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Food & Drink

Downtown’s sugar rush: New sweets pop-ups create the makings of a dessert belt

A morning bun, chocolate chip cookie and blueberry and cheese danish sit on a gray plate.
Pastries like those from Rosalind Bakery could sweeten up San Francisco's downtown core. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

San Francisco's ever-beaten-down downtown just got some sweet news.

In a showy press conference Thursday, accompanied by a celebratory brass band, Mayor London Breed and small business advocacy nonprofit SF New Deal announced the second cohort of Vacant to Vibrant grant recipients, rolling out another round of grants for small businesses to populate empty storefronts.

Of the nine businesses in the initial Vacant to Vibrant cohort, seven have signed long-term leases in downtown, the mayor announced. And now a new class of businesses is about to pilot ideas for reviving the city’s core. 

A group of women and one man hold a large check from Wells Fargo bank.
Darlene Goins, center, Head of philanthropy and community impact and president of the Wells Fargo Foundation, presents a $1 million check to Vacant to Vibrant participants, while Mayor London Breed, right, and SF New Deal Executive Director Simon Bertrang look on. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Among the latest pop-ups to find temporary homes in otherwise unoccupied storefronts are a suite of sweets shops—including Hungry Crumbs cookie bakery, Koolfli Creamery, a small-batch ice cream shop fusing South Asian and American flavors, and JUMA Ventures’ Steep Creamery, a youth-run boba and ice cream shop focused on preparing young people from underserved communities for long-term career success. All three are slated to take over spaces amid the high-rises of downtown’s East Cut neighborhood. 

So, could downtown be in for a sugar rush? Is a bona fide dessert belt in the works? 

When The Standard asked the mayor if she had a particular confection agenda for downtown, Breed replied with a chuckle. She said the city is open to collaborating with all types of establishments, including restaurants, through its Vacant to Vibrant program.  

“We're not trying to pick one business over the other,” Breed said. “But it just so happens … we have a lot of folks who want to bring sweets to the downtown area. … We welcome all opportunities.” 

A food court dedicated to desserts—similar to the much-buzzed-about Saluhall at Ikea’s Market Street location—was not beyond the realm of possibility, the mayor hinted. She said the city is exploring a Saluhall-style concept for restaurants downtown and that Vacant to Vibrant “could be the perfect option for that purpose.”

An assortment of pastries are set out on a blue table cloth.
Vacant to Vibrant grant recipient Rosalind Bakery brought an array of pastries to a pop-up and press conference at 333 Market St. on Thursday. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Downtown residents and workers are sweet on the idea, too. Bill Tickner, a worker for Instacart’s downtown office, fondly remembers going to chocolate tastings downtown at least once a week with his co-workers when he worked at Google. He wouldn’t mind seeing more experiences like that in a post-pandemic downtown. 

“I think it would bring more people out on their lunch break,” he said. 

Ligaya Chan, who works and lives downtown, said sweets shops, like bakeries, would be a nice, affordable addition to the area since high-priced steakhouses and restaurants abound in the historically buttoned-up neighborhood known more for business dealings and coffee runs than hanging out.   

“How do you make it more casual?” she mused. “It would be nice to have a bakery, somewhere to sit—not just pick-up.” 

Rosalind Bakery owner Matthew Kosoy, who signed a five-year lease to keep his storefront on at 4 Embarcadero Center after participating in Vacant to Vibrant, wants to stay to help with downtown’s rebirth and be part of the city’s evolving baking scene, where new brick-and-mortars like Butter & Crumble  in nearby North Beach have made a splash in recent years.   

A woman at a stand talks with a another woman about a suite of color bar and juice products.
Teranga founder Nafy Flatley talks with a customer at a press conference and pop-up at 333 Market St. for San Francisco's Vacant to Vibrant program on Thursday. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

“I feel like I’m part of a bread movement that's happening in San Francisco,” Kosoy said.  

Still, purveyors of sweet snacks and beverages who spoke to The Standard generally thought it would take more than a sugar rush to improve conditions for small businesses in the heart of the city. 

Nafy Flatley—a Senegalese immigrant who founded Teranga, a Vacant to Vibrant alumnus specializing in food and drink derived from the “sweet, sour, tangy, nutty, herby” sub-Saharan African Baobab fruit—is so determined to make her American dream a reality that she’s a signed a three-year lease to stay at the Embarcadero Center, albeit in a smaller space.

But she said businesses like hers will still need continued support from the city, property managers and investors like Wells Fargo, which presented a $1 million check to be split among alumni of the city’s Vacant to Vibrant program who’ve transitioned to long-term leases.

“I wish that $1 million dollars would go to every Vacant to Vibrant [participant],” Flatley said. “Everybody—hands-on—has to be in it to bring back our downtown. I don’t think putting it onto the small businesses is going to happen. We won’t be able to do it on our own.” 

Joshua Chemparathy—general manager of Oakland’s Sinwise Farms, a wholesaler of canned masala chai and Southern Indian Coffee oat milk lattes—said he’d like a Vacant to Vibrant pop-up but thinks downtown still needs lower rents and a variety of businesses to support small enterprises like his.  

“I think San Francisco can use anything with heart,” he said. “If it’s sweet or not, I don’t think it matters.