Last month, California governor Gavin Newsom announced the mandatory closure (or re-closure) of all indoor restaurant dining rooms throughout the state. After investigating its options, Michelin-starred sushi restaurant Hashiri announced that it had purchased three miniature geodesic domes so it could provide a "unique outdoor multi-course dining experience." At the time, the domes seemed like a novel means of providing increased privacy safety for diners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few days ago, after a brief hiatus, Hashiri was allowed to start seating customers in its three outdoor geodesic domes again after the staff cut the plastic sides off to bring them into compliance with current public health requirements. Slicing several feet of soft PVC from the Garden Igloos seems to be a satisfactory resolution—at least for now—after two straight weeks of controversy that started when they were assembled on a San Francisco sidewalk.
Hashiri general manager Kenichiro Matsuura told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had previously attempted outdoor dining (pre-plastic bubbles) but it hadn't worked out, due to the restaurant's location in the Mid-Market section of the city. "We wanted to continue offering the fine-dining experience—and safety and peace,” Matsuura said. (The restaurant also offers a swanky to-go menu, including a $500 Ultimate Trifecta Bento box and a $160 takeaway Wagyu Sukiyaki kit, but it is best known for its five-course Kaiseki and Omakase tasting menu.) “Mint Plaza is a phenomenal space, it’s just sometimes the crowd is not too favorable,” he said. In an interview with ABC7, he again emphasized that "it's not the safest neighborhood."
The entire Bay Area has an estimated 35,000 people who are unsheltered or experiencing homelessness and, at the beginning of the pandemic, there were more than 8,000 unhoused individuals in San Francisco alone. In mid-March, when the city issued its first stay-at-home order, unhoused residents were encouraged to "find shelter and government agencies to provide it” but that was easier to type than it was to do. The Guardian reports that shelters stopped taking new residents due to concerns of overcrowding or inadequate social distancing, and more than 1,000 people put their names on a futile-sounding waitlist to get a bed.
In April, the city's Board of Supervisors unanimously passed emergency legislation directing the city to secure more than 8,000 hotel rooms to accommodate all of the unhoused people in the city, but the order was denied by Mayor London Breed. It eventually acquired 2,733 hotel rooms for vulnerable individuals but, as of this writing, only 1,935 of them are actually occupied. As a result of the pair of public health crises that the city is enduring—the pandemic and widespread homelessness—the number of unhoused people has increased, as have the number of tents and other makeshift structures that comprise an encampment for people without housing near Hashiri.
"This is a difficult and upsetting issue," Laurie Thomas, the Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told VICE in an email. "In San Francisco there are areas in the city where there are real concerns about negative street behavior and cleanliness and how that affects both workers and customers of restaurants relying on outside dining […] Our restaurants have a strong desire to provide a safe and welcoming outdoor dining experience, especially without the ability to open for indoor dining, and this is so critical to their ability to stay in business and keep staff employed."
It's easy to sympathize with just about everyone in this scenario. The pandemic has caused an ever-increasing number of challenges for restaurant owners, who are doing whatever it takes to keep their doors open for another day, while the essential workers who prep to-go orders and serve outdoor customers are doing so at great risk to their own health and safety. But still: the optics of serving a $200-per-person tasting menu to customers sitting in plastic bubbles a few hundred yards from people who are struggling for basic human necessities…well, they're not great.
"I think what really gets people going about the dome is that it’s a perfect symbol of the complete inadequacy of our social safety net: In a queer reversal, the dome is a shield against, not for, the ones who need sheltering the most," the Chronicle's restaurant critic Soleil Ho wrote. "An unhoused person’s tent is erected in a desire for opaqueness and privacy, a space of one’s own, whereas the fine dining dome invites the onlooker’s gaze as a bombastic spectacle […] for the housed, being seen eating on the street or in a park is a premium experience, especially now."
Last week, the city's Public Health Department paid Hashiri a surprise visit, and ordered them to remove the domes over concerns that they "may not allow for adequate air flow." According to current regulations, outdoor dining enclosures are required to be open on the sides; the soft structures each have two windows and a door that can be opened, but those features were deemed insufficient.
