San Francisco changes constantly. For thirty years, Jesse Fink, 61, owner of Toy Boat Dessert Café on Clement at Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District and unofficial “Mayor of Clement Street,” has kept his finger on the neighborhood’s pulse.
Jesse and his wife Roberta opened the Boat in 1982. People asked why own a store “way out there?” Once, the Richmond, built on sand dunes, was thought uninhabitable. But it had long been thriving when Jesse arrived. The neighborhood was home to a large Russian community and many Russian bakeries. Chinese moved in from Chinatown. “Already there were people from Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand,” Jesse notes. Irish settled in the Richmiond. Russian Jews came in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As the British prepared to shed their last colony, Hong Kong Chinese bought real estate.
Jesse is proud that Clement remains one of San Francisco’s few un-gentrified streets. “We kept Starbucks and most major chains out,” he says. “The retail orientation is local.” The problem with chains? According to Jesse, former president of the Clement Street Merchants Association, “Chains take away the integrity and individuality that mom-and-pop stores offer neighborhoods. They’re basically rubber-stamp businesses. People come here from Manhattan, which is filled with chain stores, and say, ‘This is so nice.’”
A welcome change: upscale stores and restaurants span Clement from Arguello (equivalent to First Avenue) to Third. Jesse would love hipper stores to open nearby and bring their customers in. But few properties become available since relatively few businesses leave. Still, the Seven-Eleven at Tenth Avenue and the framing shop just west have been vacant for years. Jesse’s take: landlords may not want to give long-term leases or want too much rent or just seek tax write-offs. “You never know what’s really going on.”
Rents go up regardless. As a result, Toy Boat had to change its business model. Jesse and Roberta established the Boat as a coffee and dessert place, open from 11 am to 11 pm. To counter rising rent, they added breakfast and lunch, opening the store at 7:30 am.
People like to hang out at the Boat. Supervisor Eric Mar comes by frequently. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped in recently. Robin Williams came by a lot. Jesse would speak with him as a neighborhood guy, not a big star. Out-of-towners drop in, too. Now, young people—including students at the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State—are returning to the neighborhood as rents in the hipster-oriented Mission District soar. “There are a lot of bars on Clement. You come here on a Friday or Saturday night, and there’s no parking.”
Jesse, like all City retailers, faces rising labor costs. In April, he raised prices before San Francisco’s May 1 minimum wage increase. Only two customers said anything. “Everyone’s prices have gone up to compensate,” he says. As the minimum wage ascends to $15 an hour, prices will have to keep pace.
Two important questions patrons ask: What’s the Boat’s best-selling ice cream? Chocolate Salted Caramel. Jesse’s favorites? White Pistachio dipped in hot fudge and Soy Cherry Chip.
How long will Jesse keep at it? He’s not sure. But he loves coming to work. Toy Boat, he says, is a performance piece. It’s a performance worth catching.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.