“Working here I have to be awake, get my energy, so I drink a little bit of high caffeine medium roast all day,” said Abuelrous, sipping her black coffee from a thimble-sized jar with a handle. “I love this cup.”
Abuelrous did not arrive in San Francisco from Gaza as a teenager nearly 30 years ago with coffee on her mind, though she is perfectly suited to welcoming customers to the cafe she envisioned as a place of genuine warmth for its neighborhood.
“When people walk in, it’s not about serving coffee, it’s about making them feel comfortable,” she said. “When you walk into my shop, you can forget all the stuff you left outside.”
Abuelrous brings her background with Arabic food to her 24th and Harrison Street cafe and blends its flavors with the Latino cultural district.
“I like to give a different touch, like little things from my culture mixed with Latino culture,” she said. “From my own tradition I brought baklava, date cookies, Turkish coffee, falafel. I added horchata latte and Mexican mocha. I make my own hummus. Dolma. And I have a breakfast burrito.”
When she bought the business nearly six years ago, she intentionally hired locally and introduced herself to neighboring shopkeepers, from Mission to Potrero.
“I went to each store, told them to come to the cafe, coffee’s on me. Now if I walk on Mission and 24th, everyone says, ‘Hello Temo,’ she said. “I like people to know where I came from and what I add to the community. The Latino and Palestinian cultures are similar, by the way,” she said.
Cementing her corner at the crossroads of culture and community, Abuelrous has commissioned a mural for the Harrison Street side of the building by resident Mexican artist, Marco Razo, and San Francisco-born Palestinian American, Chris Gazaleh.
“The similarities in the cultures come from a sense of tradition and of living in occupied places for so long,” said Razo (his work and art featured in a previous edition of SF Lives). “The collaboration that made most sense for a coffee shop was the long Mexican tradition of chocolate and the Arabs long tradition of coffee,” said Razo, noting the origin of the word chocolate is from the Nahuatl word, xocolatl.
“Yemeni is where the good coffee is from,” said Albuerous of the world’s original coffee-drinking region (the plant’s origins are of course Ethiopian).
A brief history of San Francisco’s own strong coffee culture dates from the Gold Rush days to when Folgers, MJB and Hills Brothers (its logo depicting a Yemeni man taking a sip) established operations here. Beans poured into the port from South Sea islands, South America and Africa. In the 1950s, Caffe Trieste was established as the first West Coast espresso cafe and by the ’70s, the Bay Area’s Peet’s perfected its style of widely imitated dark roast. As for that $16 cup of artisanal coffee The City’s now famous for? It’s brewed with beans from Yemen.
When Abuelrous was still a new arrival here in the ’90s, Middle Eastern food businesses were still fairly limited, shawarma and baba ganoush not nearly as widely available as they are now.
“I did my shopping at 22nd and Irving Market,” she said of one of the few shopping destinations for Middle Eastern food at the time (fresh falafel was available next door at Sunrise Deli).
“It was so hard to get a visa to come to the U.S. I was young, I didn’t know anyone, it was really tough,” she said. It was her grandfather, a tailor, who encouraged and supported her coming to the states to pursue becoming a fashion designer, but a bad classroom experience with an unforgiving teacher derailed her dream. She debated whether to stay, but then family friends introduced her to Hany Abuelrous, who was working in the clothing business at the time.
“We met each other and understood each other instantly,” said Lamea. “My husband is my big supporter of everything I do in my life, from the day we met until today. Every time I want to do something he says do it, try it,” she said.
The couple has been together for 27 years and have three children. Together they built several businesses throughout The City, from the Lower Haight to Alamo Square to 16th Street, where Hany owned a tobacco stand and a cafe. He helped Lamea scout the location for her own business, opened six years ago, and assists when he can, though he’s been sidelined with health issues.
“He knew the Mission after doing business here for more than 20 years, so he drove around and around and looked for businesses for sale,” explained Abuelrous. “He’d come at 5:30 in the morning, sit in his car, watch the business, the community, count how many people walk in and out — all the things you look at when you buy a business,” she said. Once she crossed the threshold herself, she was sold.
“It was quiet, at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon but I really liked it. I knew this was it,” she said. “When you have a vision for something, you’ll make it.”
She admits to the long days and physical labor: “It isn’t easy,” but even in the face of unfortunate events, as when somebody recently stole the tip jar and one of her workers recovered it, she isn’t one to complain.
“I’m so happy how much the community watches for my business. They’re a supportive community and humble. My customers ask me, ‘When are you going to take a vacation?’”
The answer is unlikely anytime soon. Though Abuelrous has traveled the states, “I visited my sister in Tennessee, went to North Carolina, Washington, and New Jersey and it’s all the same to me,” she said. She recently went to Palestine to see family, but prefers to use her rare time off for short trips with Hany to Half Moon Bay or to the Cliff House for lunch or dinner.
“We like being together,” she said. “If I want to travel somewhere, it will be with my husband to Italy, hopefully next year, for our 28th anniversary,” she said. And when she finally takes that time away, may she find a cafe that will fix her some quality coffee and serve it in a tiny cup with a handle, the way she likes it.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.