Sweet Jo’s cafe finds niche at JCC of S.F.

When San Francisco chef Joanna Karlinsky was developing an eatery at the JCC of San Francisco, she initially envisioned an upscale food court with offerings so diverse that customers could satisfy a wide range of cravings in one place.

But she soon found herself in a bit of a pickle — the term “food court” didn’t sit well with the Pacific Heights neighborhood, where the Jewish Community Center is located, she said.

Determined to see her original vision through to the very end, Karlinsky, who is Jewish, decided to open her restaurant under one name, Sweet Jo’s, to quell naysayers and invoke a warm, family friendly image

Rebekah George (left) and Jaime Gonzalez scoop homemade ice cream. photos/amanda pazornik

“The best thing about my restaurant is the repeat business,” Karlinsky said “It’s rewarding to know who I cook for. It’s harder to cook for people you’re never going to see again — that’s not much fun.”

In essence, Sweet Jo’s is indeed a high-quality food court, with stations for made-to-order sandwiches, freshly baked pizzas, homemade ice cream and organic frozen yogurt, and salad and burrito bars. Wine and beer are available, as well.

Pastries of all sizes (from mini muffins to big brownies) entice customers, as do specialty cakes created by Victoria Smiser, Karlinsky’s business partner.

“We’re making sure there’s something for everybody who steps through the threshold of the JCC,” Karlinsky said, noting that her customers range from JCC staff and gym members to kids attending summer camp.

In an effort to please many palates, Karlinsky and her staff of about 25 offer globally inspired food, though much of it not kosher, made with seasonal ingredients. There are plenty of options for the parents who want their kids to eat only organic and for those staff members who want to keep lunch or dinner on the cheap.

Fruits and vegetables are mostly organic, Karlinsky said, and all the produce is pesticide-free. She serves all-natural poultry; you won’t find any pork or shellfish on the menu.

While kosher snacks are available, Karlinsky says she receives very few requests for kosher meals. There are vegan options for the strictly kosher, including Karlinsky’s red bean chili with quinoa, tofu and wheat, and the salad bar. The bakery also offers vegan “workout reward bars” with sesame seeds, dates and pine nuts.

One of the café’s strong points is that people can grab a bite after working out at the JCC, or when picking up their kids. “I can get everything done [at the JCC], it’s so convenient,” said Amy Swerdlin, who regularly orders the vegan sandwich when she stops by the café three to four times a week. “The staff is very friendly, and the food is always good.”

Chef Joanna Karlinsky stirs Spanish rice in Sweet Jo’s kitchen.

But that’s not to say people haven’t complained about the café serving what it bills as “kosher-style” food.

“They scream bloody murder,” Karlinsky said. “I get people all the time saying, ‘What do you mean you’re not kosher?’ Ninety-nine percent of the people who come here are not kosher. If this was a kosher restaurant, we’d have half the business.”

Since the café’s opening in January, Sweet Jo’s hasn’t seen the spike in revenue Karlinsky had hoped for. Instead, she said people just aren’t eating out as much as they used to.

“Our first month was a little scary,” Karlinsky admitted. “It was like opening six businesses at the same time. Now business is good, the response is overwhelmingly positive and things are humming along more smoothly.”

You’d think there would be a high demand for Jewish foods at a café nestled inside the JCC. Yet, according to Karlinsky, it’s quite the opposite. Very little of the Jewish food sells, she said, not even her “killer” challah and blintzes.

She stocked kasha varnishkes the first week of the café’s opening, but nobody bought any. These days, the classic Jewish pasta is put out in tiny amounts. The story behind Karlinsky’s matzah ball soup is similar — it sells in the winter, but by Passover, nobody buys it. The soup will make a cameo on the menu in a few months, along with hummus and baba ganoush.

Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Karlinsky cooked all over the United States before settling in the Bay Area. She was the proprietor of the Meeting House in San Francisco, where she became known for her biscuits.

She also revamped the New Orleans–inspired Elite Café in Pacific Heights in 2005 and served as a consultant at Jovino, a small café and coffee bar in the Marina.

Though she’s finding the café setting to be “much harder” than her previous jobs in fine dining, Karlinsky said the feedback keeps her going.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘My God, I could eat here every day,’ ” she said.

Staff intern Michael Lazarus contributed to this report.

Sweet Jo’s café is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. For private events, catering and phone-ahead orders: (415) 345-0090.