SF Bay Area's High Cost Of Living Squeezes Restaurant Workers, Chefs And Owners The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its love of fine food. It's also increasingly becoming known as an area where it's almost impossible to live on a service-industry wage.

Bay Area's High Cost Of Living Squeezes Restaurant Workers, Chefs And Owners

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To another story from San Francisco, where there are more Michelin three-star restaurants than anywhere else in the U.S. But the Bay Area has become a notoriously difficult place for the food industry. All sorts of restaurants are closing their doors. One reason they're struggling - the cost of housing. It has soared, and restaurant workers say they can't afford to live in the area. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Every morning, Armando Ibarra wakes up in the back of his van. He's been living here in his car for the last couple of years.

ARMANDO IBARRA: I wake up in the morning - 5:00 in the morning.

GARSD: On the dashboard rests a holy candle. A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror. Ibarra parks a few blocks from his job. He works at a chain hotel, so at least he can wash up there.

IBARRA: I take a shower, I drink my coffee, I smoke a cigarette, and I'm ready to work.

GARSD: The hotel is located near the San Francisco airport. Ibarra is a food runner at one of its restaurants. He makes around $15 an hour. He used to commute from neighboring San Jose, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. He paid $800 a month for a room but just slept there. When traffic was bad, the drive back from work could take as much as three hours.

IBARRA: You would go bumper-to-bumper, bumper-to-bumper. Sometimes you get crazy, like when is this going to be over? When?

GARSD: Ibarra considered renting near work, but he couldn't afford it. He figured he was already spending as much as four hours a day in the car, might as well just sleep there.

Over the last decade, as the tech industry expanded, rent has skyrocketed, and people who don't work at high-paying Google or Facebook jobs are finding it increasingly hard to live here or even commute.

It's affected the restaurant business. Just last year, several high-profile eateries shut down. One owner told me in this area, even the chefs...

ALLISON HOPELAIN: They also can't afford to live, even on $18 to $20 an hour here anymore, so they eventually move, become private chefs, go work at Google. And it sort of just leaves you, like, constantly behind.

GARSD: That's Allison Hopelain. Her restaurant, Camino, was known for its wood-fire-cooked food. After a decade, she closed last year. She says they took a major hit when the chef moved away to Washington state.

HOPELAIN: Because he couldn't afford to live here, felt like he would have better opportunities there in terms of opening his own place, buying a home.

GARSD: Hopelain went on to open The Kebabery in Oakland. It's a small cafeteria-style joint. You just pick your food and find a table. Several owners I speak to say the days of the affordable diner with a host and waiters - that's just over.

And some restaurants in the area are even turning to automation. Located in San Francisco, Creator offers burgers created by local celebrity chefs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So we have Masala Burger, one Recreator and one Tumami Burger. All right, anything else for you?

GARSD: The thing is the burgers aren't made by a human. This right here is the sound of a giant robot slicing the brioche bun, grating cheese, cutting tomatoes for a $6 burger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

GARSD: It could be straight out of "The Jetsons" or Pee-wee Herman's kitchen. Founder Alex Vardakostas says the robot can flip burgers better and for cheaper.

ALEX VARDAKOSTAS: The only way you can make a burger of this kind of quality at that price is using a device that's going to grind meat to order. It's going to slice a tomato to order, slice the bun to order.

GARSD: Here at the hotel where Armando Ibarra works, a burger is about $20.

IBARRA: You know, even when I get a discount, that's too much.

GARSD: He can't really afford a meal at the place he works. He says he usually just goes to Burger King, Taco Bell or stops by the gas station before going home. The problem is, for people like him in the Bay Area, going back home keeps getting harder and harder to do. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "EKKI HUGSA")

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