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7 Outer Sunset businesses that powered through the pandemic

Source: Getty Images

In Here/Say’s series “When the Lights Come Up in the City,” we tour three neighborhoods in partnership with Broke-Ass Stuart to learn how businesses and community leaders pivoted to success during the pandemic. Last week we explored North Beach.

Next Up: Outer Sunset. 

Perched out at the western end of San Francisco, where the fog never quite seems to dissipate, the Outer Sunset is a part of the city that many San Franciscans go years without visiting. But overlooked places are often where the most creative and delightful things grow. 

While there were rough seas to weather as COVID cases rose, forcing residents to stay inside, an explosion of creativity and new beginnings occurred where the ocean meets the city. 

You are not likely to find many chain retail businesses in the Outer Sunset; instead, a slew of small businesses run by locals dominates. Throughout the pandemic, numerous small businesses struggled to keep their doors open–many of which closed permanently. But when Francisco’s economy paused and did a hard reset, the brave Outer Sunset community saw it as an opportunity to create something new by opening new businesses and leaning into community-building initiatives with art and public spaces. 

In our next episode featuring the Outer Sunset, you will see living proof of the Outer Sunset’s reinvention through the stories of The Sunset Mercantile, New Skool and Damn Fine Pizza. Here are seven more worthy mentions of what debuted in the Outer Sunset during the pandemic. 

1. Palm City Wines | 4055 Irving St.

A look inside Palm City Wines.| Photo by Camille Cohen

The people: If you are an SF foodie, owners of Palm City Wines Monica Wong and Dennis Cantwell may look familiar—they have worked at some of the city’s most popular restaurants like NOPA, A16, and Zuni Cafe.

The Pitch: Palm City Wines is the Outer Sunset’s go-to place for a large selection of local and imported wine. According to Wong, Palm City Wines is also considered the Sunset’s “hoagie destination.” While the couple plans to expand their menu options in the future, you can currently enjoy a vast selection of sandwiches, olives and salads. 

The Debut: The duo secured a lease for Palm City Wines in the latter part of 2019 and has since worked tirelessly to get the business off the ground. While they ran into some hiccups during the permitting process that caused a delay, they were able to push through and open in mid-2020. “I feel really fortunate that we’re based in a neighborhood we know and love so much as well,” Wong added. “People tell us we got them through the pandemic, but I feel that way about them.”

2. The Deli King | 1143 Taraval St.

A woman grabs a sandwich to-go at the Del King.| Photo by Camille Cohen

The People: The Deli King is a longtime neighborhood business that co-owners Yan Ma and David Wong took over last year. 

The Pitch: Before new ownership took over, the deli featured a small selection of breakfast and lunch items. Ma and Wong kept some of the popular items on the old menu and incorporated their own. One flavorful menu item that Ma is proud of is her signature Sichuan sauce which can be read about on decorative posters hung on the walls of The Deli King. 

The Debut: The duo took a big chance taking over a deli in the middle of the pandemic but luckily didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Since becoming the new owners, they have built a solid customer base.

3. Gus’s Community Market | 3701 Noriega St.

 A storefront shot of Gus’s Community Market. | Photo by Camille Cohen 

The People: Gus’s Community Market was the brainchild of Konstantinos “Gus” Vardakastanis, who was killed in a hit-and-run in 2017. Since then, his sons Bobby and Dimitri Vardakastanis have taken over operations and have kept the store’s multiple locations running strong. 

The pitch: As a business deeply ingrained in the community, Gus’s Community Market has had a presence on Noriega Street since 1981 with a different store called “Noriega Produce.”  

The Debut: The owners originally planned to keep Noriega Produce and open an additional Gus’s Market, but when the pandemic hit, they scrapped that idea and found one prominent location that would allow them to combine the businesses and better serve the community as an essential business. The market is considered a full-service grocery store that features everything from fresh produce to a deli and household items. 

4. Dim Sum Club | 2237 Taraval St.

A storefront shot of the Dim Sum Club.| Photo by Camile Cohen

The People: Chef Rita Zhang opened the Dim Sum Club and already has a solid fan base. 

