Illustration by Molly Oleson.

Manny’s, on 16th and Valencia, isn’t technically a bar – but it serves cheap drinks, which for many of us is close enough.

But more than that, Manny’s is being talked about: an attempt to create a space that resists San Francisco’s gentrification, which itself ended up being a flashpoint in the gentrification wars. It is both a café and a reminder that, even in a progressive city, no good deed goes unpunished.

The result has been a storm of local and even international attention. I’d say that’s the kind of publicity in this town that money can’t buy, but really it can – you just have to open a café.

And perhaps that’s the most paradoxical thing about Manny’s: It’s much more interesting and distinctive as a metaphor than it is as a place.

As a place … it’s a three-part space with a conventional small café set-up in the front, boasting a long counter with copper paneling and a pastry selection. The drink lists are on one wall, food menu on another.

Aside from the local sourcing of the food, the only thing that distinguishes any of the offerings is their price points: Coffee starts at under $2, and is mostly in the $3 range. Cans of Tecate also start the beer prices low, at just $2, and most of the booze is in the $6-$9 range. Cocktails are limited to the “sparkling” variety, but, whatever. Nobody’s coming here to drink hard.

The second room, really more of a connecting hallway, is a lovely small bookstore provided by local business Dog Eared Books. Heavy on politics, light on literature, it looks like it was lifted directly out of the apartment of a particularly stern graduate student, with sections on “Immigration & Migration,” “Trans Rights & History,” “Race,” “Disability Studies,” and “Theory.”

The larger back room is the venue area, and has a space for presenters and a living room vibe, with an emphasis on couches and group seating.

Put it all together and it’s … well, honestly, it’s exactly the kind of café you’ll find in every college town across the Midwest. Spacious, cheap, a local venue for community groups, going out of its way to proclaim itself a diverse space … there are a hundred places like Manny’s in Ohio alone, and maybe even just Oberlin.

But there’s a desperate lack of places like this in San Francisco, so Manny’s stands out. And good for Manny’s! But as a cafe what’s interesting about it is that it’s an endangered species.

Manny Yekutiel in his 16th and Valencia space, prior to the arrival of weekly protest groups. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

As a metaphor, though, it is uniquely delicious, both a savory vegan broth and a spicy meatball. The fact that to create this this space, Manny Yekutiel had to undergo a grueling ordeal of consultations with community groups and non-profits perfectly symbolizes the way in which San Francisco makes it as difficult as possible to create something that everybody says they want.

And the fact that, even after going through all that and doing everything right, a progressive anti-gentrification cafe is still getting picketed over allegations of Zionism – Zionism! – and that all those organizations Manny had gone out of his way to consult and appease decided not to leap to his defense but adopted a “wait and see” attitude on whether the café they always wanted might have to close because Israel might not have a right to exist …

… Well, you decide what that’s a metaphor of, but whatever it is, it’s perfect. Evocative, informative – it’s a 10-karat symbol of this city.

But that’s what Manny’s is a symbol of now: The question is what it will be a symbol of in another year.

For two dollars plain…

There was still space when I arrived at Manny’s in the afternoon, but there was no food. The barista explained to me that there were no meals on Mondays, because the kitchen staff needed a day off. Which … okay … sure … no meals on Mondays. Why not? I ordered a tea and a chocolate croissant and sat at an open table in the front section.

Around me was a sea of laptops and people with Bluetooth attachments set in their ears. At a table next to me, two people were conducting a job interview about Salesforce pipeline management.

Not long after, two women sat down at another table near me and had a conversation that might have been an informational interview and might have been a first date. I was shocked, in that moment, at how hard it was to tell the difference.

After a few minutes of what might have been flirting or might have been networking, their conversation shifted to a long discussion about a tech solution to solve homelessness. You see, upon meeting a homeless person, you can use your phone to … ah, screw it, it doesn’t matter. Nothing past the words “use your phone” ever really matters when talking about entrenched social problems. It could be anything. If you’ve talked to literally anyone with a start-up, you know this conversation.

A third nearby table, meanwhile, was also engaged in a conversation that could have been networking, activism, or meeting an old family friend. Literally every conversation I eavesdropped on in Manny’s went like that.

