Atlas Café is Feeling the Weight of COVID-19

Learn how to make the Roasted Yam Sandwich from the 24-year-old Atlas Café.

For the past 20 years, I’ve spent most of my vast and considerable fortune on bagels and iced tea at the Atlas Café. That’s a slight exaggeration. But the truth is that most of my pre-COVID work days began at Bill Stone’s 24-year-old establishment. Stone shows up to work behind the counter as often as his employees do. Without fail, he’s been an even-tempered proprietor, a helpful and cheerful presence. Atlas has also served as my late afternoon hang out, a casual place to destress in the middle of the work day. I used to meet friends there for lunch or just sift through thoughts on my own.

Stone doesn’t compare his pandemic problems to the mythical Atlas, the Titan burdened with holding up the sky. Nonetheless, he does admit that 2020 has been the most challenging year the cafe has faced. When the shelter-in-place order was announced in March, revenue fell by 75 percent. It’s been slowly building back up to where it’s now about 50-55 percent of what was considered normal earnings. But since July, things have leveled off.

“We’re limping along,” Stone says. “It’s not really sustainable for a long period of time.”  

Back in March, Atlas had a plexiglas panel installed at the counter, complied with the S.F. Health Department’s requests, and has been doing to-go service ever since. But the culture of the cafe has changed dramatically, even with its dozen or so outside tables.

Atlas opened at a time when San Francisco was a lazier, less frenetic place, closer in spirit to Austin than Brooklyn. You could nestle in comfortably and spend your unemployed days at Ground Zero in the Haight or Cafe Macondo on 16th Street.

Stone received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. It’s the only reason that Atlas hasn’t permanently shut down. “I got help from the government and that kept us alive, basically,” he says. But he burned through it quickly. “It didn’t last long, about 8-10 weeks before it was completely gone.” Stone’s taken out another loan but hasn’t used it so far because it has to be paid back. “If I am to stay open at the rate things are going, I will have to use some of that for sure.” And he has to keep things going for a while because it’s not exactly an opportune time to sell a restaurant.

Over the past few months, Stone’s plans have continued to evolve. When it all began, he took an optimist’s stance, believing that the pandemic would end soon. “If you had told me in March that this would still be going on in the fall, that I’d only be at 50 percent of my business in September, I probably would have thrown up my hands and said, ‘I can’t do this,’” he says.

And yet, he soldiers on.

In order to accommodate more people outside, Atlas has a GoFundMe account in place to help build a parklet on Alabama Street. They’re about $1,000 away from a $10,000 goal. Stone says that some businesses are building parklets with less sturdy materials because they’re only permitted until the end of the year. But Atlas is counting on the city to let them keep it longer than that. 

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Stone was a co-owner of the now defunct Ace Cafe in SoMa. Ace had table service, a full bar and live bands. He burned out on working late nights. Atlas is a better reflection of his personality now. “I wanted it to be more casual, a daytime thing,” he explains. And for close to a quarter of a century, Stone says Atlas has been what close to what he wanted it to be — although things started to get harder even before the pandemic.

“I have to say that the past four or five years have been tricky,” he says, explaining that sales have flattened while expenses have gone up. 

Independent, neighborhood places like his, he says, are finding it harder to make a profit. “I’ve noticed that there’s been a trend toward restaurant groups. There’s more volume so there’s more profit,” he says. Stone might be in a different position if he’d owned the building but it’s never been for sale.

“I’m dreading winter,” he says with a sense of foreboding. “Winter is slow anyway for us. December, January, and February. It’s going to be miserable. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

Although the outlook sounds bleak and depressing, Stone says he’s not a negative person. “I have some hope that things can turn around and that whatever happens I’ll be okay.” But after living in San Francisco for 37 years, he adds, “it’s getting pretty hard to live here. I look at the city differently now that I have two young kids.” Stone believes he’ll figure something out one way or another.

Until then he offers up his Roasted Yam Sandwich recipe, for those who can’t make it to Atlas Café in person.

Atlas Café
3049 20th St., San Francisco

Atlas Café Roasted Yam Sandwich
Makes about 4 sandwiches

Yam marinade
— ¼ Cup extra virgin olive oil
— 1 Tablespoon honey
— 5 Teaspoons paprika (or try ancho chile powder for a bit more kick)
— 1 Teaspoon kosher salt
— 2 rounded Teaspoons finely chopped garlic or 1 Tablespoon if you like a lot of garlic
— ½ Teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
— 1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Whisk together in medium bowl until emulsified.

Beet relish
— 1 medium red beet washed, peeled and shredded on a box grater or julienned on a mandoline
— ½ small red onion sliced very thinly
— 3 Tablespoons rice vinegar
— Kosher salt and fresh black pepper to taste
— Combine in a small mixing bowl and allow beets to soften

Garlic olive oil
— 2 tablespoons of Extra virgin olive oil
— With ½ teaspoon of finely chopped garlic. Mixed together.

Preheat oven to 350

Wash and peel 4 medium to large garnet yams, Slice ¼ inch thin. Add yams to bowl with yam marinade and toss to coat thoroughly. 

Spread yams out evenly one layer thick on a baking sheet or large roasting pan and cook about 25 to 30 minutes until yams begin to caramelize on the edges and surface. (This may take longer in a home oven, we use a convection oven so keep an eye on them and be sure they have some brown color and are starting to get a little crispy on the edges. As long as they are not turning black or drying out too much they will taste good. If they seem to be cooking too slowly try 375.)  Allow yams to cool.

Sandwich assembly
You will need:
— Feta cheese (sliced or crumbled)
— Cherry tomato halves or tomato slices (optional)
— A few sprigs of cilantro 

We use a ciabatta type bread in a long baguette shape. Regular baguette works well too. You can probably use any good bread though. Brush bread with garlic olive oil and toast lightly in oven or toaster oven. Layer bread with yams, feta cheese, tomato, and cilantro. Add beet relish on top and cover with bread, cut in half and eat.

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