Eduardo Antonio knows firsthand what it’s like to call the best food cities in North America home.
Hailing from the Mexican gastronomical capital of Oaxaca, the bar was set high for food, where the famous “Seven Moles” encapsulate some of the most revered renditions of their national dish. This local appreciation for the culinary arts passed onto Antonio when he cooked with his family, starting at the age of ten. His love for regional staples like tamales and chapulines only grew from there.
Decades removed from initially moving to San Francisco, Antonio’s affinity for coffee also runs as deep. Yet he never had the chance to fully dedicate himself to it since he worked in other restaurants for years. Antonio then saw an opportunity to go all-in last December when he and co-founder Francisco Camacho launched Café de Olla, a cafe on the corner of 19th and Mission Street.
Soldiers—on the winning side, of course—first drank café de olla during the Mexican Revolution. The coffee packs a chocolatey flavor, consisting of ground coffee, cinnamon, and piloncillo, an unrefined cane sugar.
Don’t be surprised when you find out that this coffee is, unsurprisingly, the most popular item. The beverage also includes oranges and sweet spices, giving the establishment a trademark to call its own.
However, the rest of the menu is nothing short of phenomenal. The champurrado is a hot chocolate that woke up more than ready to conquer the day, thickened by corn masa and flavored with cinnamon sticks. The Mexican Mocha blends Oaxacan chocolate and spices—like their flagship product—with presentation inspired by the third wave of coffee (and foam). Homemade tamales come in chicken, pork, and vegan flavors, confidently striking a balance between tradition and modernity. And of course, memelas and quesadillas offer snack options to keep things delicious yet light.
Authentic? Check. Casual? Check. Delicious? Check.
Café de Olla never makes things more complicated than they need to be. Because of this, the cafe started strong during its first two months of business.
But when COVID-19 spread to San Francisco, Antonio and Camacho were pressed with problems nobody expected to face while opening a restaurant. The coronavirus pandemic forced the owners to close down in March after the county issued a shelter in place order on March 16 that required residents to remain in their homes.
All of a sudden, paying rent became a month-to-month battle. For small businesses with more tenure, this might be easier since they had time to grow. However, it threatened the cafe’s future throughout the spring.
After restaurants were allowed to open for takeout and delivery with social distancing guidelines, Café de Olla opened its doors again. Yet its return has been far from easy. Once nearby corporate clients fled from their offices and commissioned professionals to work remotely, sales took a hit. Establishments like this cafe depend on relationships with larger companies to find commercial success beyond their brick-and-mortar location.
Fortunately, Café de Olla has adapted, generating new opportunities to stay afloat. The cafe uses third party delivery and offers online ordering, finding a way to serve customers beyond its physical location. A separate in-house delivery arm specializing in tamales launched as well, which could ultimately prove more cost effective. Plus, the establishment has considered adding wine to the menu, which may entice more customers to find a reason to dine-in on the sidewalk.
The standards Antonio sets for his culinary creations are still as high as when he first fell in love with being in the kitchen back home. And for the Oaxaqueño, that’s more than enough to keep Café de Olla moving forward.