Inside Muddy Waters, a bohemian establishment on Valencia just south of 16th Street, Najat Echchoukairi prepares a man’s drink while he tells her and the owner of the coffee house that his father just recently celebrated his 100th birthday three weeks ago.
“He’s really old,” the customer said.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Hisham Massarweh, the owner, said. “And he is drinking his shot of whiskey?”
“Exactly: Scotch, every day,” the man replied.
There’s a comfortable rapport between Echchoukairi and Massarweh that speaks to the 14 years they’ve worked together. Massarweh also runs a second cafe further south, near 24th Street. It’s a relationship that extends to the customers, many of whom have been coming in for years to the coffee shop that celebrates its 28-year anniversary this month.
Together, owner, manager and customers have watched the changes in the café culture.
In the ‘90s, Massarweh said, Muddy Waters welcomed a tight-knit community that spent time discussing politics and issues that affected San Francisco. Echchoukairi said that it was around the time of the recession in 2008 that she noticed a difference in the café’s customers.
“All of the people, I don’t know them, honestly,” she said, scanning her customers inside Muddy Waters. “They don’t even talk to me, to ask how I am. They just ask for their coffee. They are in their own world.”
Nonetheless, she tries.
One young woman stops by Muddy Waters after her yoga session at a nearby studio to use the café’s Wifi as she searches for employment opportunities on her laptop. “You will find a place. Trust me, you will,” Echchoukairi said.
Another young woman enters the coffee house and the barista notices a volunteer badge on her shirt, discovering that her new customer volunteers at a nearby hospital. “Keep doing it,” she said.
No matter that some of her long-time customers have left the neighborhood, she tries to connect with others to maintain a sense of community. When a customer is short a few dollars or simply can’t afford a hot cup of coffee, she lets them know they can pay her later.
“People are always surprised with that level of trust,” she said. “I don’t even ask my boss if I can do that.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Massarweh agreed. “She’s a well-educated woman. She knows what she is doing.”
Some of her new customers share the pay-it-forward spirit.
Echchoukairi has a customer who comes to the coffee house about four times a week in the morning. “She gives me $10 and she says to me, ‘Please choose the person who does not have money and buy them something.”
And, when Echchoukairi returned from her sister’s funeral In Morocco, she discovered that an anonymous customer had left a generous donation. “I like the idea that I don’t know who it was from,” she said. “For me, everyone who comes in [Muddy Waters], it’s from them.”
Conversely, customers have also stolen under Echchoukairi’s watchful eye. She recalled a day in which she had six individually wrapped sand cakes on the counter and a woman entered the coffee house to ask for a glass of iced water.
Echchoukairi turned to fetch it and when she looked back, only five pastries remained. “When she was leaving, by the door, her son said, ‘We didn’t pay for the sand cake,’” said Echchoukairi. “I answered, ‘No, Mom, pay at the end of the month. Don’t worry about it.’”
She said she didn’t see the woman for about three months. Then, the woman came back to Muddy Waters in tears. She promised that she would pay her back, and Echchoukairi reassured her to not worry about it, but the woman insisted.
“My boss, actually, he said, ‘People want food, give them food. Never say no,’” she said. “People needing food, that’s not stealing.”
Allen Kizziah, a former owner of a comic book store in the Mission, has frequented Muddy Waters for more than a decade. While he no longer lives in California, when he visits his hometown, this is the mom-and-pop coffee house in the neighborhood that continues to be one of his stops.
“People keep coming back here because there’s an affinity toward individuals that give us hope and connects us to the big picture,” he said. “We’re in this together and we want to leave an imprint in our community by supporting them.”