Has Oakland Reached Restaurant Overload
The answer depends on rent, jobs, more residents, and a host of other factors.
Nick Yapor-Cox of Nick's Pizza is just a guy who wants to make pizza.
Photo by Heather Finnecy
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Nick Yapor-Cox, the founder and namesake of Nick's Pizza on Shattuck Avenue, takes another drag from his cigarette. We're sitting in the shared backyard of his apartment complex, he inherited the lease to his small one-bedroom from childhood-friend and business partner Aron Ford discussing why some restaurants succeed and others fail. Specifically, I'm here to ask: What happened to Nick and Aron's, the full-service spin-off Yapor-Cox and Ford opened, to mostly positive reviews, in Temescal last spring? It lasted just seven months.
We talk about gentrification, the skyrocketing cost of operating a food business in the Bay Area, Oakland in particular. We talk about how his personal life 2015 was rough. We talk about the expanding gig economy and the minimum wage. We talk about the importance of striking that oh-so-delicate, harmonious balance between a restaurant concept and an affordable, practical space. It's dizzying, and Yapor-Cox admits, with an exhale of smoke, “There's a lot to it that I don't understand.” He grew up in Oakland and has witnessed its transformation firsthand, but still demurs, “At the end of the day, I'm a guy that makes pizza.”
In its annual 'Places to Visit' piece in January, The New York Times named the East Bay, not San Francisco, one of the 52 places in the world to visit in 2016. Unlike most of its counterparts which range from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Marfa, Texas, the East Bay, and Oakland specifically, is billed for its 'vibrant culinary culture' and its growing list of past and present Bib Gourmand winners, like Ramen Shop and Michel Bistro, and its urban wineries.
Not only does the nation seem to be shifting more of its attention to Oakland, but also restaurateurs themselves are packing up and moving to Oakland. Restaurateur Jay Porter'who made national news in 2008 for banning tipping and raising hourly wages at the now-defunct San Diego restaurant The Linkery moved his operation north in 2014. He has since opened two new Oakland restaurants: in 2014, The Half Orange, in Fruitvale, and in 2015 Salsipuedes (teaming up with chef Marcus Krauss) in Longfellow. Both neighborhoods are just beginning to see 'high-end casual' dining
To East Bay eaters, Oakland's culinary renaissance is hardly news. They've reaped the benefits for several years. Now, it's fair to wonder, with unprecedented growth, what's next? Is there enough demand from consumers to sustain the waistline-expanding pace at which Oakland's restaurant sector seems to be growing?
The short answer: It's complicated.
According to Yelp (whose data scientists pulled all businesses in Oakland under its 'Restaurants' category), 237 new restaurants opened their doors in Oakland between 2014 and 2015. An estimated 200 of those restaurants are still in open (84.3 percent). In the past, when measuring restaurants per capita, census data has cannibalized San Francisco and Oakland into one large chunk of metropolitan area. According to Yahoo! Finance, the San Francisco Bay Area's dining sector grew faster from 2011 to 2014 than any other metropolitan area not named New York, measured in terms of restaurants per capita. Oakland's role in the growth hasn't been publicly measured, but it's fair to assume it's played a significant role. Another recent study claimed San Francisco itself outpaced New York in terms of sales and growth from 2013 to 2015; Oakland wasn't included in the data.
Aside from size, another factor that challenged Nick and Aron's was its Temescal location, where the price of rent and operating is substantially higher. Unlike its successor, Nick's Pizza was put together five years ago on a shoestring budget. Before Yapor-Cox bought the business, the 600-square-foot space had housed a successful, self-sustaining, neighborhood pizza joint for 15-plus years. His landlord's mother lives next door, and his parents are down the street. Like many Oakland success stories, Yapor-Cox and his landlord at Nick's share a similar vision for the space. "My landlord and I, we want to do whatever it takes to just make sure this place is always a pizza spot." In his mind, and in the minds of many others, small can mean successful in Oakland.
Also, he doesn't need to draw crowds from anywhere except his own neighborhood, which becomes increasingly important as more restaurants come to town. As he explains, 'We're still a working-class city, and there are only so many fancy restaurants that we can support.'
Business experts and planners seem to agree that restaurants with higher operating costs will need to increase demand from outside of their borders and continue to become a destination, la San Francisco. Michael J. Berne, who consults retail businesses on space and business potential, believes growing regional if not national demand will be a sticking point for Oakland's restaurants in the near term. “Consumer demand doesn't have to be as high in San Francisco,” he explained, adding that Oakland “is changing, but it's worrisome. People only dine out so many times.”
Consider ramen. Three years ago, Ramen Shop opened on College Avenue, one of the first to bring the Japanese-style meal-in-a-bowl concept to Oakland. Now, several more shops have cropped up, yet despite the rising operational costs, customary amounts of stress, and (theoretically) more competition, Ramen Shop is doing fine. In fact, the owners built out the restaurant to include another bar and more seating.
“We feel lucky to have survived for three years. We're making it work, but it's a lot of time and energy,” Chez Panisse alumnus and Ramen Shop co-owner Sam White explained. “It's all worth it for us, but you really have to keep focusing on the quality. That's the thing; you can't trick people into thinking your food is good when it's not.”
White welcomes the influx of new ramen shops to Oakland and doesn't worry about the specter of oversaturation. “There's room for more ramen,” he said. “I think the fairest comparison is pizza. If you make good pizza, you're going to be full.”