As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact small businesses across San Francisco, neighborhood restaurants are among those hardest hit. Last week, Cafe du Soleil in the Lower Haight became one of the city’s first publicized restaurant closures, and now, a Bernal Heights favorite is following suit.
Hillside Supper Club (300 Precita Ave.), a neighborhood eatery focusing on fresh California fare and Italian-inspired dishes, had been closed since mid-March in compliance with San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order. With expenses mounting and business dwindling, co-chefs and owners Jonathan Sutton and Tony Ferrari found themselves faced with a hard decision to make.
“It’s tough running a small business in San Francisco already,” Sutton told Hoodline in a phone interview. “At the end of the day, with all the added expenses, the return is very, very small." Hillside Supper Club's forced closure due to the ongoing pandemic tipped the scales towards a permanent shuttering.
Sutton explained that his two sources of income — Hillside Supper Club and a restaurant consulting business — had both essentially ceased operations, leaving him unable to continue working and living in San Francisco.
After a rough string of weeks, Sutton and Ferrari decided they couldn't keep Hillside Supper Club running. In Facebook post published on April 5, they thanked patrons for their support and expressed their sadness in having to close the restaurant without a proper sendoff.
In light of the circumstances around COVID-19, we want to share the sad news that Hillside Supper Club will be closing our doors permanently.
We want to thank you for your love and support over the last seven years. It breaks our heart to go out this way and not be able to continue feeding the neighborhood, seeing your smiles and hearing your laughs. We will always hold all of you in our hearts and never forget the memories we all shared.
Chefs Jonathan & Tony And the Hillside team @ Hillside Supper Club
Sutton says he felt an instant connection with Bernal Heights when he moved to San Francisco 10 years ago. He and Ferrari met in college on the East Coast, and both spent several years working on separate projects before finding a niche to fill in San Francisco.
What began as a group of local friends making dinner for each other evolved into the two chefs opening a pop-up restaurant called Bernal Supper Club, which gained popularity from its Monday night presence at The Corner. Sutton and Ferrari then moved to operating their pop-up out of Caffe Cozzolino on the corner of Precita Park, becoming close with its owners and eventually taking over the lease at 300 Precita Ave. in 2013.
From the beginning, Hillside Supper Club’s menu placed an emphasis on local, sustainable food and an enticing wine menu. Most importantly, though, the founders wanted their restaurant to be known as a neighborhood gathering place, captured in its slogan “Come as strangers, leave as friends.”
Hillside Supper Club was well known in the neighborhood and beyond, gaining accolades from Food & Wine, Marie Clare, and Star Chefs. Ferrari and Sutton landed on Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list in 2014, a prestigious list highlighting young culinary professionals across the nation.
But after five years, the owners were already feeling the strains of operating a restaurant in San Francisco. In a letter shared by Bernalwood in 2018, Ferrari wrote,
We’ve noticed a huge decrease in business, rising costs and living expenses, and the neighborhood becoming more transient for better or for worse. We feel we have tried everything we can with menu changes, pricing, marketing avenues, delivery apps, and community involvement, and we’re still left with too many seats empty at our tables.
Sutton and Ferrari began experimenting with more neighborhood-friendly options, adding a kid’s menu and weekly specials like a Thursday and Sunday prix fixe menu (a three-course meal for $40), no-corkage fee Mondays, and a pasta and wine special on Wednesdays.
“It was working,” Sutton said, adding that the support of the neighborhood never wavered. In fact, “sales were up this year from last year, and we were off to a great start [in 2020].” But the business was “caught by surprise” by the quickly-escalating COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting drop in sales.
He said he’s heartbroken to see Hillside Supper Club close so suddenly, but affirms that he and Ferrari will remain close friends, and hopes they might even be able to come back some day for another pop-up in San Francisco.
As for now, both chefs are relocating to cities where, according to Sutton, "it's a little easier to run a small business" compared with San Francisco. Ferrari has moved to Cincinnati to open Mom 'n Em Coffee with his brother. Sutton is in the process of packing up his belongings and moving back near his hometown in Washington state, where he'll be opening an Italian restaurant called Storia Cucina.
He's already taken part of his San Francisco sourdough starter — which has been alive since 1971 — with him to the new restaurant. It'll be incorporated into pizza dough, so that “little bits and pieces of Hillside Supper Club still live on.”