The Altruism of Asiento

Debi Cohn sees herself as a member of the community. “The most important things about our lives, the things that make us the happiest are connecting with other people,” she says proverbially. Her mission district neighborhood bar, Asiento, seems to be an extension of this outlook, a space in which her passion for people becomes practice.

Humble Beginnings

After a thirty-five year career in the restaurant industry, Debi Cohn has been involved in just about every role imaginable. Starting as a fryer for Jack in the Box at 15, she’s since been a server, a manager, a trainer, and a restaurateur. She’s served fine dining, worked on yachts and charters, and managed neighborhood pubs.

In between, she was also the director for direct mail advertising at an agency. Forever focused on her lifelong goal of owning her own space; the bulk of the money she saved from her time in marketing went toward the opening of her bar, Asiento.

“I didn’t go out and buy a new car. I still have my first car from when I was fifteen,” Cohn laughs.

“I didn’t ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ I saved my money so that I knew I could have a place to do what I wanted.”

A Neighborhood Bar

Cohn first opened Asiento, nestled at the corner of 21st and Bryant in the Mission District, in December of 2010. Starting with just three staff members; Cohn waitressed on the days the bar was closed for additional income. After almost a year and a half later, after having booked more parties, opening the bar seven days a week, she gave up the waitressing gig and went full time at Asiento.

“My favorite things in life are eating and being with people, especially for celebrations and birthdays,” she explains. “I opened up a place where people could come, bring their friends, take over the bar and DJ booth.”

Asiento is a space that proudly charges no cover and requires no minimums for DJs to come and perform. In a uniquely democratic fashion, the first drink ordered at five o’clock gets added to the happy hour menu for the day. The recipes for their signature cocktails are shared with regulars so that they can try them at home. Cohn explained that Asiento is primarily a space for people, that the fresh crafted drinks and the delicious food are more of an accessory.

“The most important thing for me is community and knowing your neighbors, being there to help them when they’re down,” she says.

This outlook extends not just to her patrons in the bar, but to her employees and the surrounding community. Cohn says that Asiento has not only helped host a number of groups and fundraisers over its nine-and-a-half year run, but also says she matches 401ks for her staff.

Closing Down During COVID-19

On March 15, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide moratorium for bars, nightclubs, breweries, and wineries. Asiento, along with thousands of bars throughout California, had to shut down.

“It’s unprecedented,” Cohn says of the shuttered industry. “There isn’t a roadmap.”

At the time of this interview, Cohn says she hasn’t yet received her unemployment aid or the restaurant grants that are being given out by local governments.

“They haven’t got to my application yet,” Cohn explained, saying she called in to check on the status of her application for the grant. “They said nearly sixty thousand people applied, and they only are able to process about twenty to fifty a week.”

Despite the closure of her bar, Cohn’s neighborly altruism hasn’t wavered. She says she’s cooked the rest of her food in stock and gave it all away. Like many other bars, Cohn launched a GoFundMe campaign to support her staff and help make ends meet. The GoFundMe, featured on Asiento’s Facebook page, has raised about six thousand dollars of its fourteen thousand dollar goal, some of which has already been distributed to her employees.

It’s still uncertain when bars and restaurants will be able to open up again. While some businesses have been identified in the federally proposed first phase of re-openings, bars have been told specifically to remain closed.

In the meantime, Cohn says she’s coming up with a solution to help stave off the worst effects of the shelter-in-place closures. She’s contemplating selling tacos for takeout through the front of the bar.

“With this Covid stuff, it might kill my entire savings, but I want to help people, just to help them,” she says. “I’m going to be doing this for as long as I can. Making people happy makes me happy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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