Pivoting: from free tour to cooking business

A month ago I was making estimates for my company’s budget for the 2020 summer period. Calculating how many tours we’ll be doing, how many tour guides we need… we were even planning a tour guide exchange program to happen where you could meet amazing people, and introduce them to the beauties of your city!

In a matter of 24 hours, the world went upside down in front of my eyes.

On March 16th President Donald Trump released national guidelines to control the coronavirus, and in less than 24 hours San Francisco was one of the first cities in the US to declare “shelter in place.” Meaning, you have to stay in your home, and you are allowed to go out only for essential needs like food or medicine. “We should all practice social distance,” they said. I’ve never heard of that phrase before. I was at Union Square at that time listening live to our Mayor London Breed giving the orders. While listening, I started having flashbacks from the past four years going to Union Square and doing the Free SF Tour. Meeting people from all over the world every day! Smiling faces full of life ready to go with me on a journey through the streets of Maiden Lane, the small alleyways of Chinatown, taste freshly made fortune cookies, laugh, explore the hidden gardens in the Financial District… Now, I can’t do my tour anymore, and it was for a good reason. I had to accept the fact that the Free SF Tour I created is shut down during Shelter In Place.

Our organization is small. We are only three people actively working. Two of us are tour guides and another friend of ours is managing everything else online from a distance. My friend Jose and I are the two tour guides living in San Francisco. As you all know, the rents here are enormously high. Meaning with the opportunities provided to me, even if I get a loan from the bank, I still can’t survive for more than a couple of months. We are now both jobless. So we started going back to setting up our priorities. What is most important in our life? Health!

So the question is: How to stay healthy, practice social distance and make money to pay the rent?

Every time you come to these obstacles on the path to your dreams you have to turn back to learning. You have to accept the facts you are facing, see the resources you have, and learn what’s needed to continue making ends meet. You need not be afraid that it may get muddy on the way, and you have to get your ass out of that comfort zone and work!

About a year and a half ago I met Jose on one of my tours. We immediately became friends. He joined the training, and a month later he was doing tours in the city! Last year his tour was announced as the best Spanish Free Tour in USA and second-best on the continent by freetour.com — a platform, containing free walking tours from all over the world. One day, Jose and I are walking on the 19th-floor rooftop garden where I was living at that time. The building is incredibly big! There are two wings and they are building another part that is like one third more of what they already have! One wing is 800 apartments! Jose was telling me he’s a chef in a restaurant and before becoming a tour guide he has a 10-year experience cooking in restaurants, events, ship cruises and even for private people as a personal chef.

So, an idea came out!

How about cooking in our apartment where I live for the people living in the building! I was living in a converted living room in a 2bd/1b apartment in San Francisco! Yikes! But that wasn’t the problem. I even convinced my roommates how great this idea was, and they decided they wanna join in! The only problem was we were all busy in the mornings. My roommates had a job and school and Jose and I had tours every morning. It was the same time as we had to be cooking. The tours were already going well and I didn’t want to stop doing that. Now, with the coronavirus, things change. We don’t have any tours, but Jose and I are in the same apartment now, in a big community, and we just got this new apartment on the 29th floor in the main center of the city with an amazing 270-degree view of San Francisco Bay Area! Living with my best friends in the city I love the most…now that’s my dream!

We really don’t want to lose what we have, and decided to go for it!

We decided to implement the idea we had come up with before, and create a meal plan system for the building we live in right now. We adapted it to the capacity of our kitchen. Jose made a schedule with two meals per day (vegetarian and nonvegetarian) starting from Monday to Friday, and we put a delivery time window for them to order. We need two people for the job. A runner and a cook. Jose is the cook, so he will be in the kitchen cooking all day. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, he mustn’t leave the apartment. As for me, I don’t go in the kitchen. My job is “the runner;” everything that needs to be bought from the market has to be done by me. Every time I go out I leave the apartment with different clothes than the ones I’m wearing inside. I have to immediately pass through the restroom and wash my hands singing “Happy Birthday Oprah” two times. Jose made the menu of the week, wrote a wholehearted letter for our neighbors explaining our situation, and we put the letters out at their front doors.

In the first three hours of having the letters out, we got 29 orders! Some of our neighbors just replied on Venmo leaving us tips and saying, “Thank you for doing this.” Others were asking us if they can tell their colleagues! We were mindblown from the responses we got! The next day we woke up early in the morning and started cooking for our neighbors! Jose was in the kitchen cooking, and I would deliver the food at their doorstep, and gently knock at the door. I go back six feet, and when they come out we say, “Hello” with a smile to each other from a distance. We then accept their payment on Venmo. In times with coronavirus roaming, this makes a lot more people stay home, not go out to pick up food and expose themselves. They don’t even have to catch the elevator, but just open the door, and your food is there; cooked by your neighbor minutes ago.

Is it legal?

Yes! We spent some time researching and discovered that this idea, with as many layers as it has, is, in fact, legal in the state of California! So we continued onward!

It’s a great feeling knowing that what we are doing also helps other people in our community.

While living in San Francisco I noticed that these people, despite the hardships we are all going through, still hold on to each other. We open the door for each other, even tell jokes in the elevator to strangers. We know we are all in this together, and we are very lucky to be here at this time.

I hope you are all healthy and safe wherever you are right now.

By: Free SF Tour

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