“This is really cute,” a passing pedestrian remarked to her friends an hour before The Yard opened for business. It was days before the San Francisco Giants’ home opener April 7 against the LA Dodgers, and AT&T Park had yet to fill with the cheers of excited fans. Across the street at The Yard, vendors Belcampo Meat Co., Anchor Brewing Co. and Creperie Saint-Germain were using this calm before the storm as time to make final preparations for the busy baseball season ahead.
The Giants created The Yard in March 2015 in part as a campaign tool for the larger Mission Rock Development Project, which passed the November ballot with 74 percent of the vote. Over the next few years, the city will build 1,500 new rental units, 8 acres of park space and renovate the historic Pier 48. In the meantime, The Yard’s shipping-container complex will serve as a test kitchen of sorts for potential neighborhood foodservice concepts. While Anchor Brewing has been in its space since The Yard’s inception, new concession tenants Belcampo and CSG held their grand openings March 25 of this year.
Though The Yard is associated with the baseball team, its foodservice operations close only on Christmas and New Year’s Day, so cultivating year-round regulars is crucial to its success. Laura Nichol, coordinator for The Yard, and the rest of her Giants team hope locals and baseball fans will embrace the operation as something more than “really cute”—they want it to become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I spent a few hours behind the scenes with Nichol and The Yard’s foodservice operators to observe some prep and lunch-hour lessons in real time, and took back some lessons for FSDs looking to creatively expand their outdoor—or indoor—service.
My Uber driver pulls up outside The Yard. When I asked Nichol the previous week about whether I needed to show up early to check out the prep process, she told me it comes down to pretty much popping open the windows. She wasn’t kidding. Zee Aynaci, head of potatoes (aka owner-operator) at Creperie Saint-Germain, will later tell me that most of her prep work is done at an off-site kitchen, and CSG’s windows currently are tightly shuttered.
I meet up with Nichol in her second-floor shipping-container office to begin our tour of The Yard’s grounds. (How do you add a window to a shipping container? Just knock out an entire side wall.) As we walk, she fills me in on some interesting Yard tidbits:
- While Peet’s Coffee & Tea held down a retail spot there last year, The Yard is putting out feelers for a new coffee vendor. It’s a natural fit, Nichol says, given the proximity to numerous tech companies.
- The previous tenant in Belcampo’s two-container space used runners to distribute orders, but so far the burger-and-dog joint has found success using a pager system.
- To help attract neighbors and folks who don’t enjoy sports, The Yard shuts down the adjacent Terry A. Francois Boulevard throughout the year for farmers markets, craft fairs and movie nights, while keeping its foodservice vendors open. Though “Jaws” was the only movie featured last year, Nichol says The Yard hopes to host four films on a massive inflatable screen this year.
I pop behind the counter at Belcampo as cooks prep avocados, red onions and bacon for the day. Rendering the house-raised and -cured bacon ahead of service is especially important, Bronwen Sterling, Belcampo’s director of retail, tells me—the process can take 25 minutes because of its high fat content. Later that day, BLTs will be flash-cooked to order.
With two whole shipping containers to itself, Belcampo’s storage space is much larger than at its other locations, Sterling tells me. And while not much retrofitting was done after the previous tenant vacated, the two flat-top grills and service counters make it an ideal storefront. “The one downside is a tiny prep space,” she says.
The windows are open at CSG, so I stick my head in to observe prep. “Are you from the health department?” the cook asks. Because CSG’s trailer is so small, it lacks the space for an ice maker, so he heads over to Belcampo’s space to pick some up.
The Yard opens for business.
The first customer rolls up to Belcampo’s ordering window.
The Giants’ home opener isn’t until Thursday, and they’re playing an away game at the Milwaukee Brewers today. Glare-proof TVs attached to Anchor Brewing Co.’s shipping container are turned to the game, and customers begin to line the patio’s picnic tables to enjoy some baseball with their burgers and beer.
So how does The Yard keep non-customers from using its outdoor bathrooms? With keypads on each individual stall door; customers have to get the passcode from the concession stands. The coded locks were added last month as the result of some trial and error, Nichol later tells me. “Literally everyone who parks here on game day was using them,” she says. “We were dumping those things a lot.”
A Belcampo employee comes dashing out to two women seated under an umbrella to deliver a hot dog. “I’m so sorry; someone took [your order]!” he says. “I brought you some fries too as an apology.”
“Free fries!” they cheer in unison.
It’s 65 degrees in San Francisco with not a cloud in the sky. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the temperature with wind chill is 22 degrees, and the TV cameras keep flashing to snow blasting outside the windows of Miller Park. This does not bode well for my return to Chicago the next day.
The first dog of the day, a massive tan Husky, arrives with his humans. Nichol tells me very few foodservice patios in San Francisco are large enough to accommodate dogs, so The Yard has quickly made a lot of furry friends.
Nichol and I sit down for a lunch of Belcampo burgers and a tasting of Anchor brews to chat about some lessons from The Yard’s first year of operation. Among them:
- The fence encircling the property was changed from one that resembled “a prison yard” to a lattice and white-picket version. Turf was added to the courtyard to soften the concrete space.
- The Yard still is seeking sponsorships for its movie series. “We don’t necessarily have the deepest pockets,” Nichol says.
- Marketing to tech companies has been important. “Even though a lot of [them] have catered lunch, they want to be able to get out,” she says. “Before we were here, this was a food Siberia. All those people who want to leave their offices are so grateful to have us here, not only for food but for stuff to do.” Initiatives have included a brewers meet-and-greet in the beer garden, firkin Fridays at Anchor and a beer shuttle touring the city‘s neighborhoods.
- Operators tested the use of a tent over the beer garden during the winter to protect against inclement weather, which Nichol says worked pretty well.
Lunchtime is wrapping up—and fewer than two dozen diners occupy the courtyard’s picnic tables. “This is pretty slow for a Monday,” Nichol tells me. But with opening day just around the corner, that certainly won’t last.