After discovering an available location in the Richmond District upon Katia’s Russian Tea Room closing, Helen and Melvin Simmons renovated the space within 60 days and officially introduced Tastebuds to the neighborhood in 2018.
“I mean, it’s an intimate space. So we have always kind of thought of our places like casual dining, for sure, but somewhere where you just feel comfortable [and] can start your day…” said Helen Simmons.
“And that’s kind of what I would describe it as…just a great place to start your day with a really well rounded and home-cooked meal on your belly,” said Helen.
The menu proudly embraces Melvin’s ties to Louisiana—where his mother is from—drawing inspiration from the Soul Food she cooked during his childhood. Chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, plus red beans and rice all grace the menu. And breakfast burritos and burgers make appearances.
Other signature breakfast items stand out too. The Hangover Helper throws a little bit of everything onto your plate without turning it into an omelet or salad – chorizo sits alongside roasted potatoes, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and green onions. The Southern Comfort mixes collard greens with smoked turkey, grits, a sunny side up egg, and toast.
“You can also walk down and have a night with a really great sandwich at the end of a long day or running errands. You really want that comfort food.”
Tastebuds always thrived off the family-friendly environment it worked hard to create. However, when COVID-19 hit San Francisco, the restaurant was forced to make significant changes, starting with their hours.
“Now we’re operating five hours a day. So nine [9:00 a.m.] to close [2:00 p.m.], seven days a week. That is such a big change for us,” said Helen.
Tastebuds is usually open 12 hours a day. Since receiving fewer orders just before San Francisco’s shelter in place order went into effect, the restaurant dropped the majority of its hours. In theory, this should pressure Tastebuds to capitalize on the relatively little amount of time they now have to work with. But things have been the opposite.
“So in some ways we found comfort in kind of not having the stress of 12 hours a day.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Tastebuds has reinvented itself as a business. The cafe expanded its delivery services to customers throughout the Bay Area. Then it forged a partnership with Smokin Woods, an Oakland-based barbecue joint.
New pop-up experiences featuring Smokin Woods products for three nights a week help Tastebuds expand its offerings while feeding its delivery customers. And the outdoor experience complies with CDC-recommended guidelines.
Success from these initiatives is prompting Simmons to consider returning to regular hours. She has rehired most employees that were let go in March. Now, she still yearns to bring back other staff she was forced to let go of. For her, this is essential to keeping the family environment intact. And she believes its key to navigating the rest of the pandemic.
“I feel like we’re all kind of in this boat together,” said Helen.
“That’s how we’ve always thought of our restaurants. So it’s good to know that we are continuing to not only support our families but our employees, and all their families too.”