The spirit of San Francisco is alive and well in Molly Welton’s mobile cafe

California Kahve near Ocean Beach serves coffee and treats with morals and taste

At the end of a four-year passion project, Molly Welton emerged from shelter-in-place the proud owner of a vintage Layton camper. It was rebuilt in stolen moments between parenting and working. To Welton, calling her 1960 Layton a camper or, worse, a trailer smacks of laziness, commonality. There is nothing pedestrian about her vessel, nor the business she operates out of its retro walls, which she calls California Kahve.

Welton is feeling strong these days. Her son is at school. Her husband is off doing what electricians do all day. And she has the day to herself. So she’s working on the fall menu: cookies, doughnuts and all kinds of coffee drinks.

Back in January, when Welton was getting the vehicle up and running, she encountered Tiny Footprint Coffee Company. It aims to plant one tree in Ecuador’s Mindo Cloud Forest for every bag of coffee sold. The group is carbon neutral, something Welton considers a must for coffee sourcing. Among the brands offered by the coffee distributor Welton chose Cafe Femenino, a medium roast cultivated by an all-woman group in Colombia.

Welton says it’s not always easy to make ethical business choices. Buying bulk coffee can make more than a dollar for each cup sold. Buying fair, sustainably grown coffee has much tighter margins. She’s hoping San Franciscans think it’s worth it.

“It comes down to costs,” Welton said. “Nine months in, I get that.”

Welton’s 10-foot-long Layton, sporting a custom wood window and bar, is stationed by a rusty gas station on Lincoln Avenue near the windblown, sandy expanse of Ocean Beach. Getting a parking spot there each week is difficult. The Department of Public Health doles out permits to mobile food facilities in The City, allowing on-the-go shops to sell on private property or in a “public right-of-way.”

Although Welton has spent thousands for a permit, enduring both Department of Public Works and Public Health’s at-times withering processes, she isn’t guaranteed a parking spot for her rig.

“I have actually been paying someone who lives down the street,” Welton said. “He then moves his car for me when I text him at 7 a.m., which is amazing.”

This helpful local is moving at the end of the month, so Welton isn’t sure what will happen then. While being a fan of San Francisco’s mobile food facilities program in general, this need to rely on the randomness of finding sustainable parking is driving Welton a bit crazy.

She’s never worked in a cafe, but she was responsible for making big pots of coffee and occasional espressos in the breakfast lobby at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, where she worked for five years. She was employed at the Four Seasons in Civic Center when the pandemic slammed to Earth, making her income at best unreliable and, at times, nonexistent.

During spring 2000, while looking for the perfect place to get morning coffee on a weekend trip in Petaluma, Welton’s husband said to her: “You’ve gone to five cafes already this morning. Why don’t you start your own?”

The business owner, 42, went to Burlingame High School and is fond of hiking in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Her husband came to the Bay Area from New Zealand to pursue a short-lived, semi-professional rugby career. They’ve called San Francisco home for 14 years.

Molly Welton, owner of California Kahve, and her son on one of their Bay Area hikes. (Courtesy Molly Welton)

Molly Welton, owner of California Kahve, and her son on one of their Bay Area hikes. (Courtesy Molly Welton)

Welton doesn’t think the business is worth operating if it can’t serve her values. Since California Kahve is open only on the weekends, she spends her free time getting her prices (a cup of drip coffee at California Kahve runs $3-$4) and morals balanced. Rather than commercial-grade bottles of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, she makes her favorites, like her mocha, with locally made TCHO chocolate.

“It feels different when you have a drink with fresh ingredients,” Welton said. “And people talk. They say, ‘Oh my god this is so good.’ If you’re going to contribute to the food and beverage scene then make it worthwhile.”

She challenges cafe and restaurant owners — as well as locals — to buy spices in San Francisco rather than hitting Amazon for the millionth time. She uses Rishi Tea & Botanicals and Portland Syrups, for example, as she knows the quality “transfers to taste.”

“It’s night and day,” Welton said. “And it matters to me. I want to offer something valuable and special.”

Welton has always loved food and drink unlike many in “the industry,” as service folk call hospitality. Her voice lights up like a lighthouse in the windy gray when talking to customers. Her eyes pierce the fog. She remembers her family, all of Irish descent, sitting around the living room drinking tea and talking the afternoon into night.

“Food and drink affect how we feel,” Welton said. “I don’t want to dictate what people should or shouldn’t drink, but I don’t feel proud giving people garbage ingredients.”

Welton is all too aware that her business seems like a testament to Instagram coffee culture. She does sell that infamous Starbucks coffee creation, the much-reviled stepson of gourd-themed lattes, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. When it comes to any of these popular concoctions, she is thoughtful and patient.

“I’m anti-mainstream,” Welton said. “The syrups are so contrary to all the work that coffee makers put into growing and harvesting amazing beans. They get smothered in syrup and it’s so gross.”

But her pumpkin latte features fennel, ginger and black pepper rather than the sickeningly sweet caramel torpedo many are used to. She also offers a Moonrose Latte, a delicate drink of rose and nutmeg for those unfortunate enough to not drink coffee. The Afghan cookie, a treat familiar to her husband’s homeland, with cornflakes and walnuts, is unlike other pastries sold on San Francisco’s beaches.

Her longtime friend and fellow coffee enthusiast Michelle Griffith says Welton never compromises on quality, something important to understanding California Kahve’s operations.

“She has a keen sense of detail and sustainability,” Griffith said over text. “She is true to herself, and to the brand she is creating.”

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