The Latino-centric bar Coronitas Bar and Grill, located where the Mission meets Bernal Heights, is in the process of trading in its liquor license for a medical marijuana permit in what it says is a bid to stay relevant in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
“At this point, it’s unprofitable for us to continue with [Coronitas],” said owner Jorge Esparza, who ran the bar, located at 3326 Mission St., along with his brother for some 26 years. Esparza said that the area’s high cost of living has displaced many of his long term customers, who were primarily Latino.
Unwilling to give up on his family business completely, Esparza is hoping the dispensary will insure his existence in the neighborhood.
“It’s a lucrative business, but it’s also a way for me to still be in this community,” said Esparza. “I don’t know any other community. I spend more money two blocks this way or that way than in the whole city.”
Coronita’s impending transformation could begin as early as next month, pending approval by the Planning Department. A discretionary hearing on the planned change of use from a bar to a dispensary will be held at the Planning Commission on Thursday.
If all goes well, Coronitas will officially close in May and undergo a summer of renovations before reopening sometime in October as La Corona Wellness Center, said Esparza.
There, Esparza will work with two partners to man the dispensary. He plans to keep his products accessible to low-income community members by offering discounts to SSI recipients and those who “really need” the medical service. In an effort to ensure that the operation will benefit his surrounding community, Esparza also plans to hire local.
“I’ve talked to the bike shop [on Tiffany Street], we will use them for deliveries once we have that service running,” said Esparza. According to La Corona’s website, its owners also plan to donate some $50,000 annually to local nonprofits or to a disaster-relief fund.
Esparza said a drop in sales in recent years has long-prompted him to consider shuttering Coronitas.
“Before the dispensary I was looking at what to do, shutting it down and leasing it out,” said Esparza, whose family owns the building that houses the bar. “But then, new people will come into the neighborhood and what are they going to try to do [with the space]?”
As Latino-owned businesses are becoming increasingly rare in that area of Mission/Bernal, Esparza said he saw Coronita’s reincarnation as a pot club as his best viable option to stay rooted in the neighborhood.
“I”m not going anywhere,” he said.
But for the past three years, Esparza has quietly observed one Latino-owned business after another close shop in “La Lengua,” the stretch of Mission Street between Cesar Chavez and Randall streets that bridges the Mission and Bernal Heights. The microhood is now more commonly referred to as “Mission Bernal.”
“For a while, there were about 10 Latino businesses around here,” said Esparza, pointing a finger to the adjacent Tiffany Street, where the the Latin club Esperanzas was replaced by the Rock Bar.
The latest victim of the neighborhood’s gentrification was La Terraza at 3472 Mission St., which is now the craft beer bar Old Devil Moon Bar.
As their customers disappeared, so did the Latino-owned businesses, he said.
“A lot of the local neighbors that would frequent us regularly stopped coming in,” said Esparza. “I would ask customers, ‘what’s up, where have you been?’ They told me they moved out of the city, to Richmond, San Pablo, Sacramento and Concord.”
Initially, Esparza thought he could weather the changes by adjusting his hours and cutting operation costs. But when a five-alarm fire broke out on Coronita’s block last June, taking out some six businesses and a residential hotel that housed some 60 people, his sales plummeted further.
“One of the things that made us special on that block was that my customers would go to Playa Azul, Taco Loco and vice versa. So we kind of gave them a little spot to be at,” said Esparza, referring to two neighboring restaurants that were destroyed in the fire.
Esparza said that customers frequenting those establishments would often “stop in for a beer – but when those places burned down, it was over.”
The newly minted pot entrepreneur hopes for the same camaraderie among the area’s existing dispensaries. Two dispensaries – Cookies 415 and Harvest Off Mission – currently operate within a two-block radius of Coronitas. The storefront of the former gun shop High Bridge Arms at 3185 Mission St. is slated to house a third.
But Esparza said that while the area lends itself to dispensaries, he does not feel that it is oversaturated with them. “Market Street has like 15 of them in a four-block [radius],” he said, adding that those dispensaries are “doing well.”
He hopes that the selection will help drive new customers to the area and create a network in which the dispensaries will complement and supplement each other with their varying products and services.
For his part, Esparza said that La Corona Wellness Center will be marketed to target the Latino community, something that is currently lacking in the industry.
“All the dispensaries [in the city] are owned by American business people,” said Esparza. “I want to make [La Corona] more Latino-oriented – no dispensaries that I know of do that.”