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‘Forget the Doom Loop’: 11 new downtown SF pop-ups are opening up to defy the odds

A man with glasses and colorful arm tattoos stands indoors. He wears a black T-shirt with a white design and is speaking, with various items on a counter behind him.
Dario Barbone smiles in excitement ahead of the opening day of Aurora Centro, his new Vacant to Vibrant pop-up deli shop. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

On Friday afternoon, a handful of small business owners scrambled to set up their shiny new storefronts in downtown San Francisco. The frenzied proprietors aiming to open their shops this week are part of the second cohort of the city’s Vacant to Vibrant program, which is filling empty storefronts with small businesses by providing free rent and other support. 

“It’s been sleepless,” Dario Barbone said with a tired smile, as he surveyed the partially unpacked boxes and strewn papers at Aurora Centro, the Italian deli he’s opening in Salesforce Park this week. 

Each business is guaranteed three months of free rent by SF New Deal, the nonprofit that manages the program with funding primarily from the Office of Economic Workforce and Development (OEWD) and Wells Fargo. The program also provides expedited permitting, additional grants to cover business expenses, and the possibility to extend the free lease for three additional months.  

While the first iteration included 17 pop-ups, the second batch scaled down to 11 activations across eight new storefronts. The goal remains to revitalize a part of the city that’s struggled to bounce back from the decimation of retail and office workers downtown

“We want people to forget the Doom Loop,” said Chloé Hennen, editor in chief of 7×7, which is opening up a social club that will host ticketed workshops featuring local chefs, artists and other makers. 

A person with long hair, wearing black clothes and white shoes, is standing and speaking in a large, bright room with large windows and several white pedestals.
Public Glass Gallery representative Marta Gorski talked to the press about her goals for the nonprofit's Vacant to Vibrant pop-up in downtown San Francisco. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

“We want people to get out, connect, remember what makes this city so great and participate in the revitalization of San Francisco,” Hennen said.

The program aims to give small business owners a chance to experiment with a new location and clientele—while hopefully bringing their existing customers to the neighborhood, as well. 

“We’re focused on showing that downtown can be a diverse, vibrant and inclusive place that’s a reflection of the city broadly, but also has its own unique identity,” said Jenais Zarlin, co-founder and chief impact officer at SF New Deal. 

Here’s how the members of the latest cohort plan to take advantage of their new digs and what a successful pop-up experience would look like for them. 

Two individuals are in a kitchen, both wearing aprons and caps. One is holding tongs, while the other is slicing green peppers on a cutting board. Bowls of sliced peppers are on the counter.
Employees Jose Domingo, left, and Tom Baird prepare jalapeños which will be used for one of the paninis offered at Aurora Centro on Mission Street. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Aurora Centro & Critty Smitty — 415 Mission St., 5th Floor 

From its location in the park, Aurora Centro will sell fresh paninis, as well as picnic provisions like tinned fish, crackers and nuts. The space will host musicians and artists, including his co-activator, Critty Smitty.  

Aurora’s Barbone says he wants to keep his downtown shop, if he can figure out how to make it work financially (he also operates a tiny space in Potrero Hill). “If I make people happy, then, mission accomplished,” he said. “And I would love to extend, if I’m financially viable.”  

For Corinne Smith, the artist behind Critty Smitty, success will look like “further engagement and connection with the community and beyond.” She’s painting a mural on the walls of Aurora Centro and selling a collection of her work in the shop. Smith also hopes to “meet others to collaborate, share ideas or explore opportunities outside of the work I typically do,” she said. 

Steep Boba for Good & ffrancesca— 303 2nd St., Suite 137 

Steep, a subsidiary of nonprofit Juma Ventures, will serve boba and beverages like yuzu grape lemonade, while providing job training to young people between ages 16 and 24. The aim is to set up for the long term, according to Steep co-founder Alvin Yu: “At the end of the day, it has to make sense for everybody, but we’re aiming for a long-term, win-win situation,” he said. 

Steep also wants to “create as many shifts as we can” for the youth on its payroll, he added, and encourage young people to participate in bringing downtown back. “Everyone says ‘It’s dying,’ so the more optimism we can have down here, the better,” he said. 

A person is smiling, standing next to a white signboard that reads "STEEP Creamery & Tea." The colorful window behind features abstract floral designs.
Steep co-founder Alvin Yu stands next to a Steep Creamery sign on 303 2nd Street in Yerba Buena on Friday. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Steep will share its space with ffrancesca, an ephemeral art gallery from SFMOMA workers Fernanda Partida Ochoa and Fernanda Carlovich. They plan to display work from various artists on dueling themes of kinship and otherness, which patrons can purchase. 

“As part of the local art community and immigrants in this city, we want to gain expertise from independently running a space in San Francisco,” the curators wrote in an email, “And ensure that the artists have real benefits from partnering with us: visibility, sales, and the chance to produce something they are excited about.” 

