Trailblazer, leader, philanthropist, San Francisco icon, these are just a few of the titles af&co CEO Andrew Freeman brilliantly upholds. If there was ever a "Mr. San Francisco" for community involvement, Andrew's enduring passion would truly champion this honor. For over 15 years, Andrew's altruistic commitment to uplift the city's thriving culinary and hospitality scenes has not only garnered him several accolades, but has also elevated him as a radiantly positive local figure.
As one of Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International's Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales and Marketing, Andrew's genuine skills, care, and efforts have also exuded through his company, af&co, allowing his team's innovative lifestyle marketing and media relations firm to excel as San Francisco Business Times' Top 50 LGBT-Owned Businesses in the Bay Area from 2016 to 2022.
We had the incredible chance to sit and chat with Andrew and inquire more on his journey to San Francisco, his prolific career, and what being an influential, openly gay business owner means to him.
Hi Andrew! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, I can’t wait to learn all about how you became so integrated in the restaurant and hospitality industries here. Let's begin with how you first got to San Francisco.
I arrived in San Francisco on my 35th birthday in 1997, and here's how it happened. I am a proud New Jersey Jewish boy, and my big plan was to be a Broadway star. I could sing pretty well and dance a bit but I had (and still do) charisma. I was going to Montclair State University (last year I was honored to give the commencement address as their distinguished Alum) and doing everything I could to get an acting gig or two.
Since I also had a love of public relations and marketing, in addition to my job waiting tables (like every good actor), I got several internships at amazing ad agencies. This led to my love of all things marketing. And since I also had a love of food and restaurants, I thought how cool it would be to become a marketer for restaurants and hotels (and I put the acting dreams on hold).
I landed a job at the very prestigious French Culinary Institute and actually enrolled in the program but my teacher Jacques Pepin kicked me out! He told me I belonged in the front of the house and he was right. After working with business legends at their epic restaurants of The Russian Tea Room, The Rainbow Room and Windows on the World, a recruiting call came in the summer of 96 from Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants here in San Francisco. They were looking for a Director of Restaurant Marketing.
I had only been to San Francisco once so I thought it would be fun to come out and check things out. Although I landed the job, I turned it down at first (I loved NYC and my family first). However, my boss at the Rainbow Room encouraged me to go, and it was a life changing decision.
Today I live in SOMA with my darling pooch Dolly (yep, named after Miss Parton, one of my idols).
What, then, inspired you to start af&co?
If we bring it back to my first love of theater- opening hotels and restaurants share so many similarities and I love that. When the doors open, we are on! At Kimpton, I got an inside look at what I thought worked and didn't work with my agency partners. I sensed I could do it better. I wanted to create an integrated approach in which we become partners to our clients and work with them to create success.
I spent 10 years at Kimpton and right before my 10th anniversary, then I decided to leave and launch af&co. That was 17 years ago!! Three years ago, one of my long term employees and I launched Carbonate, and so now I am the proud dad of two awesome companies that specialize in promoting, marketing and branding hotels, restaurants, chefs and "good living" products. It's gone very well and now we work all over the world.
What is it do you love about SF, and how does our city contribute to af&co's mission?
Let's get this straight- SF is the best food city in the world! We have year round farming, we are near the sea and we have a mediterranean climate that is perfect for creating all things delicious (my favorite word). The cultural influences of Asian, Mexican, Indian and more, have defined the new American palette and we are watched by the world.
Truth be told, coming from NYC, I hated it here when I moved. My perspective changed when my therapist laid it on the line with, "Andrew, until you say yes to San Francisco, San Francisco won't say yes to you!" So I bought a condo, signed up for charity work, made it my mission to meet friends, and I fell in love with this wonderful city.
And so I would love to know- what are some of your favorite spots here that everyone should try?
This is like asking me to pick my favorite child! The Ferry Building and the Foodwise Farmer's Market must be on everyone's list. A walk along the Embarcadero, a trek up to Coit Tower and hanging in our diverse neighborhoods (The Castro, Hayes Valley, North Beach) top the list. I also love a day in Sausalito, Fort Funston (with Dolly) and the many wonderful parks the city has to offer.
I am really digging our rooftop bars- Charmaine's, Kaiyo and Bluestem top the list and I love our theater scene, the opera and the symphony. Broadway SF and the SF Playhouse have killer seasons this year!
For restaurants, Nopa, Foreign Cinema and Zuni top my must visit SF spots but of course I would name everyone of my clients if I could. For now, here's just a taste: Jazz at One Market on the weekends, garden brunch at Colibri, the new Spanish music series at La Bande (and speaking of Spain, Castro’s Canela is one of the most underrated restaurants in the city and it's absolutely delicious). E&O is great for lunch when shopping at Union Square, Perbacco is great Italian, The Vault Garden is absolutely the best for outdoor dining, and I love the vibe and menus at Pabu and International Smoke.
And when I want to let my hair down (it's very luxurious), I love the classic burger at Gott's, cocktails at The Madrigal (it reminds me of Stars), and the menu at Hi-Tops.
You definitely know your way around town! Are you involved in any other San Francisco programs?
I have dedicated a good portion of my life to the charities that I am passionate about: Dress for Success SF, Foodwise, Meals on Wheels SF and The Richmond Ermet AID Foundation. I also proudly sit on the boards of SF Travel and The Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
Lastly, do you have any advice for those looking to start their own business, or for any LGBTQ+ youth who might be struggling with their identity?
This is going to sound a bit strange but I believe the struggles I went through to first understand that I was a gay man and then to come out, prepared me for the trials of starting my own business. Coming out was very difficult for me. I lost my Mom (my protector) when I was 19 and I was left with a Dad who couldn't accept me. I was on my own by 20 and I had a built in ambition and drive that came first from my mom but then just from the circumstances of my life. I was going to win and prove to my Dad that it was okay to be gay. I finally came out when I was 30 and I started my own business when I was 44 so I guess I could be considered a late bloomer.
So here's my advice for starting your own business or coming to terms with your identity: there will be many hills and valleys on your journey, go with the twists and turns. It's okay to get lost and find your way back. Some days you will soar and other days will be very bumpy. Keep an eye on your destination, rely on the kindness of your family and friends and try not to sweat the small stuff and I promise you will get there. One of my mentors - Bill Kimpton once said -- "When you come to a fork in the road, take the fork!" This truly has defined my journey. Celebrate all small successes and if you lose your mojo, consider taking a detour to figure things out.
That is so thoughtful, encouraging, and empowering to hear. Okay, and now just as a final question: what's a fun fact about you?
Name a Broadway musical and I can sing you the entire score. And one bonus just for fun- I was a NJ disco dancing champion in 1984 and I spent every Thursday night at Studio 54!
Thank you Andrew!
You can view af&co here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Rose Guiliano