And it seemed, sitting there, that we have managed to collapse all the different kinds of conversations into one data stream. Dating has interfaced with networking which has become philanthropy which seamlessly turns into job interviews which syncs to your political debates and updates your catching up with friends. Tech – as an industry, a set of tools, a lifestyle, a culture – crushes everything into this compact ur-form. Your whole emotional range in 280 characters or fewer. One emoji to rule them all.

And maybe I was just at Manny’s on an off day, but, the fact that this was happening here, in a space explicitly set up to be responsive to everything tech is gentrifying out of San Francisco, was as baffling as the collapsed conversations themselves.

One could say that what’s happening here is that Manny’s is becoming a neutral zone – a place where techies and activists and the marginalized and the politicos can all meet together, something they can have in common. And … maybe that’s so.

Hilary Ronen in conversation with Manny Yekutiel at Manny’s. “I never faced this type of misogyny that I faced in becoming an elected official,” Ronen told the standing-room-only crowd. Illustration by Lola Noguer.

Or maybe it’s something else.

Much in the way that marginalized communities and bohemians once created great affordable neighborhoods that tech folks wanted to live in too, they have created a great Midwestern café that tech folks now want to inhabit, precisely because of the low prices, the spacious interior, the cache of cultural programming, and the pleasantness of a diverse staff. And so Manny’s is becoming a microcosm of the very conflict that it was designed to help alleviate.

That’s my take, anyway. We’ll see where it’s at in a year.

While I was mulling on that, a group arrived from the Canadian consulate. Manny Yekutiel met them, as he occasionally does with customers, and showed them around. Apparently they might want to do events here.

Which would be great for Manny’s. Assuming, of course, that Canada has a right to exist.

Join the Conversation

20 Comments

  1. Benjamin,

    Long time and hope you are well.

    I live down the block at 14th and Valencia and I love walking by Manny’s on way to my morning papers.

    But, tho I’ve supported them anyway I can, I don’t feel welcome there.

    “No food on Mondays?”

    You said that.

    Seemed surprised.

    You ain’t wrong.

    I finally stopped by for some of their signature $6 soup and was told they weren’t making soup that day.

    I ordered the next cheapest thing on the menu ($7) and after waiting half an hour while others who had
    entered later than me were served, I went to ask what happened to my food.

    “It’s over there.”

    That’s what the aegist/elitist barrista said to me.

    Food was cold.

    Clearly, they did not want my business.

    Hell, I was expecting ‘rock soup’ high fives and perhaps, a thanks for the flowers I brought when they were under siege.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  2. Great piece. When you write “a neutral zone – a place where techies and activists and the marginalized and the politicos can all meet together, something they can have in common,” that’s what I wish our whole neighborhood could be. No one displacing anyone. Plenty of space for everybody. How do we move past the sense of one type of person stealing the neighborhood from another, and reach a point where we’re enjoying it together?

    In a purely residential sense, the answer is to stop evictions, and build more housing with a good percent of it set aside as affordable. But culturally, I’m not sure I know the solution. You sum up the paradox in your next paragraph. As if presenting an alternative, worse possibility, you compare Manny’s to how “marginalized communities and bohemians once created great affordable neighborhoods that tech folks wanted to live in too” and call this “conflict.” But isn’t that the same thing? If tech folks live here “too” – not “instead of,” but “too” – isn’t that precisely being together? Having something in common? When the mere presence of tech folks, “too” – in a space that goes out of its way to welcome artists, activists, the Latinx community, and the intersections of these identities as well – is seen as something having been taken away, I don’t know how to work with that.

    What I do know is I appreciate Manny’s, and hope the space is successful.

  3. As new neighbors of Manny’s (16th and Mission), we are grateful that he has opened his space to nonprofits (CBOs) like ours (First Graduate) for meetings and events–free! The space is welcoming, unpretentious, and celebrates the differences we bring in the door by making us all part of a community. We need more Manny’s and Manny’s Places in San Francisco.

  4. I’d love to hear more about the activist who have been protesting outside of Manny’s. I see them out there every week. I’m curious to know how Manny has reacted, esp given that he’s obviously committed to building community. Thanks!

