I’d like to open this month’s Paxtonian by pointing out a few things about this article. In short, I’m not a journalist. My intention here is to write about my experience in the Mission, specifically around Valencia Street in the 90s, and why I opted to relocate Paxton Gate to the corridor in the latter part of that decade. To add to my narrative, I reached out to other business owners to hear their stories. Those individuals I reached out to are people I know or businesses with whom I have some history. As a group, I realize they are not a demographically accurate representation of Valencia in 90s, and it’s not my aim to offer that. This is not an article about gentrification, despite being readily willing to admit that early businesses, like Paxton Gate, likely laid the seeds for the gentrification that followed. I, like many of my cohorts, came to the Mission for cheap rent, art and artists, to connect with the creative thinkers, and because it’s where we played: Watching live music, dancing, drinking, and socializing. We rented flats and live-work spaces in the area. I tended bar at four separate locations within a block of 16th and Valencia for 14 years and spent much of my young adult life gallivanting around the neighborhood, and still do, to this day. Gentrification is a tricky subject that I frankly don’t feel qualified to explore, but in the 30 years that Paxton Gate has been in San Francisco, I’ve seen the trend that’s likely not unique to our city. 

First, artists, musicians and other creative thinkers are attracted to a working-class neighborhood by the low rents, the access to studio space, and occasional proximity of cheap bars and cafes. Some of the more entrepreneurial types go so far as to open galleries or small businesses. The number of bars and cafes increases to provide services for the artists as well the original working-class residents. More retail follows and then, when things start looking “cool” to the outside world, the neighborhood starts catching the eyes of bigger brands and deeper pockets. More bars open, higher-end retail and restaurants pop-up, and “designer” dwellings are built. Rents go up and up and the working-class, the artists, and the mom-and-pops struggle. Many are eventually pushed out. I consider myself part of the mom-and-pop class as would, I imagine, the people I interviewed for this piece. Where that process of change is good for a neighborhood and where it becomes a detriment—and what to do about that—is a discussion for another time and for someone far more articulate, and brave, than I am.

I know when first finding Valencia and the Mission, I loved the neighborhood over no other, which is how I found myself strolling around, looking for commercial rentals sometime in 1998. And, how seven years after its inception, Paxton Gate settled into the neighborhood that I had already called home.

I first discovered Valencia and the Mission District around 1990 when I frequented clubs several blocks away in the 11th and Folsom area. Paradise lounge, Oasis, and DNA Lounge were frequent haunts but, even in my youthful, early twenties, the club scene was becoming a bit much for me.

One evening, I was drawn away from SOMA and into the Mission by a visit to The Firehouse 7 on 16th and Albion, which years later became Kilowatt, a bar I worked at for around a decade. I remember walking from 11th and Folsom, and it genuinely felt like we were walking into a somewhat deserted part of the city: How can there be anything worth visiting this far off the beaten path? In contrast to activity surrounding 11th and Folsom, the streets on our walk were deserted with darkened doorways, litter blowing about, and nothing even remotely resembling revelry.

Showing our I.D.s, we entered the smokey club, walking into a high-ceilinged, crowded space, humid with dancers and drinkers. I believe there was a single pool table but I’m certain that a DJ was perched high above the floor on a platform, with a commanding view of the entire room. Somehow the space and crowd felt more genuine than the revelers in the SOMA club scene, who, by contrast, felt like they were playing a role or adopting a persona for the night. In retrospect, I too had been playing a role in that scene but, here at the Firehouse, I’d finally found my crowd and was able to let my guard down. With the discovery of this one spot on 16th Street, my taste for nightlife changed and, unbeknownst to me, so did the trajectory of my life. Soon thereafter, I found other clubs like the Crystal Pistol, which later became Timo’s, then Range, and now The Beehive.

The Crystal Pistol was even further from what I previously viewed as the center of nightlife in San Francisco: It was past 19th street, way out there in the “scary” Mission! With its low ceilings and narrow footprint, it snaked its way back into the darkness, music thrumming through your body, room after room. Across the street was the Chameleon, a punk rock club that thrived for years. Like many of the early bars and clubs along the corridor, these were replaced and evolved over the years, changing names, owners, and crowds. There was the Elbo Room, The Lexington Club, La Randallas with their cheap, strong margaritas—and unexceptional Mexican fare—and so many more. 

Eventually I settled into the neighborhood by securing my first bartending gig at Dr. Bombay’s, which later became Double Dutch and has been closed, it seems, since shutting down at the beginning of the pandemic. Dr. Bombay’s granted my entry into the world of bartending, but it was owned by a truly dreadful couple. To start, they required three days of unpaid “training” which was just three, unpaid shifts.  There was no training. For a new bartender, it was worth it to get my foot in the door, but clearly illegal. Among other obsessive endeavors, they kept constant video surveillance which they employed—not so much as a security measure—but to meticulously surveil their staff and question every move we made.

