Sylvie Le Mer, once the owner of the venerable 16th Street creperie Ti Couz, was not on the corner of 16th and Valencia on Monday night — but her presence was felt by the dozens who gathered, lit candles, shed tears, played music, and remembered the person that touched all of their lives.
In late October, according to friends, Le Mer took her own life at 60, while living in Nantes, just outside Brittany — the far western French region where she came of age and learned how to make what became known as some of San Francisco’s finest crepes.
“She was unique — she had a vision,” said her close friend Fatimata Vetu, fighting tears. “She inspired people to be better.”
One of Le Mer’s visions was Ti Couz, the creperie that she started on 16th Street near Valencia in June 1992 and was forced to shutter in April 2011. The space is now occupied by Giordano Bros., a sports bar.
“People came from everywhere to have crepes,” said Paula Tejeda, the owner of Chile Lindo empanadas, who became close friends with Le Mer through the 16th Street Association, a merchants group that worked to improve the corridor.
Tejeda remembers Ti Couz’s “beautiful mugs and jars,” its French-style lemonade, the long lines, and of course the endless work Le Mer put into making her restaurant special. “She was flipping crepes like crazy on a Saturday,” Tejeda said — working so hard she barely had time to rest.
Friends and former employees described Le Mer as perhaps one of the most generous people they had encountered — someone who paid her employees well above minimum wage, would often take them on trips, give them English lessons, and generally wanted to see them thrive.
“She was glorious and full of fun energy,” said Carla Avitabile, who began working at Ti Couz in 1993 and became close friends with Le Mer. “She enjoyed having a good time and making a party was really important to her.”
Before it became mainstream, Le Mer was eco-conscious: Le Mer stopped using disposable flatware and utensils and canceled take out at Ti Couz. “She was composting and recycling before it was required,” Eric Solomon, a former Ti Couz employee, said on Monday evening.
Le Mer was also a helping hand for small business owners and the French-speaking community in the Mission.
When Marco Senghor, the owner of Bissap Baobab, first arrived in the Mission in the ’90s, Le Mer helped him get on his feet when he was just in the business of selling juice. Everyday she would buy seven gallons of his orange juice.
“She was the one who showed me everything,” Senghor said. “She was my mentor.”
Senghor added that Ti Couz was more than a creperie; it was a gathering place that fostered its own music scene.
Jose Vergelin, who showed up to the memorial on Monday night, is a member of Los Nadies, a Latin rock band that played at Ti Couz for the 19 years it was open. “She created a whole vibe,” Vergelin said. “We always packed the place.”
Vergelin added that Le Mer paid the best of the small venues, and would always feed his band. “She was almost too generous for her own good,” he said.
Indeed, friends said the care she had for her employees — and her desire to see small businesses thrive in the Mission — may have contributed to the end of Ti Couz. Around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, Le Mer moved into Tejeda’s apartment on San Jose Avenue and Tejeda remembers her anguish. Le Mer had opened an oyster bar next door to her creperie, Tejeda remembered, in an effort to keep a Starbucks from moving into the space.
“All of a sudden she had a $60,000 payroll — a month — and no one was going to the old business or the new one,” Tejeda said.
She said she saw Le Mer fall into a spiral and become isolated, trying to keep up with the debts she owed. “In the good times everyone is there,” Tejeda said. “And in the bad times you’re facing the storm alone — completely alone.”
After Le Mer closed Ti Couz for good in the spring of 2011, she moved back to France. Avitabile said that, after a stint in Lyon, Le Mer returned to San Francisco for a time, and then moved back to Nantes several years ago.
But even people who considered her close fell out of touch. “She was doing better from what I heard,” said Vergelin. “And then we kind of lost track of her. She was not a person who would ask for help or let you know how she was doing when she was down.”
Susie Wise, who worked at Ti Couz for two years beginning in 1996, learned how to make crepes from Le Mer. But Wise, who had come from Oakland to pay her respects on 16th Street on Monday night, had been surprised to learn of Le Mer’s death. “I didn’t know she was in France,” Wise said. “I didn’t know she was unwell.”
Wise nonetheless remembered Le Mer as someone who was “ahead of her time.”
J.D. Sargent, a San Francisco author and friend of Le Mer’s, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that Le Mer inspired her to travel and dance. “Whatever darkness she faced, she chose to find the light at the end of a very painful tunnel and transition to a better horizon in her own way …” Sargent wrote. “My heart is broken, but I accept Sylvie’s transition and I will hold her in my heart always.”