Noe Valley Voice July-August 1999

What's for Dessert to Close:
Cafe May Be Replaced By a Sushi Restaurant

By Kathryn Guta

Many of us have acquired an addiction to the Chocolate Chewies at What's for Dessert, the corner cafe at 27th and Church streets. But we'll just have to learn to get along without them.

Sometime in July, this popular, family-run bakery will close its doors. When it goes, another community treasure will be lost to Noe Valley history.

Over the past decade, Mervyn Mark, the gregarious chef/owner of What's for Dessert (the official name has a question mark at the end), created a warm and cozy haven for harried city dwellers. Whether making lattes behind the counter, pulling trays of croissants from the oven, or running plates of curry tuna sandwiches out to the hungry lunch crowd, Mervyn always found time to shout a greeting to his patrons, calling many by name.

"People are so wonderful here in Noe Valley," he said in late June, already waxing nostalgic about his customers. "This is probably the best community in the whole United States."

But after 11 years of waking at 5 a.m., Mervyn has decided to give himself, his family, and his alarm clock a rest. He has handed his business baton to Raymond Ng and Kin Heng Chen, who will try their luck with a sushi restaurant scheduled to open in late summer. (Though he's sold his business, Mervyn will retain ownership of the building at 1497 Church St. At press time, Ng and Chen were applying for a beer and wine license.)

Although Mervyn was the most visible person working in the cafe, he had lots of help from his extended family. His wife, Karen Mark, was always with him on those long 13-hour days, serving coffee, slicing pies, waiting tables, and drying flatware. His sister, Marilyn Yee, joined them in taking customer orders and running the cash register, and his younger sister, Merle Mark, helped out whenever she visited from Camarillo, California.

Even Mervyn's son and daughter, Jason and Jennifer Mark, got their start in business as teens behind the cake counter. Jennifer now works in production at ZDTV, and Jason is a sous chef at the Watergate Restaurant on Valencia Street.

Part of the magic of What's for Dessert was the way it brought people together. When some neighbors initially opposed the opening of the cafe in 1988, friendly supporters wooed them to Mervyn's side, collecting signatures door-to-door and packing a Planning Commission hearing. This core group of supporters also did the footwork for charitable efforts that Mervyn launched over the years.

Not long after opening, Mervyn spearheaded a fundraising drive for Stanford Children's Hospital. His attention had been captured by a neighborhood girl whose life was saved through intensive-care treatment at Stanford. Mervyn wanted to find a way to give something back. Although he had no idea how to organize a fundraiser, it wasn't long before Stanford University received a check for $5,000.

After Rami Sternfeld died (the founder of Rami's Caffe, now occupied by Fattoush), What's for Dessert participated in an AIDS benefit cosponsored by Rami's and Chloe's Cafe. The combined effort netted $8,600 to help stem the epidemic. In April, Mervyn set out a collection jar for Doctors Without Borders and within two weeks raised $1,000 to speed humanitarian relief to war-torn Yugoslavia.

What's for Dessert served as a community center for many Noe Valleyans, especially for seniors bereft after the closing of Star Bakery. (Star now has plans to reopen in the fall.)

Patron Evelyn Clair came to What's for Dessert three times a week to relax with friends over chicken chow mein. The silver-haired reading teacher would not give her age, but said she knew a group of octogenarians who regularly met at What's for Dessert for a cup of tea and a good chat. "Mervyn fostered an irreplaceable sense of community," said Clair. "People here know a lot about each other. I'm really upset about the closing, but I hope Mervyn and Karen enjoy what they do."

What will they do? Karen hopes to catch up on house and gardening work. "The weeds are about so high in my garden," she said, extending her arms straight out from her shoulders.

Mervyn would not say much about his future plans, but when pressed, he admitted that he might look for another job after he got a good rest. "Like the Voice wrote in a headline years ago, running a bakery is 'no piece of cake'! I need to take it easy for a while and think about what I want to do," he said.

Considering what he's already done, he might view an eight-hour workday as almost a vacation.

Mervyn was one of six children born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He moved to San Francisco when he was 17 and soon married Karen, a native of Canton, China. He worked for a trucking company for 25 years, performing various functions. "I did everything except drive a truck," he said.

All along his first career path, his secret dream was to have his own baking business. By night, he honed his sconing skills through classes and by moonlighting in various San Francisco pastry shops.

"When I first started the business, I had a recurring nightmare of counters stacked with pastry that no one bought."

Fortunately, that part of the dream never came true. Now the rub is that many Noe Valleyans will be chocolate challenged by not having their favorite fudge cake at their beck and call.

And what was the secret of his success? "Love what you do, and you will produce a good product," he said, a smile breaking across his face.

Then his attention was captured by the kitchen, and up he went, stirring cake batter, checking the oven, and emptying the trash. It will be interesting to see where Mervyn and family are going next with their boundless energy.