Operating a cafe in the Mission is tougher than before, but still plenty fun, said Bill Stone, the proprietor of Atlas Cafe at the corner of 20th and Alabama streets.
“The reason why I love this business is, meeting people, talking to people, and just it’s never the same,” said Stone. “It’s like putting on a little show every day: Kind of like, ‘lights, camera, action!’”
The Atlas Cafe show has gone on for 25 years and offered a front seat to the Mission’s changing demographics.
In 1996, Stone had a customer base of artists, musicians, hipsters and residents he refers to fondly as “the local nuts.” Then came a more upscale crowd moving into live-work and loft spaces. Next came the tech workers, but once the dot-com bubble burst in 1999, Stone saw a Latinx and bohemian crowd return. Finally, around 2010 to 2012, he noticed another influx of workers in tech.
For Stone, it doesn’t matter much who his guests are; if people come in, he’s happy. Still, he does miss the days of old.
“I lament that it seemed like San Francisco used to be more about art and music and books and political stuff, and less about business, business, business all the time,” he said.
In the ’90s, the building, formerly a Hispanic bar called El Vaquero, sat vacant. Stone and his friends would work on motorcycles in the garage, which is now the patio. He recalled the building owner telling him, “Why don’t you open a cafe here, Bill?”
A year after selling the Ace Cafe at 1539 Folsom St., Stone knew he wanted to offer something more casual and less work than the Ace, which was a restaurant, bar and live music venue that closed in 1997.
“It turned out, the neighborhood really needed a cafe,” he said.
There was less foot traffic in the neighborhood, which was Norteño gang territory at a time when the gang was more active.
On the opposite side of 20th Street, the side that now houses Sightglass Coffee and Trick Dog, was a light industrial area that mostly comprised food processing facilities and bigger businesses, Stone recalled. Few places offered coffee; there was a deli around the corner, and the Universal Cafe, which was more centered on dining, he said.
Atlas Cafe was a hit, and business picked up as more people moved into the neighborhood, said Stone, who’s lived in the Mission for 26 years. But it has become more difficult.
A federal PPP loan kept his business alive during the pandemic, and today business is around 20 percent less than it was before the pandemic. But, even discounting the pandemic, costs have risen all around, the greatest obstacle being the cost of living that’s made it difficult to retain good employees in a business with slim profit margins.
“You’re trying to pay people enough that they can survive in San Francisco, without paying so much that you have to charge $16 for a sandwich, because people aren’t used to paying that much for sandwiches,” he said. “It’s frustrating, because they should make more money than they do, but if you raise our prices too high, people will just stop buying.”
Then there’s the taxation, licensing requirements and bureaucratic requirements, among other hurdles that make running a shop more expensive.
The father of two works 9 to 5 to keep the shop going: He’ll fix the building and equipment and work behind the counter to make sure people have their breaks. As the general manager, he oversees operations and interacts with bookkeeping.
His lease set to expire in seven years, Stone, 59, said isn’t sure what’ll come next.
“It’s my whole life, really,” he said. “It’s my baby, and it’s my career.”