SF’s Dolores Park Cafe celebrates 20 years in a changing Mission

Photo by Lydia Chávez

The sights, smells, sounds and tastes at Dolores Park Cafe are familiar to locals. That is because it was one of the first neighborhood cafes to open its doors near Dolores Park 20 years ago. And the same people who waited in line on day one are still coming back.

“The neighborhood has changed a lot,” said Rachel Herbert, owner of the cafe. “But we still have a lot of the same regulars that we had 20 years ago.”

On Saturday, Herbert and her staff will celebrate 20 years of success with free coffee, prizes, food and music from local artists who have performed in the cafe over the years. A portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to Mission High School and the Love Dolores campaign.

In a recent interview, Herbert reflected on how the cafe has continued to thrive, even as San Francisco has become one of the most competitive cafe cultures in the country. It tied for first with New York City for the most coffee shops and cafes per capita, according to WalletHub. The site also ranked the city third-best coffee city based on indicators such as price and percent of coffee drinkers and cafes per capita.

Competition is fiercer than ever, Herbert said.

“We know that we constantly have to reinvent ourselves,” she said. “There’s some amazing places on the street now, so we have to keep our game up.”

Over the years, Herbert’s changed the furniture from time to time, added more vegan options to the menu and changed coffee brands several times.

At present, they source their coffee from local vendors Equator Coffee and Sightglass Coffee.

The clientele has also changed; tourists now outnumber artists. And when they moved in, Herbert described her location at the corner of 18th and Dolores streets as “just between the Mission and Castro.”  Now, it is better known as part of the 18th Street corridor of food icons: Tartine Bakery, Bi-Rite Market and Delfina Restaurant.

While tourists and locals crowd into Herbert’s place, it’s the locals and the longer relationships in the neighborhood that she will be honoring on Saturday. Perhaps the cafe’s longest has been with Mission High, which sits catty-corner to the café.

“They [teachers] are like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve been working at Mission High for 20 years and I can’t believe I have been coming here for 20 years.’ They’re who we see every morning,” Herbert said. In recognition of that bond, part of the proceeds from Saturday’s event will go to Mission High.

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