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Food & Drink

Tenderloin restaurant owners: We need safer streets, not an ad campaign

A woman in an apron stands behind a table in a colorful cafe, looking thoughtfully to the side.
Azalina Eusope says she hopes an ad campaign will help bring people to her restaurant, Azalina's, on Ellis Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

When San Francisco chef Azalina Eusope was named a semifinalist in the 2024 James Beard Awards—the so-called Oscars of the food world—it did not translate to lines out the door at her Malaysian restaurant, Azalina’s.

“It hasn’t made any difference” in business, Eusope said, adding that on some nights her team serves only five guests. “I keep telling myself to put your head down and cook the best meal you can possibly cook, and let the universe take care of the rest.”

The problem for Azalina’s isn’t the cooking or the price point or the decor. It’s the location. The restaurant, which opened last July, the successor project to Eusope’s Noe Valley restaurant, Mahila, sits at the southeast corner of Ellis and Leavenworth streets in the Tenderloin. It’s a diverse and densely populated neighborhood that has long struggled with high rates of poverty and homelessness, open drug use and filthy sidewalks. Factor in the self-reinforcing chatter about commercial vacancies downtown and dying malls in nearby Union Square, and it’s hard to overcome the perception that the Tenderloin is, well, a wasteland. 

A bustling marketplace with people carrying plates, a neon sign above, and a sign that reads "La Cocina Municipal Marketplace."
Amy Chau, left, and Eddie Chun Fat, right, look for a table to eat tamales in La Cocina Municipal Marketplace in the Tenderloin in April 2023. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Ambitious culinary projects like La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace have flamed out for lack of foot traffic, while successful small businesses like quirky retailer and screenprinting shop Fleetwood have relocated elsewhere in the city once their leases were up.

In an effort to boost the neighborhood, the Tenderloin Community Benefit District and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development have teamed up on a $100,000 “Visit Tenderloin” ad campaign. The goal is to entice diners to restaurants like Azalina’s, which serves some of the city’s most acclaimed Southeast Asian street food. 

But restaurateurs and other small business owners are convinced that such efforts, while welcome, aren’t enough. Things need to change, Eusope said, adding that she hardly sees people out past 5 p.m.

“I want something better for the children and the folks that live here, all the immigrants that live here,” she said. “I want my sidewalk to be clean.”

Created pro bono by VSquareDesign, which has designed restaurant parklets and generated a guerrilla campaign calling for more street trees, the Visit Tenderloin campaign debuted in February on Muni bus shelters and vertical banners hung from streetlight poles. They featured alliterative messages (“Crepes, Cakes and Cocktails”) and close-up photos of tasty morsels from Yemen Kitchen and Sweet Glory, plus Tenderloin-branded apparel from locally owned clothing shop Tilted Brim.

An outdoor ad depicts a hand garnishing a dish, with the text "Tofu, Theatres, and Trinkets" above. It's on a city street corner.
A $100,000 marketing campaign intended to showcase the Tenderloin as a dining destination has cropped up on Muni bus shelters, including this ad for Malaysian street food restaurant Azalina's. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

In the case of Azalina’s, the ad shows a steamed tofu dish with sambal black bean sauce—an entree that reminds Eusope of her father and which she particularly loves to prepare. “Tofu, Theatres, and Trinkets,” the caption above reads. The wording may be slightly contrived, but the marketing aims to showcase the neighborhood’s bounty, according to Kate Robinson, the community benefit district’s executive director.

“We have over 300 small businesses, mostly women- and immigrant-owned,” she said of the Tenderloin. “And we absolutely have the best food in the city.”

At the same time, the very restaurateurs who are featured in the campaign say that while they appreciate the slogans, the Tenderloin’s woes have grown so entrenched that their businesses’ survival is at stake. The city, they agreed, must do more to improve street conditions before their revenue dwindles any further.

‘It’s been scary’

Abdul Alrammah has served roasted lamb with a unique blend of spices at Yemen Kitchen on Jones Street for almost a decade. But while he’s seen plenty in his time in the Tenderloin, he said conditions outside his restaurant have gotten worse. When he calls 311 or 911 these days, nothing happens. 

