“At different times in my life, something has happened where…circumstances…force you to kind of go back to the garage,” said Gil Payne, co-owner of Nombe.
“Just like how HP was basically started in a garage in Palo Alto and became an absurdly gigantic company. Now in a sense, they’ve had to go back to the garage and figure out what they’re doing.”
Ever since first foraying into the San Francisco food scene, Gil Payne has experienced “garage” moments that always served a fresh slice of humble pie. Whether Payne’s music career plateaued or his first restaurant sold, these events usually came right after great things disappeared too soon. They often sparked a drastic change to temporary circumstances, and they changed his life forever.
After Payne and his wife Mari Takahashi closed the restaurant location for Nombe—a Japanese eatery in the Mission District—in 2014, they pushed the reset button to their culinary dreams. Payne and Takahashi reimagined what their business should look like.
While rents increased around the city, the couple transformed Nombe into a full-fledged food company, reducing overhead costs and turning the concept into a dynamic, yet down-to-earth local brand. Cooking classes, team-building, private events, and catering all change the ways classic menu items like sushi, sashimi, raw, cru, and ramen burgers are enjoyed.
However, once COVID-19 spread to San Francisco, the pandemic interrupted Nombe’s array of customer experiences. Payne and Takahashi quit offering cooking classes and team-building events to help flatten the curve. Private events that Nombe was scheduled to attend—like weddings and holiday parties—started rebooking or calling off plans. And five nearby live music festivals expected to host Nombe as a vendor, including Outside Lands, all canceled.
“Even if I wanted to do something, there wasn’t much that I could do. I know other restaurants that were actually active…full-service restaurants and stuff,” said Payne.
“Some of them pivoted and started doing all takeout. April, you started to see people really pushing their takeout operations and stuff.”
Nombe’s location is not designed to be consumer-facing in the same ways other restaurants are. With its industrial setting, the establishment could be at a disadvantage when marketing on third-party platforms like Uber Eats and Grubhub.
This is a problem because delivery emerged as a backup revenue stream for restaurants to rely on during the pandemic. So in a brilliant response, Nombe has covered lost ground in this area by rolling out ramen bento kits. Customers get a chance to enjoy restaurant-caliber food at home. And Nombe found another way to keep business afloat.
Things finally felt like they were returning back to normal for everyone, including Payne and Takahashi. But as racial tensions escalated from the early days of summer on, Payne temporarily put operations to a halt as he was reminded of the racism he had faced in the restaurant industry.
“I’m an African American owner, co-owner of a restaurant from another cultural tradition,” said Payne.
“And yet still when we had a particular chef…at the beginning that was beloved by the restaurant critics inside, it didn’t seem to be as much of an issue that our chef was Caucasian.”
Payne’s experiences point to an inherent problem within the industry – non-Black people refuse to accept Black folks as food generalists.
So often, white people are welcomed to foray into cuisines outside of their culture. Yet when Black people do the same, they become victims of vile, racist behavior attempting to box them into one category.
Despite these systemic challenges, Payne and Takahashi persist, leading Nombe through the rest of a murky year. Their company just catered for fans attending virtual renditions of previously scheduled festivals like Outside Lands. Plus, they recently brought back cooking classes.
Nevertheless, a part of Payne still feels like he’s back in the garage.
“[Like] when I’m sitting there, individually packing each item and things, putting 500 meals into little boxes and bags. I’m up at night printing labels, doing all this stuff from my catering 17 years ago,” said Payne.
“But I’m dang glad to be doing it.”