The pitch: The restaurant offers fresh dim sum made to order. According to Zhang, using “less oil, less sugar, less salt” than competing Dim Sum restaurants and having plenty of vegetarian options also add to their appeal. 

The Debut: It has not been easy for Zhang to operate a business that is so new during the pandemic. Although she is paying full-price rent, has difficulty hiring new employees, and has customers scared to eat indoors because of the Delta variant, she remains cautiously optimistic. She told us that her priority is “ensuring that customers trust her cleaning process.”

5. California Kahve | La Playa & Lincoln Ave.

Customers wait for coffee and snacks at the California Kahve coffee cart | Photo by Meaghan Mitchell

The People: California Kahve is owned by Molly Welton, who started the business after losing her job as a server at the Four Seasons during the pandemic. 

The Pitch: The Outer Sunset is one of two locations where California Kahve parks and serves. . You can also find them at the North Beach Farmers Market. The mobile cafe serves drip coffee, cold brews, espresso, lattes and teas. They have also partnered with donut-maker Dynamo to offer handmade donuts in flavors like  “Maple Bacon Apple” and “Passionfruit Milk Chocolate.” 

The Debut: After leaving the Four Seasons, Welton bought a vintage trailer on eBay and drove to Southern California to pick it up. With support from family and friends, Welton renovated it  into a mobile cafe and six months later, California Kahve was born. When asked why she chose the Outer Sunset as one of the locations to launch her business, Welton told us that she “loves the ocean and wanted to be near it.” 

“Coffee is one of the things that forces people to stop and take a minute to recharge,” Welton added. “I also love the community that coffee brings.”

6. Mr. Dragon Chinese Cuisine | 3914 Judah St.

A storefront shot of Mr. Dragon Chinese Cuisine.| Photo courtesy of Mr. Dragon 

The people: Owners Lucy Shao and Chef “Mr. Dragon ” are the owners of Mr. Dragon Chinese Cuisine, serving Chine-American food. Shao believes that “it’s a task you have to do by heart, not by hands.”

The Pitch: While they have not been able to pay themselves since they opened last year, Shao says that the silver lining is that they have customers coming back to support their business. “We cook the food we know best by combining North, middle and Southern Chinese cuisine,” she said. At Mr. Dragon, you can find dishes like kung pao chicken and spicy crab. According to Shao, everything is fresh. “I cut the vegetables every day myself- even when my hands hurt,” she said.

The Debut: The duo opened the restaurant a year ago with limited resources. Despite not making a lot of money, they can sustain themselves and the business and are committed to consistently serving up quality food. “There are no cutting corners,” Shao said. “Making money is never the first appeal for a good business,” said Shao.

7. The Great Highway

A man cycles a stretch of The Great Highway. | Photo by Camille Cohen

The People: In the early stages of the pandemic, Supervisor Gordon Mar (District 4) announced the closure of the Upper Great Highway, which runs along the ocean and spans from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard. The purpose was to create a safe place for Sunset residents to socially distance themselves and recreate. At approximately 3.5 miles, the car-free stretch was one of the most extensive in the city. 

The Pitch: Since the closure, the Upper Great Highway became an urban escape for San Francisco residents to bicycle, jog or walk in a car-free space. The closure has been controversial: residents from surrounding neighborhoods like the Richmond have complained about increased traffic diverted from the Great Highway. A recent mobility study conducted by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) involved a survey that asked whether or not residents supported a permanent closure to the Great Highway received 3,989. Out of the responses, 53% supported a full closure, and 52% would like it to open to cars.

The Debut: An update on San Francisco’s most popular car-free thoroughfare will soon be made. While the final decision will have to be voted on by the full Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Mar recently wrote an op-ed calling for a hybrid “compromise” that would allow cars to be allowed back on the Great Highway. 

Stay tuned for our next episode of “When The Lights Come Up In The City” which premieres on August 5.

Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at