Above: Pier 39 COO Bob Partrite at Eagle Cafe
San Francisco’s Pier 39 has long been a staple of the city, commanding views of Angel Island, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Warren Simmons, the original founder, developer and creator of Pier 39, built it up in 1978, assisting on the job site with his son Scooter.
What started as a family vision and love of the California coast turned into a bustling tourist attraction and string of successful restaurants on the Pier. Along with the Simmons family, a team of dedicated chefs, managers, servers and staff have grown with the Pier and seen it through many transitions. The Simmons family sold Pier 39 in the ‘90s and developed Chevy’s Mexican restaurants. But through the years, they still maintained close ties.
Pier 39 is now owned and operated by Simco Restaurants. Bob Partrite, the current Chief Operating Officer, has worked in some capacity with the Simmons family for twenty-five years.
“I started as an Executive chef at the Pier Market restaurant. I have a cooking background. I went to the California Culinary Academy and worked at various restaurants around the Bay Area,” shares Partrite.
“It gives me a lot of insight and allows me to do my job in a different way than if I didn’t have that kitchen experience. I see a lot of ways I can help and work with the chefs. Without that, I might not be able to give them that much guidance. I would just be dictating rather than leading from experience.”
This open attitude and eagerness both to learn and teach serves Partrite well. In addition, the history of Pier 39 creates an atmosphere of strong community and pride in its restaurants, which include Fog Harbor, Pier Market, Wipeout, Eagle Cafe and Biscoff Coffee Corner.
“Scooter came back to work in the early 2000’s and we all worked together,” says Partrite. “It’s a family-run company and we all feel like family. One of my chefs has been with us for 37 years. I have prep cooks that have been here for 30 years, bussers that have been here for 10. Our front of the house managers have been here for 25 and 30 years. So, it’s really close, we all work really well together, respect each other and everyone works really hard to get the job done.”
Partrite himself is no stranger to big families with a love for food. “My grandma always said I was gonna be a chef someday,” says Partrite, with a chuckle. “As a kid, I was always in the kitchen helping my mom and her. I always loved food.”
Partrite was born in Santa Barbara and raised in Ventura, where his Jewish father owned a New York style Deli. “I worked in there from a really young age, I think I was about thirteen. It was also close to a Chinese restaurant. It seemed like people who worked in restaurants really enjoyed what they did and that was appealing to me,” shares Partrite.
“My mother’s grandma was an all-American apple pie cook; she was great at that. My dad’s mom, who I never got to spend as much time cooking with, she would do the Matzo balls from scratch, and Challah bread.”
“That’s when I decided I wanted to go to a culinary academy, and it was an amazing experience. It exposed me to all the different aspects of food cooking, styles, and techniques. I did things there that I’ll never do again like pastry, cleaning rabbits, ducks and pheasants. I don’t do that every day, but being exposed to it was awesome.”
Partrite’s formative experiences with food, family, and a deep love for kitchen culture clearly inform his life and the work he does to this day. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the world, Partrite and Pier 39 were faced with a frightening new reality.
“At the beginning of COVID, we didn’t know what was going on,” remembers Partrite. “In March we were told to close, but we were anticipating a couple weeks off work and we would re-group. But as time went on, we realized how big it was.”
Indeed, as San Francisco’s lockdown continued and the pandemic claimed a quickly rising number of American lives, everything seemed uncertain. A strong sense of duty to family and community helped Pier 39 navigate immediate challenges.
“The executive team met, and we spent a lot of time talking about how we could take care of our staff. We continued to pay our staff’s medical insurance through shelter in place and closure. We felt very strongly about that and I’m proud to be a part of that,” says Partrite.
After months of shut down, San Francisco began a cautious reopen and restaurants across the city discussed how they would deal with this new world of dining. From switching to delivery only, to contactless ordering, to social media outreach, the pandemic has completely changed the way people interact with food in public spaces.
“As it got closer to re-opening, we created like a 140-page binder which was a guide to dealing with COVID guidelines. Everyone who said they were ready to come back to work, we did training sessions about new ways we had to run the restaurants. The walls are the same, the food is the same, but everything else is different,” says Partrite.
Partrite is extremely strict on one point. “We won’t seat anyone who’s not wearing a mask. People try and we don’t let them.”
Other than that, Pier 39’s restaurants are all welcoming diners again and even returning to a cozier local vibe. More along the lines of the carefree California surf culture that initially inspired Warren Simmons decades ago.
“All of our tables are outdoors, there’s wonderful airflow on the waterfront. It’s not overcrowded, there aren’t tourists flying in from other countries right now. It’s a really nice dining experience,” says Partrite.
“We have fresh food delivered daily and luckily we have enough guests that we turn it over daily. We are getting a lot of people from the city and the Bay Area counties now, who just want to smell the salty sea air, feel like they are on a little vacation. Now is a great time to experience the Pier again and I hope more people get to do that.”