As a business owner, I understand having video to deter theft both from customers and the occasional unscrupulous employee, but they seemed to watch every minute of each video to see whether they could catch us doing something wrong. They trusted no one. “What were you doing here with your back to the camera?” “Ummm, I was grabbing a bottle from the lower shelf.” Business 101: Trust your staff. If that weren’t enough, they had us weigh the liquor bottles between shifts to cross-check them with our sales to ensure we weren’t giving anything away or over-pouring. Somehow despite this, and numerous other challenges, I stayed at Dr. Bombay’s for about a year during which time—if memory serves—31 bartenders were hired and fired or quit. Some never even made it through their free “training” days.

During that year at Dr. Bombay’s—while in my last year of business school—I unintentionally (or unconsciously intentionally!) found myself consulting with a customer about the store he and a fellow gardener were in the process of opening. Peter and I had become friends and he was telling me about the space they’d procured for around $300 per month on an alley off an alley, near Gough and Market Streets. It seemed to me, that they were just sitting on it and spending more time talking about their business than executing a plan to open it. As a lifetime entrepreneur in everything from selling candy to my peers in grade school, to a failed window sign painting venture, and even bands in and after high school, I was baffled by their inertia. In all these endeavors, I was the one who fell into the managerial role; the one who pushed things along to make sure goals were met. The taskmaster. It seemed obvious they needed someone in that role.

Have you registered your fictitious business name? Do you have a business license? What sort of check writing system are you going to use; I recommend Safeguard …” Eventually, Peter and his partner, Jeff—perhaps realizing they needed a nudge, maybe just motived to shut me up—asked me to come on as a third partner. I eagerly joined the endeavor, probably way too enthusiastic, and far too assertive, and managed to do two things. First, I scared Jeff away. His wife said that it was too much risk to take on with a baby coming, and he backed out, but I’m not sure that it wasn’t partially me that inadvertently pushed him away. Peter and I “bought him out” for the few hundred dollars he’d spent up to that point. I used my last financial aid installment for college as my investment in the business, and to this day, when I reflect on signing that loan agreement, which stated that I promised to use the funds for educational purposes, I feel that it couldn’t have been better spent. In fact, I’ve often said that I learned more in my first six months of running the business than I did in four years of business school. In addition to driving Jeff away, I also pushed us to open by December in time for holiday shopping. Already, I was becoming the taskmaster, but in embracing this role we were able to open by December 2nd, 1992, just a couple months after I came on board.

I had opted for a degree in small business because I knew that I wanted to do something, to run my own company, but had no idea what. I figured I’d secure the degree and gain the knowledge, then I’d figure out what that business was later, armed with the tools to make it a success. It may sound like I’m begrudging the business degree, but I did put it to use and a basic understanding of payroll, accounting, importing, etc. has helped me understand quite a lot that would otherwise have been totally foreign to me. Also, it just so happened that my two final college projects (Paxton Gate, Marketing Plan and Paxton Gate, Business Plan) came in handy, since I prepared them for my real business rather than the mock businesses of most of my classmates. Reading back over them years later, I’m surprised to see that we followed them down to almost every detail, even including the launching of the original Paxtonian. Although Paxton Gate dovetailed nicely with my interests, I had no idea something like it would come along and without my tumultuous time at Dr. Bombay’s, it may have never happened.

Over the coming years we learned and evolved. Having never worked in a retail store, I had a lot to discover but the small location, limited foot traffic, and unbelievably low rent made that possible. By this time, we were outgrowing the original location, with only about 300 square feet of retail floor, a tiny office with six-foot ceilings, and storage space cut and clipped from adjacent rooms in the building (even including the garbage room next door). I started pondering the idea of moving and with my radius of bartending gigs all within one block of 16th and Valencia, that’s where I began by walking the corridor. Things, at this point in 1998, were already happening around 16th Street, but the further away I got from that nexus, the more abandoned it felt. There have long been businesses along Valencia, and I don’t in any way mean to imply that those mom-and-pop businesses that predate Paxton Gate’s arrival—mostly owned by people of Latin descent—didn’t exist back then. But when I walked the street, working my way further and further south from 16th, there wasn’t much, and between all those mom-and-pops was a glut of desolation.

There were a couple auto shops, New College occupied several buildings near 19th, there were several bars and a few cafes, and many spaces that seemed to be used for storage or for nothing at all. Surprisingly there wasn’t much for rent, or at least, there weren’t a lot of “For Rent” signs. I wasn’t sure; something felt right but it also felt wrong. 

