By E.A. Barrera
In the Sherman Heights section of Barrio Logan in the city of San Diego, Rene Guzman and his partner Ildifonso Garrillo own “Chicano Perk” coffee house. Located on the corner of 25th Street and Imperial Avenue, the partners opened their house to a wave of support and congratulations by local residents earlier last month… but also to a shock of cold water from San Diego city officials.
Just as the enthusiasm for their new business was rising -”Chicano Perk” being hailed by Chicano activists as a positive move towards the gentrification of Sherman Heights - the partners were being told by an inspector with the city’s food and housing division that he was going to see their house closed down for violations of the city‘s Mobile Food Facility code.
“Paul Hoang of the city’s code enforcement came storming into my business, acting all frantic, moving all over the place, pointing to things and saying ‘This is wrong! That is not ok! I’m going to close you down’,” said Garrillo, a 2nd grade school teacher in Chula Vista. “The city was very negative toward us our first week in business. We thought we had followed all the city’s rules - we thought we had gotten all the permits we needed. But the city made things very difficult and nerve-racking for us in the beginning.”
Garrillo’s partner Guzman said he had suffered bouts of depression from the anxiety caused by the city’s hard line in the early days of his coffee house.
“We felt like we were all alone at first,” said Guzman. “Outsiders asked us ‘why a coffee house in Sherman Heights?’ One of our suppliers asked us where Sherman Heights was and then told us that they don’t drink coffee there. We’d heard rumors that other businesses in the area didn’t want us to stay open. We had all this pressure from the city. When we called our councilman, Ralph Inzunza, his office was not very responsive or supportive.”
The partners eventually met with Javier Heras, Hoang’s supervisor in the Food and Housing division of the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health. He visited “Chicano Perk” several days later with Hoang. Garrillo, still upset from the previous visit by Hoang, asked Heras if his department “trained city workers to harass small businesses?”
According to Garrillo, Heras scolded Hoang for his previous conduct, and Hoang later apologized to the partners for his outburst. Heras then declared “Chicano Perk” was not in violation of health codes or any of the other problems originally mentioned by Hoang.
“I thought they had a very nice coffee cart and I liked their location,” said Heras. “I com-plimented them on their idea for a coffee house. I liked the name “Chicano Perk” and thought they added positively to the neighborhood. So long as they keep up the standards I saw, they will have no problems from us.”
What ultimately saved “Chicano Perk” in the opinion of Guzman and Garrillo, was a large base of support from a community that saw a neighborhood coffee house as more then just a place to grab a “Café Cubano” or “Encanelado” or any of the other drinks “Chicano Perk” produced. It meant having a local place in the community where friends could meet, people could listen to music or read, kids could get together, do their homework, or simply socialize in an environment that was both comfortable for them… and also for their parents.
“I used to have to go to Hillcrest to study,” said Sherman Heights community organizer Norma Chavez. Now we have this place in our community where people can get together. My organization “DURO” (Developing Unity Through Resident Organizing) meets here every Saturday now. This place is providing the people of this community a chance to organize and work together in a way that I think scares certain elements of this city. Some people don’t want to see the people organize and be empowered. They don’t want to see small local businesses succeed. But if this were a “Starbucks” wanting to move into this area, what do you think their attitude would be?” asked Chavez. “The city would be sending out flyers and (Mayor) Murphy would be cutting ribbons,” joked Garrillo at Chavez’ question.
“Chicano Perk’s” problems are not unique to coffee house owners across the county, though the levels of stress certainly differ.
“You need to be in your 20s to run a business like this,” said Sherry Golden, owner of the Golden Goose Coffee Shop in Lakeside. “I have Lupus and my doctor has told me to cut out stress. In fact, the doctor wanted to put me on permanent disability, but I don’t want that. I want to work. I’ve started three businesses in my career - that’s what I do. But now I’d like to find a nice 9-5 job that I could walk away from at the end of the day.”
“So many people thought something like this just would not work in Lakeside,” said Sherry. “You wouldn’t believe the sort of pessimism that I got. The head of the local chamber of commerce at the time said this would be too artsy for a cowboy town like Lakeside. Only one member of the chamber ever really became a regular customer. I said to them: ‘don’t cowboys drink coffee?’ But it was tough at first. Luckily, most of the people in this town didn’t see things that way. We’ve had a very strong, loyal base during the time we’ve been here and I can’t ever thank those people enough,” added Sherry.
Sherry also remembered the troubles she had getting the necessary zoning and business permits to open up her coffee house.
“Basically it was four months of hell. You hear these politicians all the time talking about how ‘small business is the backbone of our economy’ and how we need to help small business. But in California and here in San Diego, that’s a bunch of bull,” said Sherry. “After I’d gotten past the county’s rules, design review rules, zoning regulations… being told I needed to have 9 parking spaces when the building, which was built in 1912, only had four… I was out close to $20,000.
“I was forced to get the approval of all other businesses within 300 yards of my place. I had to pay $4,500 just for a draft site plan for my business. I had to shell out $10,000 to get a general use permit - and that was still with no guarantee the county would allow me to open up my coffee business,” added Sherry. “Finally, I found a county employee who was able to cut through all that red-tape - which was a great relief - but also reinforced to me just how screwed up the process is in this county was for getting a business started. They make it very difficult.”
Not all coffee houses have suffered the same pains of birth as “The Golden Goose” or “Chicano Perk.” Bassam Shama has operated “Café Bassam’s” on the corner of 4th Avenue and Market Street for 13 years. He said when he arrived in San Diego from his native Jordan in 1990, he immediately wanted to open up a café. He said the city back then offered no resistance to his establishment and in fact, he said getting the permits was “easy.”
“You have to remember - this was a much different area back then,” said Bassam of the now very hip and pricey Gaslamp location where his café resides. “The first three years down here were horrible. I was here every day, seven days a week, from open to close, just to keep things in order. Insurance companies were reluctant to insure businesses down here due to the high crime rate.”
But Bassam said all that started to change around 1994 when the Gaslamp project began to see a major increase in the volume of people looking for entertainment and nightlife. The crime rate went down as cafes similar to his own - as well as restaurants, cigar shops, boutiques and eventually more residential development - began to take hold. Recently a “Starbucks” outlet opened up across the street from Bas-sam’s café, but he said if anything, that has improved his business.
“I feel very good about our future now,” said Guzman. “The Chicano community has really been supportive. We are surrounding our café with the literature, music and art of our people, and this will be a place where the people of this area can meet, organize and empower themselves for the future.”
Garrillo added that coffee houses by their intrinsic nature were places were progressive thinking and ideas could flourish.
“This is not a business as much as it’s a cause for us,” said Garrillo. “Coffee Houses are more than just businesses. These places are necessary for our people to survive. Coffee is a small delight that people can afford. We are here to cater to our community.”