Donors help secure permanent home for SF’s innovative Old Skool Cafe 

click to enlarge The Old Skool Café is a 1940s-style supper club — with workers dressing in bowties and dresses — in a church-owned building on Mendell Street. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • The Old Skool Café is a 1940s-style supper club — with workers dressing in bowties and dresses — in a church-owned building on Mendell Street.

In a San Francisco gone mad over tech riches, with the smartest people in the room constantly in search of the next big-money idea, one of the hottest investments this year is in the Bayview.

And in this growth opportunity, in a former church building just off Third Street, there isn't a single app to be had and not one bit of customer data or mobile advertising. But there are souls to save from the pitfalls of urban living, and second chances for teens and young adults who are tired of being statistics. Add to that some killer peanut butter stew, gumbo and Tongan ceviche.

Three nights a week for the past two years, several dozen young men and women have donned bowties and evening wear to run a 1940s-style supper club steps away from Mendell Plaza, in the heart of the low-income and crime-filled Bayview. This is Cora Jean's Old Skool Café, the brainchild of a former juvenile corrections officer who gambled that at-risk youths coming out of foster care, out of jail or out of broken homes do not so much need saving as they need opportunities.

And when given the chance to choose work, choices like running the streets and becoming a statistic have no chance.

In this case, the work is spending a couple of years learning how to do every job there is in a restaurant, while receiving constant support and encouragement to finish school or wrap up debts to society.


"No one would hire me," said Dominic Souse, who took up a judge's offer to finish school in County Jail in order to dodge a 10-year prison term for drug dealing. In need of a job once he left jail, Souse found every door shut save for the one at the Old Skool Café.

"When you get guidance, sometimes it clicks," he said. "I got lucky. A good chance was what I needed."

But after guiding several hundred youths on better life paths, mostly blacks and Latinos like Souse, there was one thing that cafe founder and CEO Teresa Goines had no answer for: The City's rapacious real estate market.

Goines is the woman who cashed in her retirement and savings to start the faith-based cafe out of her home almost a decade ago, accepting gifts from donors and city funding to stay afloat while taking nothing in compensation the first year. Now, however, she finds herself in a new world in the neighborhood.

The once-forbidden Bayview is a hot real estate commodity today. The church that still owned the cafe's Mendell Street building, which Goines leased well below market rate since spring 2012, informed her this year that it was time to sell.

Goines was given a shot to bid on the property, but she had virtually no chance since the pastors of the Park Presidio Bible Church who own the property were looking to double their original $273,000 investment.

On the open market, "We would be gentrified out," Goines recently told The San Francisco Examiner.

Suddenly, it was the Old Skool Café that needed saving.

Salvation came via smartphones and chinos. Before the news about the property, the cafe had some distinguished guests: Gene Alston, head of business development at local tech darling Pinterest, and his family.

Sufficiently moved by what he saw, Alston's dining experience led to interest in the program from company co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann and angel investor Ron Conway, whose sons also once dined at the cafe.

When the campaign to secure the building began, Conway and Silbermann were among the first in line.

Both offered up $10,000 apiece toward the cafe's campaign of raising $550,000 -- which, thanks to an anonymous donor who chipped in a cool $250,000 via the San Francisco Foundation, is well on its way to being met.

"We need more programs like this," said Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation. "This is proof that if you are thoughtful and caring, just about anybody can take advantage of an opportunity ... and it dispels the myth that this is a group you can't touch."

The bigger the haul, the smaller the mortgage to pay off and the more people Goines can take in. That means the Old Skool Café is also trying to crowd-source its way toward another $40,000 (as of Friday, it was only thousands of dollars away).


Before dinner service on a recent evening, the crew gathers in a circle. The servers wear red shirts with black bowties. Some young women are in elegant eveningwear. Bussers are in all black, the kitchen crew in chef uniforms. Off to the side, radiating encouragement with a smile that belies the iron determination and steadfast belief she has in each of her "kids," is Goines.

Whatever tech has done to San Francisco, it has also elected to invest in this.

"You might not get everybody," said Souse, now 22 and the manager of a sober-living house in San Mateo. "But for the people who are willing to change, it's a great spot for it."

Help the cafe




About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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