Noe Valley Voice March 1999

Martha & Bros. Coffee: All in the Family in Noe Valley

By David Thomsen and Amy Isackson

Noe Valley is known for its friendly family atmosphere. We've all heard the stroller brigade and Volvo clichés, and on any given day the strip of 24th Street between Church and Diamond reinforces the stereotype with the force of a thousand tail-wagging yellow labs. Young couples take in the afternoon sun, with smoothie in hand and newborn in tow, and animated neighborhood residents convene on nearly every street corner to catch up on the latest Noe news.

While family is the operative word in Noe Valley, with the advent of Starbucks, Rite Aid, La Salsa, and Tully's, family operations seem to be fewer and farther between. Still, the family-owned Martha & Brothers Coffee Company -- with two locations in Noe Valley -- has managed to thrive by sticking to the characterization that fits the neighborhood so snugly.

"I love my customers. They're like family to me," says owner Martha Guerrero Monroy, who opened her first coffee shop in San Francisco more than 10 years ago.

Ironically, Monroy 's own family occasionally takes a back seat to her business. "I used to get so jealous," says Monroy's sister and longtime business partner, Patricia Larizadeh. "Martha loves her work, and her customers have been number one from day one. I would get upset because her customers were her life. I used to have to look after her kids because she just kept working and working."

Some might say coffee beans are in Martha Monroy's genes. Born and raised in Nicaragua, she and her four siblings grew up drinking more coffee than Kool-Aid on her uncle's plantation, once the largest coffee producer in the country. "Everyone knew to come over to our house for a good cup of coffee," says Larizadeh, who can't recall how old she was when she took her first sip of java.

The two sisters moved to California in 1977, and with the help of their father, opened the Castro Bean on Castro Street in 1986. "We bought a small roaster and started roasting coffee at the store," explains Larizadeh. "We were having a great time, but some merchants on the street went to City Hall to complain about the smoke and smell."

However, the duo wasn't deterred. "We bought a bigger roaster and moved it into a warehouse south of Market and started expanding. We still roast all our own coffee over there."

By December 1987, the bean baronesses had closed the Castro Bean and opened the San Francisco Coffee Company (soon to be Martha's No. 1) at 3868 24th St. In the beginning, Monroy and her family lived in the small apartment at the back of the store, which is now their office.

"My life was completely at the store," says Monroy. "When you're there 24 hours a day for six years, you figure out what works."

And figure it out they did. Faster than you can say "blended non-fat latte," Monroy and Larizadeh had developed a set of diehard customers and a far-reaching reputation for good coffee and friendly service. It wasn't long before their brothers decided they wanted to share in the bubbling enterprise.

In 1989, the sisters turned over their tried-and-true business plan to eldest brother Sergio Guerrero, who opened a second shop at 2800 California St. (near Divisadero). It was then that the Martha & Brothers Coffee Company was born.

"My father helped me on the condition that I would help my brothers. Whatever he had, he gave me," explains Monroy. "He trusted me -- I don't know why, because he didn't trust me when I was 16. My sister and I both knew how to drive, but he would send her everywhere, never me," she laughs.

Younger brother Jaime Guerrero was soon to follow with the third Martha's, at 1551 Church St. near Duncan. Then came Monroy's older sister Mayra Martinez and her husband Noel Martinez, with a slick new store at 2475 Mission St. Monroy opened the fifth coffee shop in her empire last year, at 745 Cortland St. in Bernal Heights.

Though the clientele at each outlet exudes its own distinct personality, the service is consistent at all five Martha's: friendly, personal, and cheerful.

Monroy says the key to her success is greeting customers with a smile and remembering their names and orders. "I really like people and I know and love coffee, but I realize I'm not just selling coffee," she says. "Some people tell me that I'm the only smiling face they see all day."

Monroy's loyal clientele drink up her calm and amicable demeanor with an espresso-fueled excitement. "I used to come here for hours -- just to chat with Martha and to watch her work," says Paul, a regular at the 24th Street store for more than five years.

David, who enjoys a cup of Martha's brew at least three times a week, says Monroy's presence is so strong, it rubs off on everybody in the shop. "I call Martha by name, and everyone else is 'Little Martha,'" he jokes.

'Big' Martha presides over the 24th Street store six days a week. During busy hours, a brigade of expert coffee slingers keeps the line of customers flowing, while Monroy's 70-year-old mother, Stella Guerrero, makes sure pastries are sliced perfectly and grinders are full. The shop serves the usual array of espresso drinks, mochas, lattes, and cappuccinos, in addition to several frozen coffee concoctions.

The store's interior is nothing fancy, with a few small tables, some wooden chairs, a long counter, and a couple of shelves stacked with coffee merchandise. Despite the bare-bones decor, the place maintains an inviting atmosphere. Floor-to-ceiling windows open onto 24th Street, where a row of benches serves as a local gathering spot that is almost always brimming with chatting customers -- many of them longtime Martha's pals.

The Church Street store is much more spacious and has room for a potted plant or two. But the crowd is just as big, and the ambience just as friendly. Jaime's gregarious wife, Ivonne Guerrero, and their two kids, Ivonne Mariel and Jaime Roberto, are the stars of the welcoming committee here. At prime time -- 8:00 in the morning -- the line stretches out the door, and the number of cars surrounding the corner of Duncan and Church approaches double digits. In the afternoon, more dogs are hitched to the posts than horses in Barbary Coast days.

Both Martha's outlets have developed such loyal followings that many regulars experience guilt pangs when patronizing other coffee shops. One longtime customer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, carries an empty Martha's cup in her car in case she's forced to buy coffee from another establishment. Another patron confides, "I accidentally ran into a Martha's regular at Starbucks once, and we made a pact not to tell anyone about the incident."

Monroy is just as hooked on her coffee as her customers are. She drinks three cups each morning and downs either a mocha or a latte in the afternoon. "If I go to a restaurant, I order juice. On Sundays when I take the day off, I still go to one of the stores. I can't drink coffee anywhere else. I have a cup even before I kiss my husband in the morning."

As for the future of Martha & Brothers Coffee, Monroy says she has no immediate plans for expansion, although she admits that lately she's been eyeing a downtown location. Always one to keep it in the family, Monroy explains, "The problem with opening other stores is that I don't have any more brothers and sisters. We all have jobs now. We're complete!"

Amy Isackson lives in Noe Valley and enjoys an occasional blended nonfat latte at Martha's. David Thomsen, also a Noe Valleon, is a travel writer and author of Burritos! Hot on the Trail of the Little Burro, published in September.