So many landmark downtown San Mateo restaurants have shut their doors in the last few months — Osteria Coppa, Speido, Roti, Cappellini, Bella Mangiata. What’s happening? To find out I met with Ann Fienman, executive director of the Downtown San Mateo Association, recently.
The good news is that these sites will not be empty for long. In fact, the good news for downtown San Mateo is that there are very few vacancies. A restaurant closes, a new one moves in, or reinvents itself to serve a new clientele. So Osteria Coppa, one of my favorites, family-owned by the same people who own Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay, has sold its lease to Inchin Bamboo Garden which has a dozen locations across the United States. 231 Ellsworth, a gourmet French restaurant, has been closed for some time but will open as another Asian restaurant. Cappellini, which shut then opened under new ownership, then shut again, will now reinvent itself as the Golden Gate Grill and Tap Room, a sports pub. Speido is renovating and is expected to open in the near future but in a different guise as Pausa.
According to Fienman, the economic challenges include running a labor intensive business. Not only food, but rent, and salaries take a big chunk out of profits. If food prices go up too much, the restaurant will lose it clientele. The competition is intense with more than 140 restaurants downtown vying for customers. It’s hard to keep employees because they can’t afford to live here. Raising the minimum wage, say to the currently proposed $15 an hour, will not keep up with escalating rents. So some restaurants are moving from full service to closing at lunch to reducing hours and offering take-out or casual dining where you order at a counter and pick up your food. That cuts down on service staff but keeps the necessary kitchen help.
The dining scene is certainly diverse. You can’t really say Asian food because it could be Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Indian or Chinese. And there is no shortage of Mexican food or exotic Peruvian and Salvadoran restaurants in which to dine. These new trends reflect the population of San Mateo itself, now approximately one third white, one third Latino and one third Asian or the diverse workforce employed by the may new tech startups.
Aside from changes in the dining scene, downtown is also exploding with a number of fitness studios including yoga, Pilates, taekwondo and cycling. SoulCycle is moving into the new office building under construction at Third Avenue and El Camino Real. Motif Investing is the office tenant. A yoga studio is coming to the long-vacant Rite Aid building on B Street.
Downtown San Mateo is on a roll, In a Rand McNally national poll in 2013, it was ranked the best small town for food because of the variety and ethnic diversity of its restaurants and with a nod to the specialty market with a must-visit bakery (Draeger’s). In another national poll, it was ranked number two for best mid-sized cities for restaurants just behind Cambridge, Massachusetts. The lack of fast food restaurants showed people would rather eat something unique rather than go to a franchise. San Mateo ranked 12 in another national poll for most livable places to live. Reasons: historic buildings, parks, restaurants, sustainability and use of commuter rail (Caltrain). Strange that no one mentioned the weather.
Downtown San Mateo has also become a magnet for startups for all of the above reasons. And there is not enough office space to keep them here when they are successful and expand. As for some residents who don’t like to see change in their beloved and historic downtown, change is inevitable if the city is to remain viable. But let’s hope not too much change.
According to Fienman, “I think the biggest change happening downtown is its emergence as a regional business center. Companies choose downtown not only for San Mateo’s central location, but also for the district’s transit access, walkability, food scene and amenities like Central Park. This change also creates a big challenge: increasing demand for larger office space among startups that want to stay and grow here.”
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.