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Legendary Toy Boat Ice Cream Shop Gets A Pandemic Rescue

Amanda Michael is founder and owner of San Francisco’s Jane the Bakery, which opened in 2011. Born and raised in the Bay Area, she grew up going to the iconic ice cream shop Toy Boat in the Inner Richmond neighborhood. When Michael heard that Toy Boat was closing due to the pandemic, she bought the space and created Toy Boat by Jane.

I grew up in the Bay Area, and Toy Boat opened when I was in high school. My friends and I just loved to come here—it was always our high school hangout because there were so few places as a kid where people would let you go hang out at night. Even when I was at University of California at Berkeley, it was still a place we would go. I’ve watched the Bay Area change over the years, and the reality is that there are not that many places like Toy Boat in San Francisco anymore.

I didn’t go to pastry or culinary school—I actually got my start in kitchens because I worked my way through school. I started as a waitress, but I was terrible at it. I would always try to get myself a kitchen job, but back then as a woman it was relatively impossible to get a position on the line, and it seemed like the only place for me was pastry work. People also didn’t take pastry very seriously, but I was just so happy to be working, so I would do anything.

Later, after I got pregnant with my daughter, I had to take a step out of the kitchen, and I started teaching at a cooking school in the Bay Area. When I was ready to get back to work in 2010, I was pretty much unemployable because I had been out of the workforce for a while.

I had never really wanted to be a business owner, but I spoke with a friend about potential properties for a bakery. A week later she called and introduced me to the landlord for what would become Jane on Fillmore. Without a business plan or contract, we shook on it. I just wanted to make really good, hearty, ingredient-driven food.

After the coronavirus really set in, everybody in the restaurant industry was terrified and scrambling to figure out how to move forward and stay open. I really had no thoughts of expanding. The first few months of operating the Jane locations were really challenging. We had to lay off a lot of people, cut back on our hours, and we even closed the Fillmore location for a while. We went into survival mode.

I never thought in a million years that I would be in that position with my staff. It was heartbreaking. We were doing well and running a good business, and then all of a sudden the coronavirus hit, and it was like the rug had been pulled out from under us. But after a couple of months I decided to reopen the Fillmore space, and now we have actually rehired everybody back that we laid off.

Amanda Michael at Toy Boat by Jane. Photo: Courtesy Amanda Michael.

Toy Boat by Jane started in the same way Jane did, actually. One of my friends texted me an article about Toy Boat closing due to the coronavirus, like so many other San Francisco institutions. I was heartbroken about the news, given how much of a touchstone Toy Boat had been in my life. That same friend texted me later that night saying that I should think about stepping in. The thought started germinating—aside from the ice cream, Toy Boat and Jane’s menus aren’t that different.

We moved into Toy Boat in September, and it’s been really fun. I think people feel really positive about reopening. There’s something that feels really good about being additive to the world—not just closing, but actually hiring more people and expanding. My team has been excellent about stepping up and embracing a new challenge, especially during all of this.

Of course, there are still some challenges that come with opening a business, whether we’re in a pandemic or not. For instance, over the past few years the staffing situation has been hard. San Francisco has become so prohibitively expensive that it was just getting harder for people to live here. We really try to take care of our staff—we pay over minimum wage, we pay for health insurance, and have since the beginning.

The community and the neighborhood have been so supportive, and I was a little worried because Toy Boat was an iconic community space. When we were renovating Toy Boat, I’d find little notes stuck under the door saying “thank you for saving Toy Boat,” “we can’t wait ‘til you open,” “we’re so happy you’re here,” or “welcome to the neighborhood.” After years of going to Toy Boat, it’s been a different experience to be on the receiving end of the community’s love and appreciation.

This is the first time we—Jane the Bakery—have stepped into another person’s business, so we’re still trying to figure out how to maintain Toy Boat while infusing Jane’s personality into it. We’re treading lightly. We don’t want to change too much. I think the space looks pretty similar. Some things about Toy Boat have changed, and some have stayed the same. For the Toy Boat menu, we just went with my favorites, like banana bread, croissants, and I really like our gluten-free offerings.

For pastry, there’s always a few parameters. You want something chocolate, something fruit, an ice cream. You can’t have four things with chocolate or only fruit desserts. You really want to have approachable food—nothing that’s going to be too complicated. Toy Boat offered pie, but Toy Boat by Jane doesn’t. That’s mostly because I hate looking at pie in a case with a piece cut out of it. It’s messy, it’s not clean, it’s kind of unhappy. To sell a slice of pie is unhappy to me, though to eat a slice of pie is happy. We’re still just getting settled in. I don’t feel anxious. I feel pretty happy here.

I don’t know if anybody knows what will happen down the road, but it’s nice to feel a little bit of positive growth, and it feels good to provide. It’s fun to see the kids coming in after school. I feel so badly for these students who are stuck at home studying on a screen, and I hope that maybe a little scoop of ice cream will brighten their day a little bit. This neighborhood is such a community, and a lot of the families were really missing their routines. Part of us staying open was being able to still be a part of people’s daily routines. It’s just nice to make eye contact and give somebody a smile.

The restaurant community has been really supportive. There are some other people who might say, “That wouldn’t work,” or “you shouldn’t expand here.” But I think people are sometimes more fear-driven, and besides, everybody’s got an opinion. I think that if you’re constantly reacting to everyone else’s ideas, you’ll get off track. This is a business where if you’re gonna do it, you have to have really high risk tolerance. You go around once, right? I’d rather regret failing than regret not doing something.