Manny Yekutiel has done a lot of politics in his 28 years. He’s raised funds for the American Civil Liberties Union, briefed former President Barack Obama as a White House intern, and now works on Mark Leno’s mayoral campaign. But not until three weeks ago, when he signed the lease on 3092 16th Street — formerly V16 Sushi, on the corner of 16th and Valencia — did he feel his calling totally coalesce.
In about six months, the Los Angeles native will open something he feels is rare in San Francisco, and in very high demand: a lounge that will host civic events — talks on social justice, spoken word performances, town halls by local politicians and more. It will be called “Manny’s.”
“The problem I’m trying to solve is, where [do] you go to be a better citizen?” he said — a place that also has the draw of food and beverages.
The front end of the space that faces both 16th and Valencia streets will be a coffee shop by day and a “modern Middle-Eastern” restaurant with beer and wine by night. It will be an inviting “social space” where folks can drink coffee, have discussions and watch the news, Yekutiel said.
“There are plenty of sports bars, but almost no places that play the news,” he said. (He even floated the idea of having NPR constantly playing in the bathrooms.)
The back end will have an events space that will host “anything civic in nature” every night of the week. “Whether Arriba Juntos is doing an open house, or Kamala Harris is in town and wants to do a town hall or we want host a debate watch party,” he will have the right space, he said.
Success, Yekutiel explained, would look like someone walking in for a beer and, by chance, catching an activist’s or city leader’s event. “I’m trying to a create a space where someone can walk in and almost accidentally get involved,” he said.
Yekutiel, who is half-Afghani, said he is modeling his spot after coffee houses in the Ottoman Empire, which he believes were some of the first civic gathering spaces — “social equalizers” where classes mixed and discussed politics. But the Washington D.C.-based Busboys and Poets — a bookstore, lounge and events space — was also an inspiration, he said.
“What was amazing about it was, you could peruse the bookstore, get a great dinner, and then afterward you’re inspired and do something that’s actually productive,” he said.
Yekutiel hopes some of his revenue will come from the restaurant, coffee shop and bar. But, more important, he will be seeking hundreds of sponsors — starting with 200 and growing to about 500 — who will regularly contribute small amounts of money. He said the sponsorships, which would come with certain benefits, would help keep the price of programming low. He has not decided on an amount, but guessed it would be somewhere between $12 and $18 per month.
“Like Borderlands Bookstore,” he said, noting that the bookstore has a community that pays a certain amount per year to keep the story open and affordable.
Over the last year or so, Yekutiel has also been testing his concept at different spaces and building a network of potential sponsors. He’s recently organized events with political figures such as Alicia Garza, a founder of the Black Lives Matter, Michael Tubbs, the 27-year-old mayor of Stockton, and retired NBA player Jason Collins, who was the first to come out as openly gay while an active player.
“Each of these events has had hundreds of people come,” he said. The events took place at various locations around the Mission.
Manny’s will be the third business to occupy the space in the last three years. V16 Sushi Lounge closed in late January, and Yekutiel found the site through his agent less than a month later. He said it was not hard for him and the Mission Housing Development Corporation, which owns the building, to come to an agreement.
Sam Moss, the executive director of Mission Housing, said he was excited about the project. “One thing about the affordable housing industry that gets lost in translation is how important our ground-floor spaces are, and should be, to serving the general community’s needs,” he said.
Moss said he chose Yekutiel’s business out of a half-dozen other interested parties for precisely that reason. “16th and Valencia should be a hub of empowerment,” he said. “I see this as a way to do it.”