Karen and Melody Ruelas stand inside Sisters Coffee Shop at 920 Valencia St. in identical green aprons and pink surgical masks, ready to serve up coffee, panini, bagels and their specialty: Mexican hot chocolate.
After years helping their parents and an older sister in their family-owned food stand in Richmond selling Mexican snacks like Mangonadas — Mexican snow cones — the sisters know something about how to run a business. A guiding principle: “Treat customers well. I think that’s the number one thing,” said Karen.
In return, customers have also gone out of their way to show their affection for the sisters as they left “You guys are so swag” notes in the shop’s message box, alongside drawings of pineapples and strawberries, two flavors of Sister’s Coffee Shop’s signature smoothie.
For 23-year-old Karen, opening the cafe three months ago was the realization of a goal. “It’s my dream, but it’s not hers,” said Karen, pointing at her 19-year-old sister, Melody, who was cutting up a bagel. But the practical older sister sees the benefits for her younger sister: “She’s studying business and finance at San Francisco State University. This would be a great way for her to learn and practice.”
And, working together has its benefits. “It’s easier when there are two people rather than just one,” said Karen. “She does one thing, I do another, and we’re always helping each other.”
Born in the Mission, the Ruelas sisters spent their earlier years here, but relocated briefly to Richmond for the family business. Karen returned to Edison Charter Academy, at 22nd and Dolores streets, for middle school, and dropped by Valencia Street every day after school for bagels and smoothies.
“I feel like I’ve never left the Mission,” she said. Today, she still frequents La Taqueria between 24th and 25th streets. As a child, she visited the restaurant with her father to eat its “superb” tortillas.
After getting married in January, Karen learned that the beloved 20-year-old cafe Javalencia was leaving Valencia Street. With the help of her father, she managed to negotiate a contract with the landlord and officially returned to the Mission with Mexican hot chocolate, the cinnamon-spiked hot chocolate her mother has made for her since she was a child.
They are lucky, she said. From time to time, the sisters’ mother sits at the back of the shop to help with chores. And customers in the Mission “like young people,” said Karen. “And we’re very very young.”
Even so, life in a coffee shop is hard. “It’s also been really stressful,” said Karen, who leaves home at 5:30 a.m. every day and has to work in the shop alone on days when Melody is in class. “I’m here seven days a week, every day. I don’t have days off.”
Opening in the aftermath of the pandemic was also difficult, as the sisters struggled with all the challenges of running a cafe in the midst of a surge. Some days, it isn’t easy, she said. Although she’s not earning much yet, she adds, “I’m patient.”