Noe Valley Voice March 1998

Church Street Gets a Coffee Shop, and It's Not a Chain!

By Loren J. Bialik

People who live along Church Street had a case of the chain store jitters last month, prompted by a boarded-up storefront, a couple of "for sale" signs, and the fleeting appearance of two mysterious "Starbucks" agents. But once we looked into it, the fears seemed based largely on rumor and cappuccino.

A new coffeehouse will go in next to Drewes Market on Church near 29th. It'll fill the Gibraltar Realty storefront at 1708 Church, now boarded up.

However, the cafe is not--repeat not -- a Starbucks or even a Martha's clone. Instead, it's the baby of "home boys" Harry Philibosian and Eric Alexanderson, who have been working (at Gibraltar) or living in Noe Valley for more than 25 years.

Harry's wife, Denise Philibosian, and Eric's wife, Linnea Alexanderson, are also partners in the cafe, which will be a "European-style coffeehouse with open windows so you feel like you're sitting outside," says Harry Philibosian.

"If you picture the TV show Cheers, take away the liquor and add food, that's what it will be like -- a place where people know each other."

The coffeehouse will be called Cafe J-- "we wanted to associate the name with the streetcar" -- and will serve soups, sandwiches, quiches, pastries, bagels, smoothies, and of course coffee.

"We'll all operate it, but Denise will do more of the work in the kitchen since she was a cook in more traditional coffee shops while in college in Michigan," Philibosian said.

"We're a two moms and two pops business," he joked. "No, we're not a chain."

The remodeling has already started, and Cafe J should open in about two months.

Star Bakery to Go Italian?

Meanwhile, Laura Catapano, owner of Star Bakery across the street, says she is thinking of turning her old-fashioned bakery into something of a trattoria.

"I'm planning on giving the store on Church a facelift and offering simple, light Italian food. I'm busy with my other store right now [on Van Ness], so the changes will probably take place in May or June," Catapano said.

The new cafe would be both eat-in and take-out. But the bakery part of Star Bakery -- for many years Noe Valley's main source for Irish soda bread -- would also be maintained. "Irish soda bread will always be available," said Catapano.

Asked whether she was considering selling to a chain, Catapano said that her neighborhood loyalties probably wouldn't allow for that. "I live at 27th and Noe streets. I wouldn't want to change anything. Everyone knows each other here."

Thai Food Fills One Spot

Voice readers already know that Stellings Market has left its corner at 1700 Church St., opposite Star Bakery, and moved its deli items, groceries, and videos next door to Drewes, the meat and poultry shop. This has freed up Stellings' old storefront, which is set to become a Thai restaurant.

Though there was no sign of the new owners -- or the restaurant's exact name or menu -- workers were busy remodeling last month. So it looks like the Thai restaurant is going ahead.

But several other storefronts may be up for grabs.

The building that houses Les Gara-venta's CPA office at 1679 Church is on the market. So is a corner building at 27th and Church, the former home of Lady Sybil's Closet.

Sonia Spahis, owner of Akropolis Travel Agency at Church and 30th, recently died. Neighbors wonder what will become of that corner. And Verona Pizza at 291 30th St. is currently shuttered, due to an owner's illness.

Church Produce Targeted

These storefronts could be ripe for a takeover. And places like Church Produce at the corner of 30th Street are starting to feel vulnerable too.

"Business has been down 25 to 30 percent since they put in the Muni ramps [causing the loss of several parking spaces]," said John Hilas, owner of the produce store. But parking was already a tight squeeze. "People park and then take the bus downtown. Their cars sit here all day," he complained. Hilas would like to see a two- or three-hour limit on parking around Upper Noe Recreation Center.

Recently Hilas was approached by two men who said they owned a coffee shop on 24th Street. They asked if they could lease his space. Though they didn't say who they represented, Hilas assumed it was Starbucks. After 21 years in the business, "I'm not moving," Hilas said.

But how long can local store owners hold out against the megabucks offered by the chains?

Shops and Residents Form an Alliance

About 20 residents and merchants in the area formed a committee in February to address this question and ponder the fate of Church Street's once sleepy commercial strip.

"We wanted to discuss a response to the many changes in the neighborhood," said Janice Gendreau, of Upper Noe Neighbors. "Residents and merchants want to develop a strategy to meet our mutual needs."

One idea would be to ask the City Planning Department to put a lid on certain types of businesses. They could do this by establishing a "special use district" on Church Street. In the early '80s, residents and merchants won such "quotas" on 24th Street -- on bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Then in 1996 the city added controls on takeouts and coffee shops.

Still, a special use district for Church Street may be down the road a piece.

"Right now we want to work together -- merchants and residents -- to build a consensus on what the Upper Noe area should be like," said Tom Maravilla, owner of MikeyTom Market at Church and Day. "People working together is what makes our neighborhood great."