Launching New Biz in Tough ‘Hood: Is It Government’s Job?

Eskender Aseged of Radio Africa & Kitchen

What’s Government For? That’s the subtext to KQED’s election coverage this year.The question seems to be cropping up everywhere — from the Tea Party’s tax revolt to Occupy Wall Street rallying for the 99 percent. What do we want? What are we willing to pay for? When do we want government to butt out?

They’re questions that can crop up in the most unlikely of places… such as a radio story about an Ethiopian chef’s new restaurant in San Francisco’s Bayview District. Reporter Rachael Myrow describes the way the city of San Francisco helped Chef Eskender Aseged shift from hosting “pop up” food events to opening the doors of his own place, Radio Africa and Kitchen.

Among the funding sources the city used, were redevelopment funds… making this project perhaps the last of its kind, since Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature last year ended California’s redevelopment agencies in order to use those funds for other local government needs.

Do you agree with city consultant Andrea Baker, who Myrow quotes below, that cultivating small businesses like Radio Africa and Kitchen is precisely what government is for?

As I explained in a report for KQED News, Aseged couldn’t afford to launch a brick and mortar restaurant on his own, but he could put down about 35 grand. The city, through a variety of agencies, brought roughly $710,000 to the table and built the restaurant from scratch. It’s a street-level commercial anchor to a new condo complex .

Two months in, Aseged is still in a state of shock over his good fortune. This is a man used to making dinner for about 100 people off of two hot plates.

“We have 12 burners, a grill, griddle, salamander, two ovens. It’s kind of like, overkill over here,” he says.

Aseged is expected to source some of his labor locally. The restaurant is serving dinner now, but soon it will open for lunch, featuring a new crop of young line cooks. They’re being trained nearby at the non-profit Old Skool Café, which works with troubled youth.

Even though the five-year-old Muni T has made this stretch of Third easily accessible, the street intimidates pedestrians, much like Geary and mid-Market do.

“It doesn’t feel walkable,” says Andrea Baker, a consultant for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “And therein lies the difficulty. Because small businesses tend to rely on foot traffic.”

While sipping a large cappuccino from the Road House Coffee Company at Third and Thomas, Baker says the city might help launch a bakery next – or something Indian. (These days, there are more Asian Americans in Bayview than African Americans.)

“Why is it government’s job? Why isn’t it, I would say!” She laughs. “In our system, people pay taxes in the hope that if we all put a little something into it we can create big things.”

Read more about Radio Africa and Kitchen and the Bayview’s foodie rebirth on KQED’s News Fix blog.