Matsuura said that he has received hate mail about the domes and he has been accused of making discriminatory comments about the city's most desperate residents, so he believes that someone reported him to the city (though, perhaps the Health Department just saw some of the nationwide media coverage of Hashiri's sidewalk igloos). Regardless, he still says that the domes are there to keep his customers safe… from interacting with the people living on those same streets. "There are people who come by and spit, yell, stick their hands in people’s food, discharging fecal matter right by where people are trying to eat,” he said. “It’s really sad, and it’s really hard for us to operate around that.”
The criticism that Hashiri has faced is similar to what the organizers of a pop-up restaurant in Toronto encountered when they set up their own heated glass domes last year. The Dinner with a View experience, complete with a three-course gourmet meal prepped by a Top Chef winner, was assembled under the Gardiner Expressway, just over a mile from the site of a homeless encampment that had been cleared out by the city.
Advocates for the unhoused said that the meal and its location just further emphasized the ever-increasing gap between the Haves and the Have Nots. More than 300 demonstrators showed up to protest outside the event, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) served a free 'counter-meal' that it called Dinner with a View of the Rich.
"On the one hand you have homeless people whose tents were demolished and who were evicted with nowhere else to go," OCAP wrote. "On the other hand you have people with sufficient disposable income to splurge over $550 on a single meal and who’re facing the possibility of their luxurious dining spectacle being tainted […] Do they deserve to be mocked for their obliviousness to the suffering around them? Absolutely."
Back in San Francisco, Hashiri is not the only Mid-Market restaurant to express concern about the safety of its patrons, or about the city's ineffective attempts at addressing the social and economic conditions that have contributed to the homelessness crisis. Last month, a group of residents and businesses in the neighborhood sued the city for negligence, alleging that homeless encampments, criminal activity, and unsanitary conditions combined to make Mid-Market a dangerous area.
"The City has created and perpetuated these conditions through its pattern and practice of tacitly treating Mid-Market as a ‘containment zone’ that bears the brunt of San Francisco’s homelessness issues, and its failure to take action to address these issues," the lawsuit said. Two of the restaurants that are among the plaintiffs, Montesacro Pinseria and Souvla, said that if the situation doesn't improve, they could be forced to move to a new neighborhood, or to close their doors for good.
"We are deeply concerned that property owners have taken to suing the city to 'remove tents' without anywhere for [those experiencing homelessness] to go. Worse, these lawsuits would have the courts decide the fate of people who have no seat at the table where 'justice' is being served," Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, told VICE.
"These situations can be resolved by working collaboratively with the unhoused person to address the issues, while pressing the city, state and federal government to ensure there are dignified housing options available. If the restaurant owner can afford to sue, they can afford to hire someone to advocate successfully for solutions."
Laurie Thomas is also working on behalf of restaurants, sharing their concerns and working toward positive changes and respectful solutions for all involved. Last week, she was among the hospitality and small business leaders who sent a letter to Mayor London Breed, the President of the Board of Supervisors, and the co-chairs of the City's Economic Recovery Task Force.
"We are writing today because we are gravely concerned about the condition of our streets. We are devastated to see so many unsheltered neighbors struggling each day in unfathomable and treacherous conditions," their letter read. "These conditions will prohibit businesses of all sizes from reopening. More companies will leave San Francisco for safer and cleaner places to operate […] Additionally, with outdoor dining and shopping options being the primary avenues for businesses to survive, the intersection between the unfortunate conditions on our streets and this new heavy reliance on public spaces for commerce will result in disastrous outcomes."
The letter also made a number of recommendations that "should be prioritized" by city officials, including additional housing options, making mental health and substance abuse resources available to those experiencing homelessness, and establishing a 24-hour crisis response team that can respond to "urgent mental health and/or drug induced episodes."
Meanwhile at Hashiri, the DIY-ed, now open-sided domes are back out on the sidewalk. "Signed, sealed and delivered," the restaurant wrote on Facebook. "With small modifications we are back in business."