By Susana Guerrero

Aug. 2–For more coverage, visit our complete coronavirus section here.

On a recent evening in San Francisco, a group of seven gathered outside Italian restaurant Il Pollaio on Columbus Avenue where 25 takeout meals awaited them. The bags were divvied up among the group as they began their delivery shift on behalf of the North Beach restaurant.

The fleet forms volunteer-based North Beach Delivers, a free delivery program that supports North Beach restaurants and helps them retain sales to thrive throughout the pandemic. Since its inception in late April, the team of volunteers helped generate nearly $50,000 to date.

“The restaurants are thrilled,” said Danny Sauter, president of North Beach Neighbors, the neighborhood organization that launched North Beach Delivers. “I think they enjoy the energy of [being] really busy for a night. It takes their mind off of things, and puts them back in their mode of being a chef and cooking good food for people.”

Sauter, who is also a candidate for District 3 supervisor, said he’s delivered meals each Thursday from a variety of restaurants in the neighborhood. Some nights, Sauter and the team can distribute up to 50 orders within a two-hour period.

North Beach Delivers began taking shape at the end of March, shortly after the shutdown. Sauter said that as restaurants began to feel the financial impact of shelter in place, North Beach Neighbors wanted to find a way to help businesses survive the pandemic.

The two big problems they reflected on was the amount of revenue being lost to third-party delivery apps and the glaring dip of weekly customers. To help diminish lost revenue, North Beach Delivers was formed and featured its first restaurant, Piazza Pellegrini.

“We started on a whim as a test [and] didn’t know how it would go,” Sauter said. “It’s kind of just grown week by week.”

Since the program started, a single neighborhood restaurant is featured per week and promoted by newsletter and on Instagram. Locals who sign up for the newsletter can see the featured menu and place their orders between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening. Meals get delivered each Thursday between 5 and 8 p.m.

Customers have also been generous when it comes to tips, Sauter said, and often tip upward of 40% — all of which go directly to the featured business.

“We were at a restaurant last week that told us it felt like things are normal for the first time in a couple of months because the kitchen was so busy.”

The group of volunteers is a mix of North Beach Neighbors members and North Beach residents who wanted to pitch in either by foot, e-bike or by driving. In the past few months, the team has helped deliver takeout for Sotto Mare, Family Cafe and even Michelin-starred restaurant, Mister Jiu’s.

Sauter said that the success of North Beach Delivers has also inspired other San Francisco neighborhoods to adopt the same model. So far, it’s included Russian Hill, the East Cut, and Middle Polk.

“Our first expansion was with Russian Hill Neighbors a few months ago,” Sauter said. “We kind of [showed] them the ropes for the first couple of weeks and shared what we had learned. Now they’re running it completely by themselves and they’re doing Wednesday night deliveries in Russian Hill.”

Sauter hopes that more San Francisco neighborhood groups and community benefit districts adopt the program, especially if they’re committed to helping neighborhood restaurants.

“I don’t know any neighborhood where it wouldn’t work right now, and that’s what’s so exciting about this. It just can keep growing,” Sauter said.

By the end of the delivery shift, most restaurants treat the volunteers to a free meal as a sign of gratitude.

During the past few months, the volunteers have been able to witness how a meal begins from start to finish. That’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of the volunteer gig for Sauter, who said he enjoys seeing the journey.

“[We] actually see who’s getting a meal, and sometimes it’s a family or sometimes it’s a senior who orders from us each week,” Sauter said. “We get to see that entire journey and see how important it is to support neighborhood restaurants. It’s a very tangible, visceral way to experience that.”

If you want to help North Beach Delivers by volunteering for the program, shoot them an email here.

Susana Guerrero is an SFGATE digital reporter. Email: Susana.Guerrero@sfgate.com — Twitter: @SusyGuerrero3

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