Because of COVID-19; restaurants are struggling to survive, customers are staying at home, and employees are being furloughed. Keeping the lights on in San Francisco’s most beloved establishments is a fiercely fought battle that doesn’t guarantee any winners.
But one SF restaurant owner is setting an example that other local restaurateurs might want to follow.
“I was talking to one of our regular customers about how horrible I felt for our employees,” said Douglas Mathieux, owner of Rigolo Café. “That same day, I launched the GoFundMe page to raise money for the employees who are either laid off or had their hours cut.”
The staff Mathieux tirelessly developed for years at Rigolo Café felt like a family. So once it became clear that his close-knit team would never be the same because of COVID-19, he started a GoFundMe page and raised over $17,000. By April 2, Mathieux distributed $5,000 to former and current staff members, close to 50% of funds raised at the time.
For some, it was a gracious farewell. And for others, it was perfectly timed heroism. The charitable effort not only helps Rigolo Café survive the pandemic financially, but it highlights the power of the restaurant culture Mathieux champions.
Even after the GoFundMe’s massive success, Mathieux wasn’t finished taking care of his team. The Rigolo Café then donated meals to the Kaiser ER, UCSF Health, and Mount Zion, helping leave all three hospitals in better shape.
“The hospitals are actually not really overwhelmed anymore,” said Mathieux. “So now we started doing work with identifying families in need because it’s always been kind of our niche.”
Claiming family dining as a niche isn’t easy. Despite being a city loaded with award-winning dining options, some foodies believe San Francisco is still scarce in family-friendly dining options. From their point of view, restaurants may not give kids the freedom to roam and play. They are expected to act like adults, and thus quality meals become compromised by temper tantrums.
“So we don’t have a lot of places… or any places really, except for maybe McDonald’s that have a little kids area,” said Mathieux.
Rigolo’s debunks the ancient theory that high-quality dining and children cannot coexist. Books, toys, and games grace the kids’ play area as adults sample wines. The extra space is so accommodating that it even hosts kids’ birthday parties famous for homemade pizza and Mitchell’s Ice Cream. On Mondays, kids eat free after 4 PM with the purchase of an adult entrée.
“And so we became known as the most family-friendly restaurant in San Francisco.”
To the critics, being kid-friendly might seem tacky and damaging to a restaurant’s credibility. Yet Rigolo’s cuisine is good enough to hold its own, drawing inspiration from Mathieux’s upbringing in France and embracing American dinnertime classics. Croques and tartines populate Rigolo’s dinner tables and provide feelings of warmth and comfort without breaking the bank. Plus, a wide selection of burgers and pizzas — including the Black Bean Veggie Burger, La Castellana Pizza, and La Regina Pizza — offers customers something familiar to eat without leaving them underwhelmed.
Knowing that fears of Coronavirus can limit in-store visits, Mathieux recently upgraded Rigolo’s customer experience to suit quarantines. Online ordering and delivery are now available and pizza will play a big role in connecting with more customers.
“When you think of takeout, generally you think of pizza, you think of Chinese food, you think of maybe burritos. You don’t really think of [a] French cafe,” said Mathieux.
The challenge of becoming noticed as more than a sit-down restaurant can be overwhelming. Rigolo’s prides itself on a distinct atmosphere that’s incredibly difficult to recreate, and popular in-store items like burgers can’t benefit from long delivery times.
So in a bold, albeit necessary move, Rigolo’s is also rolling out its new Pizza Angels program, offering a buy one, get one free deal available on all store pies. Mathieux’s decision to heavily promote his most deliverable product might take the pressure off living up to the full in-house dining experience.
Regardless, the free pizza isn’t just about fulfilling consumer demand — it’s about saving a community one donation at a time.
“We’re going to have an option where instead of taking your second pizza, it can be donated,” said Mathieux.
“It’s people trying to come together and find solutions to help each other and support each other and it’s been really heartwarming to see the things that are going on.”