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COVID Reopening: SF Restaurant Facing Mountain Of Debt, Forced To Adapt, Simplify Menu

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- San Francisco may be fully reopened but a lot of restaurants are still operating at a loss. Many owners are cautiously optimistic they can steadily pay off mounting debt, as demand picks up and more staff positions are filled.

Chef and owner Dennis Lee never planned on serving specialty sourdough pizzas in the former space of Namu Stonepot on Divisadero Street. He closed his Korean restaurant last month, in favor of something more approachable and affordable for guests.

The location came back to life as Sunset Squares Slice Shop, last Friday.

"And even though we started to open up it's still a lot of - we feel a lot of stress coming from not only consumers, but the people who we hire, and the people who have worked for us thus far, so we tried to simplify it a little bit," said Lee.

Lee started experimenting with the square shaped sourdough pizzas during the pandemic. It became a social media hit. But he says opening weekend over the July 4th holiday was slow. Like many restaurants, debts loom overhead.

"We're looking at a lot of debt - an astronomical amount of debt," said Lee. "It's kind of a lot of uncertainty and even the anxiety around COVID and variants is just adding to the general stress for the public."

The non-profit SF New Deal found in a survey that 60% of restaurants are currently in debt, compared with 34% pre-pandemic. On average, the debt has nearly doubled to about $115,000.

Lee says his landlords at various operations are working with him, and in most cases, he owes back rent.

"Restaurant people are very resilient people, they're very optimistic, they're very entrepreneurial, so I think people are just doing their best to stick it out," added Lee.

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