Built on community: The restaurant that gave NOPA its name

Each day on my commute to school, I travel down Divisadero Street through the North of the Panhandle neighborhood, or NoPa for short. NoPa stands out to me as one of the most enjoyable yet overlooked neighborhoods in San Francisco. From small chic coffee shops like Sightglass and The Mill to comic book and board game stores, NoPa holds a special place in my heart as a neighborhood synonymous with the childlike simplicity of life, evoked by time spent exploring the neighborhood with middle school friends.
​At the center of this community is a restaurant that has grown to be an integral part of the community — the very restaurant that popularized the neighborhood’s abbreviated name. Nopa specializes in American and Californian food with an emphasis on sustainable and local ingredients.
On my first visit to Nopa, I was almost overwhelmed by the scale of operations. Nopa employs a small army — 78 full-time workers — to take on the delicate task of balancing around 400 customers a night while still managing to provide an intimate dining experience. To owner and chef Laurence Jossel, it is the focus on community that sets his restaurant apart.
“We really take the neighborhood seriously — the neighborhood is [our] bread and butter,” said Jossel.
Nopa extends this focus on community to their selection of ingredients.
“[Nopa] trie[s] their best to get products from local farms,” said Lucia Ferris ‘24, who worked as a hostess at the restaurant during the summer.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on a tasting where Jossel and other chefs spent time selecting their favorite local ingredients. We were presented with two different cuts of New York Strip to taste and compare. Jossel pointed to the left cut of meat. When I asked why he had chosen that steak Jossel said he appreciated the flavor and that it was from a local ranch in Tomales Bay, California.
“It is a very intimate act to feed someone. [When] you wake up tomorrow morning after eating at this restaurant my goal is for you to feel great,” Jossel said. He appreciates this intimacy and the role he has to provide quality food for the neighborhood. “I feel a responsibility to the neighborhood… they’ve supported me for so long.”
Nopa has always focused on adapting and responding as the North Panhandle and the greater San Francisco area have changed. Jossel has seen his restaurant evolve through the years, along with the neighborhood and greater industry that surrounds it. At its founding in 2006, the restaurant industry was flourishing.
“There were tons of cooks and servers and bartenders around,” said Jossel. With that opportunity came lots of hard work. Jossel spent much of the early years of Nopa in the kitchen. “I worked from nine [in the morning] to four in the morning for 365 days.”
Jossel attributes Nopa’s long-term success to this hard work. “We put our heads down and worked really hard for a really long time — luck and hard work are the answers [to our success],” he said. Nopa is a prime example of a great success story in a harsh industry where businesses rarely live past their early years. According to the National Restaurant Association, around 30 percent of all restaurants fail in the first year. While San Francisco has historically been very welcoming to the restaurant industry, it has become harder in recent years to keep even the most successful restaurants open. In 2021, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association reported 268 new restaurants opened and a shocking 546 closed.
Nopa has managed to outlive many of the changes that caused other restaurants to struggle and fail. Its success cemented the restaurant as a cornerstone of the neighborhood, but the work has never been easy, and the restaurant is forced to constantly adapt.
As Silicon Valley’s tech industry began to flourish, Nopa felt the weight. Many workers began to leave the restaurant industry in favor of more lenient and relaxing jobs, and higher housing costs forced many workers in the service industry out of San Francisco.
“It’s an easier life, working Monday through Friday, nine to five. [But because of the tech boom] the talent pool really shrunk,” Jossel said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic came even greater changes and difficulties. Staff retention became even more challenging and Nopa had to shift towards providing takeout with limited in-person dining. The restaurant went from employing around 90 people to just nine. With Nopa struggling to survive, Jossel’s partner, Holly Rhoades, stepped in to help.
“I was working somewhere completely different. I had never worked in hospitality before. [But I decided Nopa] is too important of a restaurant for San Francisco to just let it fail, so I threw myself into helping,” said Rhoades. Rhoades currently works as Nopa’s front-of-house manager, though she refers to herself more aptly as the chief miscellaneous officer.
Now that San Francisco has removed COVID-19 restrictions, Nopa has fully returned to in-person dining, but the effects of the pandemic can still be felt.
“Nopa has been around for 17 years, but it is almost like we have completely reopened,” said Truce Hansen, another front-of-house manager. Among the many problems, Hansen explained that it was difficult for Nopa to provide the same service the community had come to appreciate. Hansen believes it was hard to maintain the comfort and familiarity that regulars recognized from Nopa. “For a restaurant that has been around so long, people have expectations. We have to bear the weight of [Nopa’s reputation] in the face of broader changes.”
When I asked what drives both Jossel and Hansen to continue working in such a demanding field, they both gave me the same answer. Beyond the preparation of food and the logistics of running a restaurant, they both agreed that the interactions with people, both customers and workers, is the most rewarding aspect of the job.
“I live for moments where I get to make someone’s day,” Hansen said.
Despite challenges and setbacks presented by a pandemic, high prices and labor shortages Jossel said he loves what he does. “I think this is a great business. This is something I have done for 40 years and don’t regret it.”