26 Years In, Rocco's Cafe Still Thrives In A Changing SoMa

Between three recently shuttered SoMa restaurants—Triptych, El Capitan and Carafe—and across the street from 111 future apartments sits Rocco’s Cafe. Chef Don Dial and many longtime team members have been feeding the neighborhood from the ground floor of 1131 Folsom St. for 26 years, making Rocco's the oldest operating restaurant in the neighborhood, Dial says.

In that time, Dial has seen it all: the AIDS epidemic, which ravaged the health of some of his most loyal customers; the technology booms and busts, which drove people in and out of SoMa's residential buildings; and now, the latest development land grab.

But Dial has been a fighter from the start—and Rocco's ability to withstand the ebbs and flows of its ever-changing neighborhood is no coincidence. 

Getting Started

When Dial set out to open his own restaurant, he was 23 and penniless. Over the course of 18 months, he looked at over 100 restaurants from here to Santa Rosa, but he really wanted to be in San Francisco. "I was looking for something that wasn't established, because I had hardly any money at all," he explains.

Brokers were little help. "They said, 'Hey kid, how much money you want to spend?'" When he told them, they responded "'There's no way you're ever gonna make it.' They dropped me," Dial said. "So I started looking around on my own for restaurants that were 'not for sale.' They are for sale, because they have no business. All you have to do is ask."

In addition to an affordable price, Dial wanted a restaurant with an open kitchen. "I'm a big character person. And I knew that if you own a restaurant, you need somebody who works both the front of the house and the back of the house ... I wanted to do both. And the only way to do both is to have people sit in the kitchen and come to me."

His biggest goal was to find a space in a small building—one that he could one day afford to buy. "I'm a third-generation restaurateur, so I know that if you do not own your own business, they will kick you out. You will lose your lease."

Dial's search finally led to 1131 Folsom St., a two-story building between Seventh and Eighth streets. "The [original owner] was so happy," he said. "[When I came in], it was Friday at about 1pm and there was not one person in here—the place had broken windows. The owner was so excited that when I ordered another beer, he bought it for me." 

Dial eventually asked the owner how much he wanted for the place, and was given a price of $125,000. "So I walked around the restaurant. I saw broken tables, the patio outside is all broken, the windows are broken, downstairs is all infested with rodents ... It was really, really bad. I offered $25,000 instead, and he kicked me out."

But Dial was persistent. After a trip to the Health Department to read up on all the restaurant's past violations and fines, he managed to negotiate down the price—to $43,000.

Securing A Future

Dial in the kitchen during Rocco's early days. Photo: Rocco's Cafe/Facebook

While the restaurant sat in escrow for seven months, Dial spent 10 hours a day, five days a week renovating the space himself, he says. With a fully stocked kitchen, $1,300 he made from catering a film shoot and all odds against him, he opened his doors for breakfast, lunch and dinner in June 1991.

From day one, business was off to a solid start, thanks to an advertising technique with a unique inspiration. "I used to live in North Beach, and there used to be barkers out there at the strip clubs. The guys who walk by say, 'Hey, come on in! I got the most beautiful ladies in town! Oh my god, you'll love it.'"

"So I took that same theory. I stood out here in my chef's coat every afternoon at 12pm, when people are walking by in their suits and ties going to restaurants. And I'd say, 'Hey guys, listen, come here ... I'm not selling a car, I'm not selling a couch. You'll owe me 20 bucks, that's it. You come in here and if you're not gonna like it, you're out 20 bucks ... And I don't even care if you don't come back.'"

"Who says that?" Dial laughs. "But I had to get 'em hooked."

The technique worked. Soon enough, "everybody was eating here," he says. "Police officers, city officials, industrial workers, residents ... it blew up like crazy. There was a line every single day."

Each night after the restaurant closed, Dial put a few dollars away. Nine years later, when Rocco's entire building went up for sale, he had enough stashed away to make a down payment and purchase it.

A Changing Neighborhood

Maintaining a healthy business in sprawling, ever-evolving western SoMa hasn't always been easy. Rocco's opened during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Dial watched many loyal customers who lived nearby struggle and succumb to the disease. The tech boom in the late '90s brought in new money and new companies, but drove the neighborhood's manufacturers out. And when all the tech investment dried up, "things got very scary," Dial said. "Empty spaces. No manufacturers. No tenants. No people. No money."

"What saved me, to this day, is that we're not a fad," Dial said. "We're kind of like your grandma's place. It's comfortable to be here; we're something you can count on. We're not gonna sit here and tell you that we're the best. We're not. That's not what we are. But we do a lot of different food here. It's breakfast, it's lunch, it's dinner. It's Italian food. It's American food. My wife says, 'It's whatever Don wants to make.'"

A variety of dishes on the stove. Photo: Rocco's Cafe/FACEBOOK

While offering an extensive menu with "something for everybody" helps drive word-of-mouth and attract repeat customers, it's not just a marketing ploy, Dial said. "Everything I make, I want to make it like the best you've ever had. I don't want to make it just to be there ... It's really important to me to make high-quality food in very big portions at a very decent price with really crazy service."

Looking Forward

The photographs, news clippings and kitschy trinkets adorning his walls are mostly crap, Dial said. But if you put enough together, it's art. And believe it or not, there's plenty of room for more.

"This is an industry that always changes," Dial said. "You really, really have to work hard and you have to love it." While he's comfortable with Rocco's being "like your grandma's place," he knows staying on the cutting edge is important.

Dial still refuses to advertise his business via traditional means, but he now has someone managing his social media presence, to help draw in a younger crowd. He's also ventured into catering for office lunches, company parties, weddings and other events.

But overall, Rocco's nature will always be old-school, with "something for everybody" on the menu and an energized Dial inside, working around the clock to make sure everyone is happy—at least for the next eight to ten years, he said.

Never miss a story.

Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.

26 years in rocco s cafe still thrives in a changing soma