The Boat sits in drydock at Clement and Fifth Avenue far from the waterfront. Its captain is giving up the helm. But someday—soon, I hope—it will set sail as it has for 38 years.
Jesse and Roberta Fink opened the Toy Boat Dessert Café in 1982. Carolyn and I had been living in San Francisco for eight years and were settled in a flat on Twentieth Avenue, then with two kids. A terrific new brand of ice cream had been introduced to the City—Double Rainbow. The Toy Boat served it. (Jesse’s brother Steven and his partner Michael founded the ice cream company.)
Given that the Boat offered so many flavors plus pastries plus coffee plus a mechanical horse for the kids and so many cool toys for purchase, we found our way there. After we moved into our house on Fifteenth Avenue late in 1983, a third child now part of the family, we walked to the Boat with some frequency.
In 2004, I moved my office home from downtown and went out to lunch every day. That meant a sandwich, wrap or salad at the Boat once or twice a week. Jesse, whose family once had spent time with mine at the Calistoga Spa, became a friend who’d sit down and talk about—anything.
The Toy Boat long has been a fixture on Clement Street. The desserts and toys—Pez containers, pink Spaldeen rubber balls and stickball bats like we played with as kids (Jesse’s from Brooklyn) and a variety of tin and, later, plastic super-hero figures—may have drawn people for a first visit.
Jesse kept them coming back.
Whether his customers were locals, the legendary Robin Williams, people from across town or visitors from across the country and, indeed, around the world, Jesse schmoozed with everyone. The Boat became a social gathering place. As host, Jesse asked where you were from and what you were doing and made you feel like the center of the universe.
I, a functional introvert, couldn’t have done what Jesse did. “I’m not sure I’m an extrovert,” he says, “but I am outgoing. I’ve become a lot more sensitive to others over time, so in the store, I wouldn’t be nice to someone simply for business reasons.” Outside the store, he’s much the same person.
Jesse long served as what I termed “The Mayor of Clement Street.” But the COVID-19 pandemic put retailers in a bind, especially small ones, which make up almost all the Richmond District’s stores and restaurants. When the City proclaimed its first shelter-in-place order, Jesse closed the Boat on March 16. “I figured we’d be closed only for a week or two.” The City kept extending the order. Jesse let go most of his staff. He gave thought to retiring.
He was 67. When he put the Boat up for sale, he’d been home with Roberta for two months and enjoyed their time together. And, he confesses, he’d been thinking about retirement since January. The pandemic sealed the deal. “My mother used to say, ‘Moments of decision choose themselves.’”
Jesse hopes that the new owners will maintain the Boat’s uniqueness. Me, too. As he says, “Like the Grateful Dead, we weren’t the best at what we did. We were the only ones.”
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