By DIANA MONTAÑO

It’s like the Rio Grande flows through the tap at the Atlas Cafe on 20th Street, turning the countertop into a wooden, cup-stained borderland.

Behind the counter and to the left, where orders are taken and the coffee is served, are the Americanos– the white, twenty-something, college-educated American baristas. To the right, where the beer is poured and the sandwiches are grilled, Mexican immigrant men wipe the kitchen sweat from their foreheads and speak to each other in Mayan dialect.

The behind-the-counter scene offers a snapshot of the transformation that the Mission District has undergone in recent years of gentrification by young, generally white, hipsters and tech professionals.

Amidst the mushrooming of trendy cafes catering to the newly arrived laptop crowd in this historically Latino immigrant neighborhood, even Atlas, around for 11 years, has been changed.

“Ever since the Americanos started working here, the tips went down,” says Rogelio López, who has been working at Atlas for 9 of its 11 years, and is currently the only full-time employee. He used to work as a barista and now doubles as bartender and kitchen manager.

Up until five years ago, all the workers at Atlas except for the owner and the “menu guy” were not only Mexican–they were all from López’ hometown of Akil in the southeastern state of Yucatán, México. Yet when five of them returned to Yucatán after inheriting the family ranch, the first Americanos were hired to work the Atlas counter. According to López, everyone hired as a barista since has been Americano.

Bill Stone, the owner of the Atlas, also remembers a time when his counter was, as he puts it, “more integrated.”

“The guys working back then had good English skills,” he says, referring to López’ relatives. “But once they left, none of the replacements had enough confidence in their English to work the counter.”

Stone, who prides himself in the Atlas Café’s diverse clientele and inroads with the local Latino community,  has seen the neighborhood change drastically around him. And with the explosion of new cafés has come increased competition. “It makes you try harder,” he says. “We have to give good service, or people will go to the other guy.”

When asked about the drop in tips mentioned by López, Stone says the issue is new to him, but points to the poor economy in the last couple years. “Back in those days we were busier,” he says referring to the Cafe’s earlier, pre-gentrification years. “But recently it has leveled off economically. It’s been harder.”

Yet López sees the changes a little differently. He says tips, which have always split evenly among the staff and still are, have dropped from $75 in earlier years to around $45—a decline he attributes to the fact that, well, the Americanos simply don’t provide the best service.

“The Americanos are slower; they take their time,” he says as he gently lines up small ceramic plates on the countertop. “When we worked the counter, we did it fast. Even now when we’re in the kitchen, we hurry. It’s how we learned to work here–en chinga,” he adds, using the Mexican slang for working [expletively] hard.

A few weeks ago, a recently arrived Mexican looking for work was recommended to López by a friend.

“I couldn’t give him work, though,” he says. “We weren’t hiring in the kitchen.”

Atlas was, however, hiring on the other side of the countertop border–by the cashier and coffee machine, where Lea Frantti has been working for a month.

Frantti, a 24-year old Michigan native who moved to San Francisco after graduating college two years ago “just because,” works part-time at Atlas and volunteers at the Exploratorium the rest of her time. She also paints, but wouldn’t call herself a painter.

Like all the Americano baristas interviewed for this piece, Frantti gets paid minimum wage plus tips.

When asked what her favorite part of the job is so far, she smiles and the answer comes quickly.

“It’s chill, the people are nice, it’s not hard work,” she says while wiping down the counter with a napkin.

When López is asked the same question, he takes his time answering. Two friends of his, who have been sitting at the bar drinking beers and listening in on the interview, laugh.

“His favorite part is closing time!” chuckles one of them.

López smiles and continues lining ceramic plates up along the Atlas Cafe countertop.

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born...

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