    1. Liz,

      They are simply attention seekers.

      Same folks who demonstrated in front of Mission PD headquarters.

      Just a block down from Equipto’s mom’s gig.

      Same ones who harassed Gascon and his family and threw garbage on their place and vehicle and wrote graffiti on their house.

      Same ones who demonstrate outside the Hall of Justice Thursdays.

      Ask them what they want and they cannot tell you.

      I think they’re paid by some kind of Cointelpro thing.

      Hey, I’m a retired Special Ed teacher who worked on Behaviorally Disturbed/Severely Emotionally Disturbed.

      My kids made more sense then these folks do.

      It’s some kind of a scam.

      Go Giants!

      h.

    1. Sir or madam —

      In this case, “cache,” meaning a collection or trove, is the right word. But, 99 percent of the time, when someone makes a mistake with cache/cachet, it’s using the former when it should be the later.

      Thanks for the eyes,

      JE

  5. Holy shit. First off, I’ve never been to a membership based cafe in the Midwest – they don’t exist. Second off, when I think of righteous cafes in the midwest, i think of Hard Times Cafe in Minneapolis. It’s laughable to put Manny’s side by side to a place like Hard Times.

    If ML continues to rain praise on Manny’s, someone should at least mention his membership based business model and the extent of his politically connected board. Manny tried to fortify his business with that board – it backfired.

    And regarding Zionism, anybody who closely read the Examiner’s recent article may have noticed Ronen adjusting and clarifying her stance. She is not supporting Manny nearly as unequivocally as she was when she weighed in for Eskenazi’s piece. She has now made a point of stating she doesn’t support Zionism and distancing herself from Manny in that regard.

    Ronen’s subtle change in tune is something to consider. Zionism may not be as inconsequential as it is portrayed in this piece, and the comparison to Canada is strange; Canada is not a nation identified by ethnicity.

    1. My understanding is that many members of Canada’s indigenous tribes disagree with you. They seem to be under the impression that a bunch of Europeans came over, took their ancestral land, and say it belongs to them now in defiance of treaty and fact. And that to this day they are still treated as second class citizens. I hear boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are called for in cases like this.

      You’re absolutely right about no membership cafes existing in the Midwest, though. It would be impossible: they don’t yet have the technology.

      1. I’ve never supported BDS against Israel, and I wouldn’t support it for Canada or Venezuela. If Canada fences off their Indian reservations and put a cross on their flag, I’d certainly be alarmed. If you organized a protest over the systemic racism of Native Americans, I’d certainly be supportive.

        If the author would’ve made a serious comparison to Canada, and backed it up, that would’ve had the potential for a good read.

        I do understand the historically recent genocidal attempts Jews have faced, and I get how Zionism came to be; but doubling down on religion and nationalism isn’t the answer.

        As the US pushes to erect walls along it’s Southern border and curtail asylum seekers, I would expect some threats of BDS against us.

      2. a membership can exist without technology. They have for thousands of years. Not that hard to do.

      1. It means his baseline revenue comes from selling monthly membership subscriptions.

        I don’t know if letting Manny’s dock your bank account every month will help gettin’ some soup.

  6. it’s interesting to start from the premise of whether israel has a right to exist as a starting point for discussing anti-zionism, and ultimately, unproductive, as well as being counter to modern anti-zionist activism. but i am sure that there are first nations folks in canada, as there are native americans here in the us, who do feel that the settler colonialism and genocide that has resulted in the creation of the us and canada is unjust, as it is.

  7. Great article. It really sums up so much of what’s going on in this town, and I love the sentence “The fact that to create this this space, Manny Yekutiel had to undergo a grueling ordeal of consultations with community groups and non-profits perfectly symbolizes the way in which San Francisco makes it as difficult as possible to create something that everybody says they want.” Spot on.

    If I’m Manny, I’m laughing all the way to the bank about this. I walk by there almost every night (my design studio is a block away at 16th and Mission) and it’s packed every night of the week. Good for him.

  8. Membership based? Like a co-op? Thats actually a cool concept- it means the community is vested in the business.

    So, how can I become a member?

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