Jonathan Ojinaga, the owner and operator of Azúcar Lounge in the South of Market (or SoMa) District of San Francisco, was living his dream until the Coronavirus hit. “I worked in corporate America, so my career path was very different. I ended up being what my friends call a corporate refugee,” shares Ojinaga. “One day I just decided it wasn’t worth it. I ventured out and started tending bar. One thing led to another and I ended up with my own place.”
Ojinaga did more than that. His cozy and comfortable restaurant has now been a staple of SoMa for almost nine years, where tasty Mexican treats like ceviche, tacos and burritos are served. Azúcar also boasts an agave centric bar which serves tequila, pulque and mezcal.
But since the beginning of the pandemic, Ojinaga has had to adjust to a harsh new reality. “Our business has fallen off a cliff literally,” he says. He and his partner had to rethink their approach to being a neighborhood eatery. “I actually made the decision along with my partner to essentially shut down the entire operation shortly after they announced the shelter in place order. It definitely wasn’t worth having people come out and make tacos and margaritas and putting their health on the line. We decided to wait it out until more information was known.”
An anxious wait, as San Francisco was one of the American cities hit hardest by the virus. With stay at home orders just now easing, Ojinaga has begun the process of reopening his doors with appropriate safety measures in place.
“Things have changed a little bit. We decided to give staff the option if they wanted to come back at this time,” he says. As much needed work resumes, the restaurant still faces very real problems.
“We’ve been open now for about two weeks. It’s been up and down. Prior to all this it was easier to project how we would do. Now, it’s a lot harder. What’s been consistent is that business is a fraction of what it used to be.”
That fraction of business is also coming from the lounge’s most loyal patrons. Ojinaga estimates that “About ninety percent of people who are coming in are our super loyal followers. The other ten percent is random people walking around and seeing that we’re open and doing stuff. So, if they’re hungry or thirsty they come to us.”
Despite the struggle in these harsh new conditions, there remains a strong sense of community and nurturing through food, drink and company, with Azúcar Lounge at its center. “Here in SoMa we’re a small neighborhood, so we all know each other and talk really regularly.” Ojinaga says of his fellow local business owners and restaurateurs. “But not just that, there’s now more outreach and people willing to help across the city. A lot of bar and restaurant owners have linked up to help each other in a way that might not have necessarily happened in the past. There are good things that have come from this.”
In this positive spirit, Ojinaga also shares his very personal story behind Azúcar Lounge, “From me coming onto the face of the earth, my grandfather had a bar and restaurant he would always talk about. Growing up, he had a little bar in his house and I remember sitting there and we would talk and he’d tell me stories.”
It was this close relationship with his grandfather which nurtured Ojinaga’s dreams and led him to leave his corporate job and take a chance on opening a restaurant. The product of this bold move is a charming cantina style spot that continues to welcome people looking for comfort food, mezcal and company in an uncertain world.
“I never expected to start a restaurant,” he admits. “I credit my grandfather with being the inspiration behind everything.”