A tall young man walks into Café Zazo, a small restaurant across the street from Rainbow Grocery. He would like the California Mexican burger and a cup of coffee, he says. But then he stops. “Do you have organic coffee?” he asks.
“Yep,” says Nick Gutiérrez, the owner. “We do.”
Guitérrez grew up in the Mission. His parents moved here in 1955. The family rented out the space at 64 14th Street between Folsom and Harrison for years, but a year and a half ago they decided to open a café in the spot.
Storefronts and lunch counters across the Mission District are shutting down and reopening as cafés, and several of the new owners are Latinos. Many have long called the neighborhood home.
Like their non-Latino counterparts, who run the gamut from espresso-worshiping coffee geeks to immigrants from countries like Iran and Cambodia, they see a business opportunity in selling things that were hard to come by in this neighborhood as recently as five years ago — like organic coffee.
“We had no idea there was a trend going on with cafés,” says Gutiérrez. “My family and I just figured that since everyone around here appreciates a good sandwich and cup of coffee, we can profit off of that.”
The nearby Ox Café, at 19th and Van Ness, is also a response to shifting trends. The café’s owner, Cynthia Olmedo, closed down her gift shop and reopened as a café because she suspected that she would get more customers that way. As it turned out, she did.
Lourdes Lozano, owner of L’s Café, says that she included vegan and organic food and drinks on the menu from the start because she didn’t want any customer to feel excluded. But Lozano also added a wine bar a few years ago. “Not too many cafés have one,” she says. “We wanted to stand out from the rest on 24th Street.”
Café Qué Tal at 22nd and Guerrero, opened by former antiques dealer Elena Jurado 18 years ago, was known for carrying things like fruit salad and granola long before they became standard issue at other neighborhood cafés. But Qué Tal is adapting too, says Jurado. Recently, they began baking their own pastries in-house, an increasingly common practice in a neighborhood that seems to grow more foodie by the day. Just cookies for now, says Jurado, but more to come soon.
Café La Taza, which opened in 1997, has done so well that the owners, two brothers whose family owns a coffee plantation in Nicaragua, have since opened two other locations, in Union Square and the Castro. They added organic coffee to the menu years ago when a lot of customers began asking for it, says Carlos Martínez, the café’s manager.
Over the years, says Martínez, La Taza’s menu of standard American café fare has come to include more and more Mexican dishes. It started with huevos rancheros, and soon will include dinner.
For nearly a century, the Mission was a neighborhood where people who did well in the building trades bought homes and settled down to raise families. Edwin Pérez, owner of the PerezRock Nation Café, is no exception. He worked for years as a contractor before opening a café with his sons, both of whom worked as line cooks.
It was his sons who came up with the theme. “We would play classic rock and metal music all the time at our old job whenever the owner was away, because the customers loved it so much,” says Edwin’s son, Sergio, who also moonlights in a metal band. “We told our father, wouldn’t it be cool if we could open our own café with a classic rock theme?”
The café’s asthetic may be classic rock, but the menu is fluid, developed by looking at what other local cafés were selling. “We noticed that none of them were selling crepes,” Sergio says.
It may be an unconventional choice for a family born and raised in the Mission to sell crepes at a metal-themed café, but it works: According to Sergio, the crepes have become one of PerezRock Nation’s most popular items.