Paper Son Cafe — 303 2nd St., N102

Paper Son Cafe, started by former tech worker Alex Pong, opened up its first pop-up at Neighbor Bakehouse in the Dogpatch and is following up its new Vacant to Vibrant location in the East Cut.

The shop aims to serve locally roasted coffee in Asian-inspired drinks. Think: a Pandan Aerocano or a Guava Pillow, a whimsically named beverage consisting of bubbly coffee topped with a layer of guava foam and dusted with Chinese plum powder.

The shop’s name itself is a term used to refer to Chinese people who illegally immigrated to the United States by purchasing fake documentation showing they were related to existing citizens or residents. Just as the paper son relationship often “morphed into a genuine connection,” the shop aims to create community through selling coffee, it says

Hungry Crumbs & Super Extra Fancy — 215 Fremont St., 5B

Bakery Hungry Crumbs and artist Cole Skaggs, who draws inspiration from the natural world, will combine forces on Fremont Street in their East Cut space.

Alongside classics like chocolate chip, Hungry Crumbs will sell specialty hand-crafted cookies with ingredients like lemon curd, tart cherries or strawberries. 

Skaggs will supplement those sweet treats with his tree and wood-grain-inspired prints, zines and apparel.

“As someone born and raised in San Francisco, I have these hypotheses about downtown and why it’s the way it is, or why I don’t go there as much as I should or could,” Skaggs said, “And this is a really fun opportunity to test those and engage with people.”

Koolfi Creamery — 50 Fremont St.

San Leandro-based Koolfi sells distinctive ice cream, with flavors like cardamom, mango lassi and Bombay butterscotch, inspired by its founders’ Indian upbringing. While several SF retailers stock its pints, this will be its first time selling straight to customers in the city. 

7×7 Social Club — 524 Washington St. 

Hennen, who runs the San Francisco lifestyle publication 7×7, said that she aims to give people a place to hang out with their laptops, take workshops with local chefs and artists or enjoy a stimulating lecture. Ticket sales will be split between the local talent and the club. 

Its launch party on Thursday will include DJ sets and food from local vendors. 

“Success will look like people showing up, engaging with it, having fun and telling their friends,” Hennen said. “At the end of the three months, it will look like figuring out how to have a space that could pay for itself, so we could sign a long-term lease and stay.” 

Public Glass Gallery — 149 New Montgomery St. 

The Bayview-based arts nonprofit plans to give a new subset of San Franciscans the opportunity to experiment with glass art and take home the work of local artists skilled in the medium. It will sell housewares and offer workshops, including for stained glass, according to representative Marta Gorski. Glass blowing is potentially in the cards too, if the shop can nail down the right permits. 

A smiling woman in black attire stands beside a kiln with one hand on her pocket and the other adjusting the kiln's door. The background is plain and white.
Marta Gorski shows off a kiln to the press in the Public Glass Gallery in Yerba Buena on Friday, June 14, 2024. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

“We’re hoping to get the word out and help people get to know the studio,” she said. Public Glass hopes to stay downtown for six months through SF New Deal’s program, though Gorski admitted that leasing costs would likely be prohibitive to staying longer after the funding runs dry.

SAINTFLORA — 209 Jackson St. 

Oakland-based artist Tosha Stimage is bringing her colorful and quirky flower arrangements downtown. Customers will be able to shop for fresh bouquets as well as paper goods at the northern Financial District location. 

‘Pop-up to permanent’

While SF New Deal hopes that some of the businesses will extend their leases after the program ends, that’s not the expectation. 

Of the nine storefronts last year, seven ended up signing on for the longer haul: Whack Donuts (Four Embarcadero Center, Suite 4507), Rosalind Bakery (Four Embarcadero Center, Suite 4504), KALW (220 Montgomery St., Suite 100), Teranga (Four Embarcadero Center, Suite 4107), GCS Agency (201 Jackson St.), Devil’s Teeth Baking Company (1 Embarcadero Center) and The Mellow (332 Pine St.). 

A man, Vandor Hill, owner of Whack Donuts, poses for a portrait while standing behind a counter filled with donuts.
Vandor Hill, owner of Whack Donuts, a Vacant to Vibrant pop-up shop located at 4 Embarcadero Center, opted to extend his lease after being part of the program's first cohort. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

As a sweetener, SF New Deal is providing additional financial aid. Rosalind Bakery owner Matthew Kosoy said he’s received another grant, dubbed “pop-up to permanent” to further support his business (though he declined to name the amount). Both he and Whack Donuts founder Vandor Hill told The Standard that they think the program did right by selecting a smaller group of businesses the second time around. 

“It’s good that they don’t have as many businesses in this iteration—hopefully they can focus on each one more,” Hill said. 

His advice to the latest cohort of pop-ups? Ask lots of questions and hold SF New Deal and OEWD accountable for providing help and promotion. 

“This program is meant to help revitalize the city,” he said, “So make sure the city steps up.” 

Here’s a map of all the Vacant to Vibrant locations downtown, including those that have permanent locations:

Jillian D’Onfro can be reached at