Lauded as a craft beer hotspot by everyone from The New York Times to The Guardian, North Park cemented San Diego in the upper echelons of global beer prestige with its dizzying array of breweries, tasting rooms, beer-friendly eateries, and bars. Some of these beer businesses are newcomers, eager to capitalize on North Park’s walkability and built-in consumer base. But others, early adopters who saw only potential, laid the foundation for the well-deserved reputation the neighborhood now enjoys as an integral part of the Capital of Craft.
Established in 2008, Toronado San Diego was one of these pioneers whose arrival signaled the inevitable evolution of the area. Known as a bastion of hard-to-find beers and extensive tap list—which initially featured mostly Belgian beers before acquiescing to the hop craze—Toronado helped influence the collective palates of innumerable San Diego beer drinkers. Earlier this year, owner Ian Black announced Toronado’s impending closure on social media, leaving surprised patrons speculating on the reason.
“I can’t do it anymore,” says Black over pints on Toronado’s back patio. “2019 was down 20% from 2018. We're only busy now because we're going out of business.”
Sadie Berkel, a longtime Toronado beertender, goes further. “We get it as bartenders all the time: ‘What's going on? Why are you closing? Is it because of the rent?’ I'm like, no, it’s because no one comes here anymore and the owner is sick of losing money. You can only do it for so long.”
Looking around, it’s hard to imagine Toronado struggling to fill seats. But this particular day is the annual release of Pliny the Younger, a highly coveted triple IPA from Russian River Brewing Company. Its rarity as a once-a-year limited release has always drawn hordes of hopheads anxious to check it off their list.
But one annual release, regardless of how desirable, can’t overcome what Black alludes to as crippling government interference—specifically, the minimum wage increase.
“It started January 1, 2016,” he explains. “I lost all the profit that I would make for the year in one day, just to pay my employees. You can make the argument that better compensated employees are happy employees, but I went from paying $200,000 a year to $250,000 a year. And we were never able to make that back.”
Black admits the changing face of North Park also played a role. When Toronado opened, there wasn’t a single brewery or tasting room in the neighborhood. Now, there are about a dozen, plus a handful of beer-centric bars. I can see three just by looking out of Toronado’s front window. Competition coupled with costs leads Berkel to shake her head. “North Park is killing North Park.”
Critics of Toronado are quick to add customer service—or lack thereof—to the list. A revolving door of kitchen concepts, including Anthem Vegan’s short-lived residency, likely didn’t help. (Black also famously refused to serve french fries, which he adamantly affirms was the right choice.)
I ask Black how he feels as he teeters on the edge of closing one of San Diego’s most well-known and respected beer sanctums. Relieved? Bummed? Angry? “The first two are good,” he laughs. “I’m not angry… [but] I think that the presumptive mayor of San Diego [Todd Gloria] needs to be asked a couple questions about his dismissal of carving out the minimum wage for tipped employees.”
Black’s been working in beer for most of his life—including at the flagship Toronado in San Francisco—and isn’t sure what’s next for him. “I’ve been doing this (working in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs) since I was 17, almost 40 years. I’m tired. My kids need more time with me. I’ve had a great time.”
No matter what, he stresses the best part of beer for him has been the relationships. Between hosting Fritz Maytag from Anchor Brewing Company on Toronado’s patio to being one of the only accounts Alpine Beer Company would deliver kegs of Duet and Nelson to back in the day, it’s been one hell of a ride.
Black estimates Toronado will close its doors in mid-March and revealed they are in talks with a potential buyer to take over the space. While he can’t disclose specifics of the deal, he conceded that it will likely become a tasting room for a San Diego brewery. “I’m well aware of the irony of that,” he grinned.