Oakland: Too Many Restaurants, Not Enough Diners, Says Hawker Fare Chef

Oakland: Too Many Restaurants, Not Enough Diners, Says Hawker Fare Chef(Photos: Walter Thompson/Hoodline)
Walter Thompson
Published on February 17, 2017

Tomorrow is the last day of service for Hawker Fare, the Uptown Lao Issan eatery operated by Chef James Syhabout. Popular since it opened in 2011, rising wages, pricey real estate and competition for customers created a domino effect that led him to announce its closure last month.

“The rent goes up and minimum wage goes up,” Syhabout told Hoodline. “That means your drivers’ wages go up, which means the price of your product goes up,” he explained.

“When I read Yelp, people say, ‘I can get the same thing for half the price in Chinatown,’” said the chef, who was named as a James Beard Award semifinalist this week.

Chef James Syhabout.

“I know that, but we don’t run the same business models,” said Syhabout, noting that he pays his employees “way over minimum wage.” A few months ago, his building changed hands. Despite multiple attempts, he said he’s been unable to meet with the new owner, “so that’s not a good sign.”

If the new owner offered a sustainable rent schedule, Syhabout said he’d consider keeping Hawker Fare open, even though “the place needs work.” Investing in renovations could be good for business, “but it would take too long to earn back any tenant improvements I’d make at this location.”

Until 2010, the restaurant at the corner of Webster & 24th Street was Manyda Thai Cuisine, owned by Syhabout’s mother, who opened it in the late 1990s. Syhabout worked in the family restaurant before attending culinary school and ascending to roles in top kitchens in Europe and the Bay Area.

Hawker Fare is located at 24th & Webster.

Before Hawker Fare, he opened Commis (3859 Piedmont Ave.), the city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.

In 2011, he took over Manyda, replacing American-style Thai items with authentic regional dishes like beer nuts spiced with chilis and anchovy, earthy rice bowls and sticky rice meant to be eaten with one’s hands. Diners beat a path to his door, leading him to open a second San Francisco location in 2015.

Despite loyal customers and raves from Bay Area food critics, the profit margin “is maybe two to three percent bottom line on a good month,” said Syhabout. “Most months, we’re a nonprofit. There’s no room for growth, so what do you do?”

Instead of raising prices, Syhabout has decided to close.

In addition to rising labor and real estate costs, Syhabout said Oakland’s restaurant glut transforms many popular restaurants into marginal businesses.

“When I opened my first in 2009, there was no one around,” he said. “I think the number of restaurant seats are outnumbering the amount of diners.” The streets of Uptown are quiet on weekdays, “so we don’t get that extra push, except maybe on First Fridays, or on a Saturday night.”

Syhabout still sees opportunities in Oakland; next month, he’s opening Old Kan Beer & Co., a new West Oakland brewpub. Adjacent to The Dock, his other Oakland eatery, the new spot will serve beer-friendly foods in a casual setting that includes live music.

“I love the business,” Syhabout said. “I love the romance of owning a restaurant and being the chef — but man, earning three percent in a good month?”

“I’d probably do better with mutual funds,” he said.