We Will Recover Spotlight: Gentilly
Gentilly is a relatively new Excelsior restaurant and bar that is already a neighborhood treasure. Started in November 2019 by longtime Excelsior residents, Alexis Hyatt and Sarah Duncan, it was inspired by their love of the French Quarter of New Orleans. Gentilly features bold Southern dishes and inventive cocktails prepared with a dash of San Francisco sophistication at surprisingly modest neighborhood prices. The team from the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development were so impressed with Gentilly’s ongoing dedication to safety and their ability to adapt their business during the COVID-19 pandemic, that they contacted us at the COVID Command Center’s Joint Information Center. We recently spoke with Alexis about the restaurant’s response to the pandemic and to see if there are lessons for other businesses.
How have you adapted your business during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We opened four months before the pandemic hit. We were brand new. It was overwhelming. We shifted gears and focused on take-out. Excelsior is very family oriented. A lot of working parents. We made sure we offered affordable family meals. Good deals for families. We have a full bar and already created a great cocktail and beverages program, so being able to offer drinks to go helped a lot.
We spoke with our landlord and got the ok to make a patio for outdoor dining in the parking lot out back. It is kind of weird and funky but the whole thing really works. To get there you need to go down this narrow alley and you don’t know what to expect. Then it opens up to this fun spacious spot right next to a car repair shop. We made jokes about having a carwash beer special. We applied for and received an SF Shines microgrant from the City. We used the money to help build the patio and also a Shared Spaces out front. Some of our friends did some wild murals and even painted the picnic tables. A neighbor donated heat lamps. A health inspector from the City checked everything, gave us signage, and some good advice. We got a lot of community support.
We have both lived in the Excelsior for a long time. It is our community. Gentilly’s location was a beloved long-time neighborhood bar, Doctor’s Lounge. It was a gathering place for many folks over the years. Another business took over the space before us but didn’t make it. I think that Sarah and me being from the neighborhood has helped. The community is invested in our survival. They want this restaurant and they want to have ways to connect with other people. The lockdown has been hard on mental health. People miss being with others. It can take a toll. It can make you depressed. A lot of people came by when we were open for outdoor dining. We are glad that we were able to provide an inviting and safe place for people to come out and get together, if only for a little while.
What steps have you taken to make your business safe for staff?
We do a health screening before anyone has a shift. Some really helpful staff from the City have come by a few times to give us updates on open testing sites and helped us navigate the system for our staff and their families. We were lucky to have the Crocker-Amazon testing site close by. None of our staff tested positive. We have a topnotch kitchen crew and the whole staff are serious about hygiene. We have gloves, sanitizer, masks, and other supplies. We keep the backdoor open for ventilation.
What can customers do to stay safe and keep your staff safe?
When we were open for dining it was a little hard at times. People relax and get less careful. We have a lot of signage. If people needed to go indoors we made sure they didn’t linger. We put in place a two-hour time limit for dining.
Have you been able to retain your staff throughout the pandemic?
No. That’s been really hard. We had 17 staff. Then it was just Sarah and me. We were there around the clock. When outdoor dining opened, we were able to bring back our bar manager and two cooks. Now we had to reduce back. I think everybody is getting unemployment.
How do you handle take-out and delivery?
It is better for us when people call in their order and come pick it up. We can have it ready and make sure no one has to wait around. It can get busy and we want to make sure everyone is staying safe. There is so much going on that sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller. When Mayor Breed set the percentage cap on fees from delivery app services, that really helped. We use all the app services. We’ve gotten really good at making food to go. It is an unexpected component to our business that is keeping us going and I think will help us in the long run. People from all over the city can taste our food and get to know us. When the pandemic is over, we hope they’ll keep ordering to go and for delivery, but we would love to see folks in person in our restaurant. Until then, we will keep working hard, being creative, and pulling rabbits out of the hat.
What advice do you have for other restaurants and shops trying to keep their business healthy and everyone safe?
Follow all the safety guidelines from the City. Ask them for support and work with them. Look for government grants and other funding. Reach out to your friends and community. Look for new ways to provide needed services.
Anything to share about your partnership? Being a women-owned business?
My partner Sarah is great. We started the business knowing we had different but complementary strengths. We both have years of hospitality experience but running your own business has a steep learning curve. We’ve learned to be tougher and to be a bit less trusting, especially with contracts. Sometimes people will try to take advantage of you, especially if you are a woman and even more so if you are a young woman. We’ve developed a critical eye and are very clear in all of our communications. There are a lot of women in this industry, but we are underrepresented in management and ownership. We are proud of being a women-owned business, but we want you to come to our restaurant because it is good. Great food, drinks, and people. A dynamite place in a unique San Francisco neighborhood.
We thank Alexis Hyatt, co-owner Sarah Duncan, and the entire staff of Gentilly for their dedication to keeping our community safe and well-fed. Find out more about Gentilly at gentillysf.com. Place pick-up orders directly at 415.859.5633. Gentilly is located at 4826 Mission Street at Onondaga Avenue.
Please remember, that during the current lockdown, you can still go out for rewarding walks and visit our vital retail businesses. Nourish your soul and talk a stroll down Mission Street in the Excelsior, where Gentilly and many other local businesses are located. Visit unique shops filled with practical and fanciful items. Order take-out from restaurants cooking up creative cuisine from diverse cultures. When you order take-out directly from a restaurant, you will save delivery costs and the restaurant won’t be charged multiple fees from online delivery services. Stay local, shop local, and give local. Support the City you love. Together, we will recover from COVID-19. sf.gov/WeWillRecover, shopdine49.com.