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This beloved SF restaurant’s staff lost their livelihood—with just one day’s notice

Dolly Valdez Bautista stands for a portrait at Hawker Fare in San Francisco on Jan. 31, 2023. Earlier in the week, Valdez Bautista and other restaurant staff were laid off. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

It’s a familiar story by now. Slow Covid recovery, inflation and mounting operating costs push a restaurant to close its doors. Such was the case with Hawker Fare, a popular Laotian and Thai restaurant in the Mission helmed by Michelin-starred chef James Syhabout. Citing insurmountable costs in an Instagram post, the nearly 9-year-old eatery and tiki bar announced that Sunday would be its last night of service.

Hawker Fare promptly received an outpouring of support on social media, glowing coverage from local outlets and a bustling crowd on Sunday night. But the news came as a gut punch to the staff. According to three former employees, they were given just one day’s notice that they would be out of a job. 

“It was a rough last shift,” said manager Dolly Valdez Bautista, who had been with Hawker Fare for around seven years. With only one day to prepare for the closure, she said the restaurant operated with a skeleton staff—in part because many on the schedule for that night didn’t show up after getting the news.

Valdez Bautista was at the center of a close-knit staff. A few of her relatives were employed by Hawker Fare. The chef de cuisine, Gabriel Maas, worked in the kitchen with his wife, Laura Castillo Grande. The dishwasher had been there for more than seven years. “It was a chosen family,” Valdez Bautista said.

Maas told The Standard the lack of notice made Sunday night a hard pill to swallow. “Everybody was freaking out because we can’t do anything about it,” he said. Maas himself had been with Hawker Fare for about five years. 

Kate Hafith, a server who had worked at Hawker Fare for almost four years, told The Standard that she had a similar reaction. “Hearing this out of the blue was pretty shocking,” she said. “If they had let me know, I could’ve looked for another job. I can’t just be jobless.

“Honestly, I think it was inconsiderate,” Hafith added. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

According to Maas and Valdez Bautista, who have worked in the industry for over a decade, three or four weeks’ notice is customary when a restaurant plans to shutter. Though Valdez Bautista said the staff enjoyed reminiscing on Sunday night, emotions were up and down during that last shift. 

“The lack of notice was the most painful part,” she said, adding that she was not upset with Syhabout. “The staff just wished there was more notice.”

Dolly Valdez Bautista sits for a portrait at Mission Bowling Club in San Francisco, where she just had an interview for a new job on Jan. 31, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Hawker Fare opened in early 2015 and quickly gained a citywide following for its spicy street food and idiosyncratic decor. National coverage from publications like Forbes helped make the restaurant a dining destination. 

Maas said Hawker Fare never fully shut down during the pandemic. Over the past three years, he said his crew regularly worked 16-hour days.

Ultimately, post-pandemic pressures took hold of Hawker Fare. As of the start of the year, Valdez Bautista said reservations had not returned to pre-Covid volumes. She had seen the writing on the wall for a while, but had no indication that the end would come so suddenly. 

Ashley Kosak was a regular customer who said she moved to San Francisco in 2022 in part because she loved Hawker Fare so much. “I did a lot of karaoke and performed my first-stand up gig there,” Kosak said. “Dolly even taught me how to bartend.” 

Kosak said she grew so close to the staff that they broke the news directly to her. She said she was also shocked by the abrupt closure. “It’s really sad that the place we’ve all come to love is changing its tune,” she said. 

A group of Hawker Fare regulars enjoy a meal together. | Courtesy Dolly Valdez Bautista

For the staff, life after Hawker Fare is a mixed epilogue. Maas found work at the Pink Elephant, a cocktail bar in SoMa. He said he plans to take a few of his staff with him, though he can’t provide jobs for everybody. 

“Everybody’s feeling bad,” Maas said. “We have rent to pay. We have bills.”

Valdez Bautista secured a day job at Villon, a bistro serving California cuisine at the Proper Hotel. Hafith said she’s hoping to get a job as a security guard. 

The Standard reached out to James Syhabout for comment but did not hear back in time for publication. The chef also owns two East Bay eateries: Commis—Oakland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant—as well as Hawking Bird, a casual Thai spot in Temescal. 

Fortunately, the staff may be receiving severance. On Monday, Valdez Bautista said she spoke with Syhabout and learned that he plans to pay out severance to the staff from his personal account. Maas said he wasn’t sure if Syhabout planned to give a bonus out to the line cooks.

“Any restaurant owner can close whenever he wants,” Maas said. “But we’re sad. Hawker Fare was like a home for everybody.”