By Shelley Eades
Rarely are we humans truly capable of comprehending the effort, passion, and gritty determination circulating behind the scenes of local small businesses. If you look for it, you’ll discover these labor of love attributes shapeshifting into products and services like our handmade pottery and well-tended plants. You’ll find it up the street from our shop at Gratta Wines, swirling around bottles of Sangiovese and tubs of homemade marinara. And a few blocks from there, you’ll taste it in the specialty cocktails served up in to-go cups alongside delicious food nestled in compostable take-out boxes at Cafe Envy.
This evening, I soak all this in as I sip on a cocktail and resonate on the conversation I’ve just had with a small business owner in the Bayview, San Francisco’s African-American Arts and Cultural District. I can only describe her as a powerhouse of a woman with the rare gift of spinning a plethora of plates in the air.
I’ve been hearing about her through other businesswomen in the Bayview.
Just over a month ago after work, a few of us from Urban Farmgirls walked the two blocks to Cafe Envy on Juneteenth. Though it's not yet an official national holiday, Juneteenth is the oldest celebrated commemoration marking the ending of slavery in the United States on June 19th, 1865.
As we entered to place our order, Tina Calloway, Urban Farmgirls’ owner, greeted the owner of Cafe Envy, who was holding her beautiful two-month-old baby girl.
This was the day I first met April Spears. And when I say beautiful baby girl, I mean little Mazahari Mays is long-lashed, wide-eyed cupid perfection!
Newly reopened as a take-out and curbside restaurant, Cafe Envy had been shut down for three months due to COVID restrictions. April’s other restaurant, Auntie April’s, is still closed, but staying afloat by contracting wit SF New Deal and World Central Kitchen. That Juneteenth night at Cafe Envy was our first time enjoying food & drinks out in the open with other human beings after being sheltered-in-place for what felt like a very, very long time. There was a warmth there despite the chilly outdoor air. The people, the vibe, the food, and the drinks were terrific. I’m still thinking about the Salmon Sliders and Cafe Envy’s "15 3rd," a twist on a margarita with pineapple juice and Grand Marnier named after the old bus line.
“She is very tenacious, forthright, honest, and thoughtful in everything she does,” Tina says of April. “She’s opened two successful women-owned businesses in the Bayview. I admire how involved she is in the SF community and with this neighborhood."
April’s face lights up when I ask her about her daughter, “I was in labor with Mazahari while on a conference call. Mazahari literally started working before she was even born, up to now; she’s been on conference calls, she’s been to Restaurant Depot, she’s been to the mayor’s house, she’s been everywhere!”
April makes it look effortless, keeping her two restaurants afloat with a newborn in her arms amid a pandemic and global protests invigorating the nationwide movement for Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd.
“How do you make it look so easy?” I ask, “I keep hearing these stories about how much energy you invest in this community along with being at the forefront of founding The Bayview African-American Arts & Cultural District in San Francisco.”
“Why do you do it?" I ask, "What drives you?”
“You know, I think when you maneuver this way, it’s actually a talent. Because you have to get your groove and have a rhythm to this thing, and you can get pulled in any type of direction. My Grandma raised me. She had six boys, no girls. Basically she took me on as her daughter, as opposed to a granddaughter, so she taught me to cook at a very early age. I was literally cooking on the stove at five-years-old. Like scrambled eggs, stuff like that at that time -nothing that would pop oil on me or burn me. And when you have seven hungry men to feed, including my grandfather, you gotta move fast and you gotta cook a lot. It started there.
To reach the stovetop, she stood on her Grandmother’s chair, a french antique type with a cushion on top, “...it was something you shouldn’t really be standing on, but I had one of those.”
“That, and just being a women-business owner doing everything -I mean I had to move around and move fast! When I opened my first restaurant with a business partner -Olivias. I was ‘The Everything’....the shopper, the cook, the server, the cashier -it forced me to do everything.”
“When I opened Auntie April’s I only had one employee. I would literally go out to the table; take the order, back to the kitchen, wash my hands, make the order, serve the order, wash my hands, ring it up, wash my hands, go back, take someone else’s order….. it’s a talent, ya gotta be made for this sort of stuff!”
Born and raised in Bayview, April wanted to start a business in this historically African American neighborhood. She opened her first restaurant with a friend on her 30th birthday, then moved on from that to open her own, Auntie April’s, in the height of the 2008 recession. Last year she decided to open a second business, Cafe Envy, and was the first to be granted a liquor license in San Francisco in about eighty years.
Like many businesswomen in the Bayview, April and Tina put a very high value on collaboration and reaching out to other small businesses in the neighborhood. They are both members of Merchants of Butchertown, co-founded by April and Barbara Gratta of Gratta Wines. I’ve seen a similar stubborn determination in Tina, to push through economic storms and other unexpected hurdles while simultaneously expanding her creativity. These women are not the type to give up and quit when times get rough.
“There’s a real genuine bond to support each other through so much adversity. Women just stick together.” Tina says of neighborhood businesses, “I want people to do well here and thrive. Before I moved my business to the Bayview in 2010, San Francisco was starting to feel really isolated. I found a great community here in Bayview over the last ten years while growing my landscape design business. The business community that has grown here in this neighborhood feels like what San Francisco used to be twenty years ago when I moved here.”
April has a similar vantage, “I’ve collaborated with Tina a lot over the years, which has been really fun. It’s been exciting and inspiring to see so many women-owned businesses collaborating in the Bayview. New businesses add flare, and having more businesses open to patronize, brings in more foot traffic to the area.”
With the shutdown orders of COVID, April experienced some mixed blessings. The downside hurt; closing down, losing 100% of her revenue, and laying off a lot of employees with the responsibilities of caring for their kids and their older parents.
The upside came in the form of a contract with SF New Deal which led to a contract with World Central Kitchen to feed up to 1,500 people per week in homeless, low-income, and senior populations. This was enough to pay her rent, catch up on bills, and bring a few of her employees back to work. “I was able to feed people that were definitely in need, so that was an honor for me.”
“What was it like,” I ask April, “to reopen the same week as Juneteenth, during such a tumultuous, monumental time in history?“
“That week is basically my life, you know, so to sum it up in a week -it's something that’s ongoing for African American people. And it was nice to see the comradery of other demographics -folks coming together for the solidarity of the movement. There was a sense of empowerment to that because people were like, ‘okay, we’re going to put Juneteenth on the map for what it means.’ I feel like we took ownership of this past Juneteenth. It’s also good to see people educating their children about Juneteenth, with some not knowing that this is their true independence day. We're educating ourselves, knowing more, and educating our children.”
A month after she gave birth, April, along with some other women, went to London Breed’s house to mobilize with a group of women and let antagonizing protesters know that using scare tactics at someone’s home, sanctuary - is not alright. “Whether you agree with her or not, this approach is not something we agree with or will tolerate. For many of us, London has been our friend, long before she became mayor.”
Last week, Tina wanted to do something to support Cafe Envy’s re-opening and add some green to the spacious new curbside dining areas framed in a beautiful new wood slatted fence and dotted with colorful little french tables and chairs.
“Our service has completely changed,” April says of the new set up, “Cafe Envy is now a take-out and curbside restaurant. Customers are adjusting and getting used to being outdoors. Adding the beautiful replanted pottery from Urban Farmgirls has been really awesome and made the dining space so much brighter, especially with those big pots in the outdoor seating area. I’m so glad Tina had the idea as I wouldn’t have thought of it!” April says.
After we’d finished watering the new plants, April insisted on treating us to a bite. It only took about two seconds to order; “Salmon Sliders and two 15 3rd’s please!”