The outdoor parklet was added to Atlas Cafe in the summer of 2020 as the pandemic caused the restaurant to shift to outdoor dining. Photo courtesy of Bill Stone.

Putting up posters broadcasting Atlas Cafe’s money troubles was a career low-point for the owner, Bill Stone. He felt awkward, uncomfortable and desperate. For 35 years as an entrepreneur he had prided himself on his “pull-up-by-the-bootstraps” attitude that kept Atlas alive through other difficult times. He had never asked his customers for help. But Covid-19 was a different beast. 

Even as the cafe bled money from mid-March on, Stone still tried to avoid community handouts. He took out disaster and Paycheck Protection Program loans, and once those were depleted he cut employees, shifts, and store hours. But when Atlas Cafe, Stone’s “whole life” and “baby,” loomed dangerously close to permanent shutdown in late November, he made a decision: to accept help from the community. 

“I didn’t really want to do this,” Stone said. But “people have said, over and over again, that they want Atlas to stay, so I said, ‘Okay. I need your help.’”  

Stone knew a fair share of customers appreciated the establishment at 3049 20th St. (just up the block from the Latino Task Force’s Resource Hub) and would offer to pitch in. To them, Atlas Cafe wasn’t only a homey hangout spot to drink coffee but, over its 24 years, it had become part of the community’s fabric. Stone watched local kids grow up and move away, longtime patrons turn into close friends, and his own two kids get older and play in the restaurant. 

“People love the food, but people love being there,” Stone said. “That’s sort of what it’s always been about.”

Atlas Cafe
Atlas Cafe, at 3049 20th St., offers sandwiches, salads, coffee and more, and has been around for 24 years. Photo courtesy of Bill Stone.

Even so, he was floored by the outpouring of support. It started when Stone decided to build a parklet this summer to offer outdoor dining and restore some semblance of the old Atlas Cafe aesthetic customers loved. 

“People have been supporting us in every way that they can,” Stone said. “It’s really since I took that step of asking for help and I put up a poster.”

He launched his first crowdfunding effort for outdoor dining that asked for some $12,000 through GoFundMe to build a parklet, and he surpassed that goal by $275. 

A friend and former carpenter — who befriended Stone after frequenting Atlas for years — offered to build the structure for hardly any pay, since the $12,000 was used almost entirely on supplies. (The cost of lumber has surged during Covid-19.) 

When the carpenter had a motorcycle accident in early September, a handful of Stone’s friends filled the vacuum and finished it up. A neighbor added a roof for “whatever” Stone could afford to pay. Once done, the parklet filled with customers and, through the fall, helped to mitigate some of Atlas’s losses. Pleased with the look and business, Stone said he’d try to keep it permanently. 

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As the months dragged on into winter, though, it became clear that Atlas would need an extra boost to keep running. While outdoor dining helped, Atlas never recovered to pre-pandemic revenue levels, and the smoky days in the late summer and fall added extra struggles. As  December approached, Stone decided he would again have to ask for help. 

He created a new GoFundMe page requesting $30,000, this time mostly for the restaurant operation and to pay employee salaries, while he waits to apply for the next round of PPP loans. (The GoFundMe is still accepting donations now.) Aware of the personal financial struggles his employees are enduring, Stone said 15 percent of the $30,000 will also go to employees to compensate for all the lost tips and wages. He mounted posters with a link and a similar plea.

“It’s uncomfortable to have to ask for help after 24 successful years,” the “Save Atlas Cafe” Go Fund Me crowdfunding page says, “but we are truly desperate now. Your help may really make the difference between survival or demise for Atlas.”

And the community began to answer the call again. A donor who wished to remain anonymous gave a five-figure sum to the cause, instantly brightening Stone’s already optimistic spirit. As of early January, more than 160 people had donated a total of $21,797. 

“I don’t need people to give me [thousands of dollars],” Stone added, saying such a large donation was unexpected. “If everyone helps just a little, that will make a difference.”

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A woman stopped by the store at the end of December and purchased $1,000 worth of gift cards in $20 increments — a humorous first-ever request that surprised the staff. But the tried-and-true to-go orders can also be a big help. 

And Stone remains positive. Amid the devastation and stress, the generosity has been motivating, he said. 

“Being a small business person I’ve done everything on my own, but [trying this] turned out well,” Stone said. “Once I took that step to ask openly, a lot of people came out. That’s amazing.” 

If you wish, you can donate to Atlas Cafe here.

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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