Editor’s note: As of Sept. 29, 2023, Marlena has rebranded into a new concept, Foliage SF.
The wife-and-husband chef duo of Serena Chow Fisher and David Fisher opened Marlena on the Bernal Heights corner of Precita and Folsom in August 2020, roughly five months into the pandemic.
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Since then, they’ve had to pivot on a seemingly constant basis. These days, the two fine dining vets are offering a variety of options, from sandwiches to ice cream to family meal kits. (See the full list of offerings here; order by calling the restaurant at 415-400-5997, or go online.)
This week, we caught up with Serena Chow Fisher and touched on everything from pandemic adjustments to the future of the industry:
PL: What has been like to open a new restaurant during the pandemic? What was that decision process like?
SCF: When we took over the space, it was in March of 2020, and the full scope of what 2020 would be like was largely an unknown. We decided to continue forward with opening because it was the opportunity of a lifetime in a space that we both truly loved and connected with — if we didn’t take this chance, then surely someone else would! In some ways, opening mid-pandemic allowed us to adapt to regulation changes quickly and without any preconceived notion, as it was such an unprecedented time for everyone and there was nothing to compare to.
You’ve already had to pivot a few times in your first few weeks. What have you learned about takeout in particular?
One thing we learned is that you have to be strategic with your offerings. Most of the orders come in all at once, and for us at Marlena, it’s just the two of us doing it all; we’ve really had to streamline our menu choices to ensure that everything may be executed efficiently so diners could have the maximum experience. Integrating delivery platforms has been helpful for us to reach people in new neighborhoods, and also allow us serve previous diners who can no longer make the trip to come see us in person for pick-up.
I think the most important thing learned is that you have to really be flexible, willing to change, and just adapt as quickly as possible. The name of the game is survival.
Bernal Heights is such a closely knit community. What has your neighborhood been like, and what role has it played in your operations?
Bernal Heights has been absolutely amazing to us. Most of our takeout business comes from within the neighborhood, and Bernal is the backbone of what we have been doing during the shutdown and how we are staying afloat. With outdoor dining, our seating is so limited because of the number of tables that we can fit outside, but what’s been really rewarding with takeout is the ability to connect with more people now that we can serve a larger community base and we can personally spend more face-to-face time with our neighbors.
It’s really allowed us to gain a sense of what the community enjoys and what works and doesn’t work for them, giving us crucial information about what our future offerings will look like in a post-COVID world. When we eventually reopen for indoor and outdoor dining, we look forward to offering not only a tasting menu, but a well-curated list of à la carte options as well.
As someone who has worked in top restaurants on both coasts, what are your hopes for the industry after this pandemic? What changes do you hope to see as the industry rebuilds?
Our hope for this industry is more camaraderie and more collaboration between restaurants and the creatives within them as we all rebuild together. There has been so much change and so much uncertainty for all of our futures, and I feel like this time has really allowed chefs to explore their unique style of food and interests. COVID has shown that there is room for all of us, and our hope is that we continue to support and uplift each other long after this is over.
What would you like diners to know about Marlena, or even restaurants in general, right now?
We’d like diners to understand what an unprecedented time it is for restaurants right now. Nothing is guaranteed in any restaurant’s future, and constantly pivoting our business plan and offerings is incredibly difficult. There are so many different pieces and people that make your favorite restaurants successful, and the most helpful thing to do is just be kind to the people who are trying to make takeout dining work.
What’s the best way to support Marlena?
The best way to support all restaurants is to continue to order. This pandemic has hit us all hard, so if you don’t have the financial capacity to dine out, that’s OK too! Share your favorite restaurants on your social media and help spread the word of what they are doing because exposure is a great assistance to us as well.