Take a walk in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood and it’s obvious that things are changing. The area—one of the most run-down in the city—is slowly getting a facelift, with tech companies like Twitter moving into formerly blighted spaces. In the historic Renoir Hotel, a venture called A Temporary Offering is hosting a handful of pop-ups, including SF FoodLab—a pop-up restaurant and commercial kitchen for entrepreneurs run by three food industry veterans.
Gabriel Cole, one of SF FoodLab’s cofounders, comes from an unlikely background: Google. While working as a sous chef in the company’s famed kitchens, he opened three new Google cafes. But he eventually became disillusioned. Just before the recession hit, Google "asked us to reduce kitchen staff by 30%, letting go of a lot of people who helped build the program," he explains. "[Google cofounders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were flippant about [letting go of] staff. It made me want to leave."
So he did. Cole volunteered with local food organizations and eventually opened up his own sustainable food consultancy, dubbed Fare Resources. "I realized that there was a real need to provide business infrastructure for burgeoning food entrepreneurs," he says.
Eventually, Cole and the SF FoodLab cofounders were approached about setting up shop at A Temporary Offering, which was created by the Kor group. Since this past Spring, SF FoodLab has featured a rotating cast of pop-ups both in its commercial kitchen and in its restaurant space. This month, the restaurant is hosting sandwiches from Jablow’s Meats, Mexican-inspired meals from Bueno Eats, and Onigilly, which offers Japanese gourmet rice balls.
The SF FoodLab experience, Cole Says, has been both challenging and rewarding. SF Food Lab is a combination incubator and pop-up restaurant, which means that the founders provide ongoing coaching and consultation to entrepreneurs using the pop-up venue—everything from looking at what their margins are to how to price menus. Despite its trendiness, Cole warns that food entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. "We actually lose money in the pop-ups but we have another income stream in our shared use kitchen," says Cole.