“To be honest with you, it’s been scary,” Alrammah said. “I open the restaurant and see people laying down, or a tent next to my business. People can’t even walk on the sidewalk. It’s bad.”

A man stands leaning against a restaurant doorway beneath a neon "OPEN" sign, with menus displayed next to him.
Abdul Alrammah says the conditions outside his restaurant, Yemen Kitchen, on Jones Street have gotten worse. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Hai Ky Mi Gia is Little Saigon’s oldest and most famous noodle house, where diners have flocked for braised duck in wonton noodle soup for more than 35 years. But manager Amy Hang said business is hurting big time.

“More and more people are doing drugs in front of our restaurant,” she said. “Customers don’t want to come. They don’t feel safe leaving their car there.” 

Up on Geary Street, the neighborhood’s northern edge, the San Francisco Giants’ season opener did not bring the expected business to the Ha-Ra Club. Mike Castellanos, a bartender at the historic dive that looks like a cross between a sports bar and a bordello, said street conditions have deteriorated so bad he’s considering leaving the city by the end of the year.

“Some days, I have to walk on Hyde Street because I can’t walk on the sidewalk,” he said. “There are so many people passed out, and drug dealers on their scooters trying to wake up people and sell them more drugs.”

A city street at night with a blue tent on the sidewalk, neon signs, a parked scooter, and cars.
A person drives a scooter past a tent on the sidewalk along Larkin Street in Little Saigon. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The city’s own economic data supports these grim anecdotes. Although quarterly sales tax receipts for the Tenderloin have rebounded from their 2020 lows, they reflect a 25% year-over-year decline for September 2023, the most recent date for which figures are available, and a 60% decline from their 2018 peak.

The Muni bus shelter ads are only the most visible component of its response to the Tenderloin’s precarious economic state. In the last 18 months, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development has disbursed more than $20 million in funding to more than 2,600 small businesses citywide, covering vandalism relief, rent relief, small business training and other auxiliary costs. In cooperation with the Planning Department, it’s extending the “First-Year Free” initiative that waives city fees for starting a new business.

“Our goal is to continue building foot traffic and ensure a safe, vibrant and thriving neighborhood,” said Gloria Chan, the development office’s spokesperson. “The work we are doing is all community-driven.”

Over the next several weeks, the office is launching three separate grant programs, including “SF Shines,” allowing proprietors to make improvements to their physical space. Corner stores with older refrigerator cases can get an upgrade, while buildings with tired awnings or sagging exteriors can spiff up their street-facing presence and improve Americans with Disabilities Act access.

The city is also working on activations like a revival of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot play, scheduling arts programming on underused city blocks, and social events on Dodge Alley, the dead-end street behind Shovels Bar & Grill.

A man in a white shirt and red apron works in a restaurant kitchen near a large oven.
Abdul Alrammah cooks in his restaurant, Yemen Kitchen on Jones Street. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“The city’s pouring a ton of money into Union Square, and it’s making a huge investment in Downtown—and the Tenderloin is part of downtown in many ways,” said Katie Conry, executive director of the Tenderloin Museum, which is helping to produce Compton’s in a former record shop on Larkin Street. “Empty spaces mean opportunity, and we’re just starting to see what San Franciscans can create.”

While grants and other economic initiatives may go a long way in keeping small businesses in place, they’re not the same thing as fixing the Tenderloin’s street conditions. Eusope, who commutes to the neighborhood from her home in Candlestick Point, is doing whatever she can in the absence of government help. 

She lowered the price of her four-course prix fixe to $89 and teaches Sunday cooking classes to get people in the door. When patrons leave mixed Yelp reviews about Azalina’s, raving about the food but denigrating the neighborhood, she will sometimes reply to them directly and ask them for their help in fixing it.

“I hope this [ad campaign] will really help bring people in,” she said. “I make seriously delicious, unique food—and you’re not going to get it anywhere else.”

Correction: This post has been updated to note that the creator of the ad campaign was VSquareDesign, not V Square Design.