Way out on the western end of Clement Street where the commercial district winds down near Lincoln Park, a banner and bright red awning announce the Art Bistro’s “$1 Mini Thai Tea” and a table overflows with groceries for those in need of them.
“We’re not rich, but we aren’t so poor we can’t give away a bag of beans or two bags of rice,” said coffeehouse owner Manajan Sawasdee, better known as Tai, a family nickname. She prices her small iced specialty at a dollar, “So everyone can try it. I’m from Thailand. Every girl learns how to make it there in middle school home economics.” Over the years, she’s written to her teacher, now in her 80s, to report her progress.
Sawasdee never closed during the pandemic. “People wanted normalcy,” she said, so each day at 7:30 a.m. with help from her sister, Anya “Golf” Vittaya, she opened Art Bistro’s doors. Vittaya’s Pacific View Cleaners was closed during the shutdown for eight months and hasn’t yet returned to its pre-pandemic pace.
“People say, ‘I’m sorry, Golf. I work at home and don’t need my clothes cleaned as often,’” she said, though she opens three days a week. The rest of the time, she helps her sister at the Art Bistro, just like when it first opened on Geary Boulevard in 2005.
“You’ve heard of the wind beneath my wings?” Sawasdee asked. “She’s the wind, she’s the wings, she’s everything.”
The story of two sisters, born and raised in Bangkok, who have made their life and a living in San Francisco isn’t unusual in itself: Small businesses have been a path for new arrivals to this coast for at least 100 years. But the Outer Richmond and Sea Cliff communities that the pair have adopted and that in turn have embraced them back — demonstrate what an ideal slice of urban life can look like when the people who live and work in a neighborhood care for each other in meaningful ways.
“Coronavirus is bad, but if we didn’t have it, we might never know how good people are,” said Sawasdee. At the height of the pandemic, she had customers pay for cups of coffee with $20 bills, insisting she keep the change.
“They’d say, ‘it’s the least we can do, we want you to be here when we get through this,’” she said. “We saw neighbors helping neighbors. There was never any question.” That’s how the offerings at the pantry staples table started.
“First it was a few things, and then people started donating. There was so much, now we have to put out a few things at a time. People are really having a hard time.”
Back in 1994, when Sawasdee moved to this country after college, her first job was at Cafe Flore in the Castro. The corner spot was a hub for a cross section of San Franciscans, lingering over coffee, many of them grappling with unprecedented losses to the neighborhood’s people and places at a critical time during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I was the chick behind the bar,” said Sawasdee, remembering her bosses, Mahmood and Ahmad Ghazhi.
“They had gone to San Francisco State and I asked Mahmood why didn’t you get a job in a company? He told me he didn’t think anyone would hire him because he was Middle Eastern,” she said. “They never taught me anything, but they showed me that with hard work you can achieve anything. They were tough.”
In 2005, Sawasdee opened Art Bistro at 33rd and Geary. She was able to give a job to Vittaya, her younger sister who had followed her from Bangkok to attend the Academy of Art and had just graduated.
“I love graphic design,” said Vittaya. “I thought I would work at the cafe part-time and do artwork the other half of the time, but it’s not like that. Pretty soon, the business takes over.”
Early in their life as small businesswomen, Sawasdee and Vittaya navigated the Great Recession. One of the cafe’s regulars, a Holocaust survivor, came in for his daily double espresso. “So, is this your first recession?” Sawasdee remembered him asking. “Don’t worry. There will be more. Don’t even try to swim, just try to float.”
Another time, that same customer peeled off 17 $100 bills and handed them to Vittaya the day she got her green card. “I was ready for you. Now, go see your mother in Thailand,” she remembered him saying.
Vittaya is at once reserved yet joyful and gregarious, while Sawasdee is all business and belly laughs. As a team, they are unbreakable; watching them treat every customer as a special guest is truly a revelation.
“You’ll have to excuse me, this is only the second time we’ve seen each other during COVID,” said Sawasdee, who jumped up from our talk to greet an old friend, John Goodwin. He joined us as Vittaya took and prepared his order.
It was at the original Geary location where the sisters first met the man they nicknamed Ranger John, now retired from his job as a federal law enforcement officer on assignment at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“The job was stressful and coming into their coffee shop was such a breath of fresh air. I wouldn’t have to talk about the day I was having, Tai and Golf knew,” said Goodwin. “It was just unconditional love.” The feeling was mutual.
“You get hit by darts. People are so sharp, they’ll make you bleed,” said Sawasdee.
“Ranger John walked in and that was it, everything healed.”
Goodwin is now a town council member in Colma. “He was the COVID mayor,” said Sawasdee. “I told him, ‘Don’t go into politics, Ranger John, they’ll shred your soul.’ He does it because he wants to help people.” As Goodwin edged out the door, the sisters called out their customary salutation, “Yee haw, Ranger John.” Sawasdee continued her story of the eviction from her original location.
“We were hoping to renew the lease,” she said, but the landlord said he was planning to open his own cafe. She asked for more time to vacate, as she was recovering from surgery for cancer.
“I never saw that many flowers in my life. People volunteered to come in and clean and do dishes. I beat it,” she said of the cancer, but it was the move that nearly took her down.
“Oh God, it was brutal,” she said. “I’m surprised I survived the eviction, the move. It was violent. ”
The old spot still sits vacant, but the new Art Bistro is hopping, especially now that school is back in session. Sawasdee and Vittaya have seen families grow, and children return as adults to thank them.
“I have your cleaning ready. I can bring it here if it’s easier,” said Vittaya as one of her dry cleaning customers crossed the threshold of the coffeehouse. The man is appreciative of the offer, but assures her the extra touch isn’t necessary. “No, no, really, it’s OK, I live nearby the cleaners and will stop in tomorrow.”
As Vittaya waved goodbye, she moved quickly to deliver an order to a couple waiting at a tiny bistro table outside. “People are so kind…” she smiled, as Sawasdee returned to her position behind the counter and the morning rush spilled over into the lunch hour.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com. This month’s guest is Gail Meadows, principal of Meadows-Livingstone School in San Francisco. More at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan.