Clad in a chef’s hat, Curtis Kimball ladled pancake batter onto an electric griddle as hundreds of hungry neighbors lined up for one of his fluffy flapjacks.
“My wife says I’m getting weird,” Kimball typed on sheets of paper, which he then taped to telephone poles around the Bernal Heights neighborhood. “She says I need to make friends. So I’m making pancakes.”
He provided an address, a time and other details, and added: “Come by and say hi and have some pancakes with me.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone to show up because I didn’t know if people read fliers,” Kimball said.
Then he saw nearly 100 neighbors assembled in front of his house, primed for the inaugural pancake party Jan. 22, and he decided: “I guess they do.”
Kimball came up with the concept of hosting a pancake party as a means of bringing some joy to his neighborhood, where he has lived for about a year with his wife and two daughters. Given the pandemic, it’s been difficult to meet people, he said, and “I just don’t know how grown-ups make friends.”
“I don’t mind looking foolish,” Kimball explained. “So, I was like, ‘I bet I could just put myself out there and maybe something would happen.’ ”
Still, “everybody in my life thought I was insane,” he said. “It’s a pretty vulnerable feeling to do something that outlandish in public.”
When asked “why pancakes?” Kimball said his reasoning was simple: “Even if you don’t like to eat pancakes, you just like the idea of them,” he said. “Being around pancakes feels good, even if you’re not eating them yourself.”
Either way, he said, “if you see someone making pancakes for strangers, you’d probably think that person is nice.”
It turns out, his neighbors concurred. Not only were they intrigued by the pancakes, but like Kimball, they were hungry for more than just breakfast. They were craving connection.
The neighborhood, which is largely residential, overlooks the San Francisco skyline. It’s filled with lots of families, Kimball said, but also many longtime residents and younger people, given its proximity to popular nightlife spots.
“We’ve all been spending time isolated and haven’t been as social,” said Julie Zigoris, 42, who attended both pancake parties with her husband and two daughters, ages 4 and 6. “There is something so nice about … just hearing new voices and having that excitement of meeting new people.”
When she stumbled upon one of Kimball’s fliers in January, “I was immediately captivated,” she said.
What Zigoris appreciated most about the initial gathering was that “it was really relaxed and laid back and it was a nice smattering of people,” she said.
To her surprise, one of the neighbors in attendance was at her PhD defense in Pittsburgh 15 years ago, and she had not seen him since, nor did she know he was living in the area.
“It was such a shock to see this person from my past four doors down from me,” Zigoris said.
Beyond the random reconnections, of which there were a few, the event in general “was a great opportunity to get to know our neighbors in this very casual, lighthearted way,” Zigoris said. Plus, “the pancakes were delicious, too.”
In preparation for the pancake party, Kimball — who owned “The Crème Brûlée Cart” food truck — experimented with a number of different recipes before perfecting his pancake batter.
His flapjacks use a classic formula of flour, eggs and milk, but “I’ve upped the fat content a bit, and I use a little too much vanilla,” he said, adding that he plans to post the recipe on a website he’s creating “to give people a guide to doing their own” neighborhood events.
People raved about Kimball’s cakes, but mainly, he sensed they weren’t there for the food. Rather, they showed up for the somewhat-forgotten feeling of togetherness that was lost amid the pandemic.
“It was the best vibe I had felt in a long time. It was really refreshing to see people smiling and enjoying themselves,” he said. “We’ve got to celebrate each other as people a lot more.”
At both events, Kimball covered the cost of the pancakes and toppings, and neighbors brought stuff to share, such as coffee, homemade honey and lemon curd. Many people asked to contribute funds, Kimball said, so he recently decided to start a GoFundMe to make future pancake parties more financially sustainable, particularly since interest seems to be growing. Kimball said roughly 300 people showed up at the second gathering Saturday.
Through spontaneously starting a new neighborhood tradition, Kimball has learned a few life lessons, which he outlined on Twitter. The most important one, he said, is that “if you’re hungry to connect, chances are good other people are too.”
Ari Chae, 29, is one of those people. She enthusiastically attended both events and brought friends along for the fun.
“This is the type of weird experience that I associate with San Francisco,” said Chae, who has lived in the neighborhood for just over a year. “The ability to go out and have pancakes with random people was just great.”
The pancake party served the same purpose for Eyal Cohen, 37, who lives next door to Kimball.
“I was really pleasantly surprised to see how many people came out for it,” he said. “It was all generations. It was pretty great.”
“I think people would see this event and immediately wonder, ‘Wait, why don’t we do something like this?’ ” Cohen continued. “I think he inspired a lot of people.”
For Kimball, encouraging others to follow suit is his main mission.
“I’m hoping I can be the match and the fire spreads,” he said. “I’m hoping my push will push others. Maybe people will see my little thing, and maybe they’ll do their own little thing, and then maybe all those things will add up to a big thing.”
His ultimate goal is to start “a national neighborhood pancake day and have everyone do it on the same day and same time and carb up the whole country,” Kimball quipped. “How awesome would that be?”
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.