“We want to serve the neighborhood and have it be a place where people can come and hang out. One of the driving forces for us in opening a cafe is about creating that community, it’s partly why we do it.”
For Rachel Herbert and Dana Oppenheim, creating a warm, inviting environment and being a community hub is part of their mission with the Precita Park Cafe. Beginning with Rachel’s first venture, Dolores Park Cafe, her appreciation for food and the connection to community has become a central force in all three of the neighborhoods they serve with the Park Cafe Group. We had a chance to sit down and talk about why Bernal Heights and this cafe is so special to them.
How old is Precita Park Cafe and can you tell us a little about the backstory?
We opened the cafe in December 2011 and were in operation for a year before we put in the grill and kitchen. We had been trolling around the neighborhood for five years before that, looking for a spot in Bernal Heights. We had friends that lived here so we knew the neighborhood pretty well. This was a grocery store that was owned by a family from Jordan who also owned the building and it had been the starting place for their family business. When the father died, one of his daughters inherited the building and it was vacant for a long time, so we had our eye on it. Her mother didn’t want a restaurant in here, so over the years we kept reaching out to her, asking her to check out our other two cafes, Dolores Park and Duboce Park Cafe so she could see what kind of cafes we created. We tried to explain we were really good tenants but she continued to say no. Unknown to us at the same time, one of the neighbors, Danielle, organized some of the other neighbors and went to the landlord and said, “We need a Dolores Park Cafe here, why don’t you reach out to them.”
At first, this irritated her because she thought we put them up to it, but honestly, we had no idea that was happening. Eventually the family said, “Ok, but you can only have a cafe here, you can’t have a restaurant.” We were in operation for a year before they trusted us enough to put a grill and the kitchen in, so then we could serve full fledged seasonal dinners at night.
After we had the restaurant up and running our landlord’s entire family came in for lunch one day and her Mom was so blown away by what we had done, she cried. I think she was surprised by the warm welcome and we felt lucky because she’s a good landlord.
It sounds like you have a concept and a mission with each of your three cafes. What’s the concept behind this one?
We like to go into neighborhoods that don’t really have anything else and need a community spot and meeting place for everyone that lives there. We want to serve the neighborhood and have it be a place where people can come and hang out. One of the driving forces for us in opening a cafe is about creating that community, it’s partly why we do it.
Ideally it would be a destination, but we are kind of off the beaten track. We strive to be a bistro where people can come for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We want people to be able to come here, watch a game and be a consistent neighborhood spot. We intentionally put in the big windows for natural light and looked for the bike on eBay because that’s our mascot. We very decidedly put in a lot of wood to make it warm.
Once we opened, neighbors started meeting each other here for the first time, especially the neighbors with kids. It was really rewarding for us to see that and overhear conversations where neighbors were introducing themselves to each other. Before that, the park was the only other spot for people to know their neighbors.
There’s something that really tugs at the heart when you see kids growing up coming here with their families. This is their place. Parents will come in and tell us how their kids are screaming or kicking and crying because they want to come down to the cafe. They want their favorite meal, or they want to see their friends, or coloring books or whatever it is they love here. We’ve gotten to know them too, so I think there’s something to be said about being the spot in the community where those memories are made. We have a lot of things made by the kids all over the office.
What are some other ways you foster and support community through your cafes?
Rachel is heavily into the arts and it’s really important for us to support local artists whether it’s through live music or hosting local artists’ work. We have rotating art at Dolores Park Cafe and we’re going to start doing that here. Giving local artists a place to showcase their work is important to us.
Right now we find people through word of mouth, we go to different events throughout the city. We’re big supporters of Art for Aids. We love going to Open Studios and ArtSpan. Our next exhibit at Dolores Park Cafe is a local guy, Jason Mecier, who makes portraits out of macaroni. He has a studio in San Francisco. He does portraits of celebrities and both the portraits and the frames are all made from macaroni, lentils and beans. He’s great, we love finding people who do stuff like that. We’re also long time supporters of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation that hosts Dolores Park Film Night. That organization was born out of people wanting to save the New Mission Theater by getting together and putting films on in the park. Now about four thousand people come to four screenings a year at Dolores Park.
The food here is so fresh and tastes homemade. Do you make everything on site for all of your cafes?
We have a really talented chef, Tyler Warner, who we’re excited about. We make things onsite here, like our pastries, some are gluten free, pastas, mozzarella, other cheeses and chorizo and then we transport them to the other cafes. We offer seasonal menus and try to offer paleo alternatives as often as we can.
We also run the gamut for catering, we’ll do anything from a birthday party at the park, to weddings or a buy out to close the restaurant down for a private party.
Precita Park Cafe: 500 Precita Avenue, San Francisco / Tel: 415-647-7702
Dolores Park Cafe: 501 Dolores St., San Francisco / Tel: 415-621-3926
Duboce Park Cafe: 2 Sanchez St. at Duboce, San Francisco / Tel: 415-621-1108
Jason Mecier: San Francisco based Artist
San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation
Frameline: National distributor of award-winning lesbian and gay film and videos to educational and community groups.
Art for Aids: Bringing together a creative community of artists, galleries, art donors and art
ArtSpan: Connects people with the local art community, engages your creativity, and invests in keeping San Francisco unique.
Open Studios: SF Open Studios, the oldest and largest open studios program in the country, is an annual, month-long art event in October and November that showcases over 800 emerging and established San Francisco artists in their studios.
This article originally written for Keller Williams, Bernal Heights Real Estate blog