Clad in a blue sequined dress and Cruella de Vil wig, Manny Yekutiel is working the room. His venue, an eponymous Mission District cafe and event space, brims with the political who’s-who of San Francisco, and he knows everyone. It’s the night of the special election to decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Manny’s is hosting the biggest party in town.
In spite of the vaccination and masks requirement, excitement is too high for social distancing. Manny’s is packed, constituents and reporters rubbing shoulders with city supervisors, state assemblymen, and members of California’s most prestigious political families.
“Tonight, someone out there is holding a beer for me, and I’m going to drink it and have a little fun,” says Christine Pelosi, the congresswoman’s daughter, after the election is called in Newsom’s favor. “Then, we’re all going to come back to Manny’s, and get back to work to keep Nancy Pelosi speaker of the house!”
Founded in 2017, Manny’s has earned more press than most restaurants and cafes in The City, mainly because of its high-profile political events featuring politicians like Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Chesa Boudin. If you only knew San Francisco politics from what’s printed in the papers, you might think of Manny’s as the sole civic gathering space in The City.
But some Mission residents don’t know about it at all. Mireya Leon, who’s lived in the neighborhood for the past 19 years, said that she’s “very familiar with that area, and had no idea (Manny’s) was there.”
That’s because, for all the media attention it gets, Manny’s is not the center of the San Francisco political universe. It is, however, the center of Yekutiel’s world.
Take a look around Manny’s and his fingerprints appear to be all over the place: Yekutiel is religiously Jewish, and a mezuzah hangs near every door. He’s also proudly gay, and the artwork of Simón Malvaez, featuring colorfully drawn, handsome and half-naked men, hangs on the walls. Persian rugs, rich jewel tones, and winding vines give the space a vaguely Mediterranean feel, which Yekutiel says is meant to recall the intellectual coffeehouses of the Ottoman Empire.
But Yekutiel says he doesn’t want to take up the attention. “I don’t want it to feel like ‘this is a place for Manny, and what Manny believes in, and what Manny cares about,’” he explained. “I want people who work in civic, political, nonprofit and social justice to feel ownership over this space.”
The cafe is an extension of Yekutiel’s lifelong interest in learning about other people. He grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles, something which he recalled fondly but said put a lot of rules around his social life and made him curious to meet people who lived differently. When he traveled on planes as a kid, he would ask his parents to book him a seat in a different row, so he could get to know the strangers who sat beside him.
“Growing up in a very insulated environment fostered a deep, deep curiosity about the world,” he said. “I’m just genuinely interested in other people’s stories.”
Today, Yekutiel’s social life is more eclectic than his boyhood self ever imagined. He spends his weekends dancing at clubs like Powerhouse and Casements, sharing a bottle of rosé or a joint with friends at Dolores Park, or taking himself out to a movie at Alamo Drafthouse. Sometimes he texts his friend, prominent tech journalist Kara Swisher, to see if there’s a time in both their busy schedules to catch a quick class at SoulCycle.
Yet even when he’s off the job, he’s not. Up until July Fourth of this year, anyone calling Manny’s would ring Yekutiel’s cell phone, not a landline. On one weekday afternoon when The Examiner shadowed Yekutiel, he alternated between running errands and stopping in to mediate conflicts between surrounding businesses and dismissing an unruly guest. When he first opened the venue, Yekutiel said he had almost no free time, consistently working 12 to 14 hour days.
Booking events, according to Yekutiel, is mostly “good old-fashioned hustling.” His professional background, however, certainly helps. He worked in the Office of Public Engagement during the Obama administration, was chief of staff at the immigration-focused political advocacy group FWD.us, and served as deputy finance director for the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Though about a third of the events at Manny’s are the product of organizations reaching out to the staff, he and his small events team spend time each week tenaciously emailing book publishers, politicians, nonprofits and media personnel.
Yekutiel says he interfaces with a more diverse range of people running Manny’s than he ever did in politics. His business sits at a lively junction, between two very different scenes of Mission life. The 16th Street BART station is a block away, surrounded by street vendors selling a variety of accessories and snacks. Cleaner sidewalks and high-end retail can be found surrounding Manny’s perch on Valencia Street.
“I’ve seen humanity up close, and have the strange honor of sitting at the intersection of leaders discussing solutions to problems and the problems existing right in front of me,” he said via text. “It’s a trip sometimes.”
It’s hard to ignore the tension between the varying walks of life, and the discomfort of some guests. At Manny’s, politicians can’t sweep the streets of the homeless for an unobstructed photo-op. After an event with Boudin, a man living in the alley next door feasted on the same food, the meal hand-delivered to him by one of Yekutiel’s staffers.
Still, Yekutiel hopes to engage his patrons in new ways and expand their views of the world. “There’s all these people in our city who never think of themselves as political and might never go to a political event unless they’re brought in in the right way,” he explained. “I want to bring people in who are just trying to get a beer, or just need a place to work, and say, ‘that’s fine, come work. But also, while you’re here, you can meet a member of Congress.’”
When asked if he has his own political aspirations, he said he’s unsure. Yekutiel is already a director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors and a board member of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
That keeps him busy as is, he said. He’s too occupied with the all-consuming work at Manny’s. “I’ve never been the kind of person who plans far ahead,” he added.
But when asked where he sees Manny’s in 10 years, Yekutiel has a slightly clearer vision. He doesn’t want to franchise his venue, but he would love to use his experience to advise other small business owners who want to create civic spaces. He envisions a nationwide network of political coffee shops, lending each other advice and connections and helping to mitigate the political polarization that has Americans in its grip. In the meantime, he wants Manny’s to be a “fundraising powerhouse,” offering “free space to as many organizations that need it.”
Most immediately, however, he wants his self-named business to be a little less closely tied to him. “In less than one year,” he asserted, “I want Manny’s to run independently of me.”