Creator offers burgers created by local celebrity chefs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So we have Masala Burger, one Recreator and one Tumami Burger. All right, anything else for you?

GARSD: The thing is the burgers aren't made by a human. This right here is the sound of a giant robot slicing the brioche bun, grating cheese, cutting tomatoes for a $6 burger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

GARSD: It could be straight out of "The Jetsons" or Pee-wee Herman's kitchen. Founder Alex Vardakostas says the robot can flip burgers better and for cheaper.

ALEX VARDAKOSTAS: The only way you can make a burger of this kind of quality at that price is using a device that's going to grind meat to order. It's going to slice a tomato to order, slice the bun to order.

GARSD: Here at the hotel where Armando Ibarra works, a burger is about $20.

IBARRA: You know, even when I get a discount, that's too much.

GARSD: He can't really afford a meal at the place he works. He says he usually just goes to Burger King, Taco Bell or stops by the gas station before going home. The problem is, for people like him in the Bay Area, going back home keeps getting harder and harder to do. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "EKKI HUGSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.