As any good business person should, I didn’t limit my neighborhood walks to Valencia Street. I also walked through Noe Valley, which was quite established and, for me, too expensive. Hayes Valley wasn’t far from our original location, so was a logical move, but I recall it being dominated by galleries and catering more to that crowd at the time. I think I even visited Union Street and Fillmore. Those neighborhoods were clearly out of my league. I continuously came back to Valencia. Despite the empty storefronts, the desolate mood of the corridor, debris littering the street and sidewalks like it was the “end of times” (some things never change), and well-founded fears of gang violence, I saw promise in the chaos. The part that felt wrong, turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. In returning to Valencia again and again, I realized I didn’t want to join an already established neighborhood. I wanted to help build one. 

I interviewed other business owner-operators along the corridor, and I found that, for the most part, they felt the same and were drawn to the Valencia corridor for similar reasons. My former employer, Peter Athanas, opened Kilowatt in 1994 taking over the space that formerly housed Paula’s Klub House and The Firehouse 7.

He described the area in the mid-90s as “… way scarier then. Lots of down and out people hanging around and passing out on the sidewalks. You did not go out on the side streets in the beginning. You walked on the bigger streets even though that wasn’t much better.” But, when asked why he chose the location he replied that he “came to the area because it was beat up, rough around the edges, and young kids lived in the area. The exact people I was hoping would come to the bar.” As a former employee of Peter’s, I can say that one of his strongest skills as an owner-operator is hiring these “young kids” and letting his staff shine. He hired and supported young, cool, and—mostly—friendly bartenders, some of whom became the face for the Kilowatt, setting the tone, picking the music, and establishing the brand. (I was never “the face” of Kilowatt; I was too focused on Paxton Gate).

By doing this, he took himself out of that role and let his staff bond with regulars with whom they shared interests and friendships. And, in so doing, Kilowatt built an incredibly strong base of regulars. To this day, almost anytime I go by Kilowatt, I’ll see a regular that I served back in the day. Also, credit goes to Peter for pushing me to make a genuine attempt at realizing Paxton Gate’s potential. Despite it being open for 12 or 13 years by this time, Paxton Gate still wasn’t turning a profit, nor helping to pay my bills in any significant manner. Peter not-so-gently nudged me out of bartending with the guidance that I needed to make Paxton Gate happen or do something else. His thinking was that I was not fully committing myself with bartending to fall back on. Initially, I was angry, and the following couple years were particularly tough, but by being firmly pushed out of that job, Peter had sent me on a path that brought me to where I am today. It was a move that had to happen.

In late 1997 a young clothing designer named Dema opened DEMA on Valencia near 22nd. She took over a former coffee shop called Maria’s that advertised having the cheapest beans, but never seemed to open its doors. I met Dema Grim working together in the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association (VCMA), of which she was a member until she closed DEMA in 2016.

She and I served together on the board for several years. For seven of those years, I was the President until, just months before Covid-19 hit the City, I finally coerced someone into taking the reins! Despite the corridor having no new clothing stores at the time, Dema saw promise in the corridor and as she said, “To be honest, it was the first affordable space I found!” She had moved into a working-class neighborhood and was working, making her clothing by hand, on-site, but still stood out, not always in ways one would hope.

“I was accused of gentrifying the neighborhood and had ‘yuppy scum’ spray painted on my sidewalk. I did my best to educate people that I was right there, in the back, sewing up the clothes. And they weren’t being made by 9-year-old kids in a factory in India” but often people see what they want to see. When she first opened, the corridor “was a real community of determined mom-n-pop businesses. We fought hard to keep out the chain stores. "I’m in awe of how fancy it’s become. It seemed a lot more DIY back in the day.”

Here, Dema points to an often-noted part of the evolution of Valencia. For our part, my colleagues and I operate our businesses. Most of us are there onsite, doing the work in some capacity, if not daily. Although, through the VCMA, we’ve been able to keep most of the chains at bay, the bigger, slicker businesses that have arrived in recent years aren’t typically owner operated. Sure, many of the big names have only one store, so they aren’t technically chains, and some are even San Francisco based, but they are frequently large eCommerce companies. When a business is run onsite by the people that own it, it’s run differently than one that’s a flagship store for larger entity. The former is a part of a community whereas the latter is a foothold into a hip neighborhood to elevate their brand. Dema points to a typical demise of a Valencia business, like hers, and when asked why she closed she replied, “My sales were steadily dropping and, of course, I blame the tech invasion. A lot of my customers were priced out of San Francisco. After 18 years I was too weary to try anything new in that space.” Dema is semi-retired but still making clothing for her die-hard fans and “doing custom, made-to-measure clothing for private clients and loving it,” she says. “Collaboration with my customers is so much fun!” She does in home consultations and is excited that quite a few of her customers from the early days have tracked her down. She can be found on Instagram @dema-sf.

Phil and Cameron West opened Range in 2005, just three doors down from Paxton Gate. I met them because they were neighbors but also my close friend Jeff Lyon ran their bar program for many years. Phil and Jeff later opened The Third Rail which my firm, RareField, designed and built, but that’s another story. Point being, I’ve known Phil for quite some time as a neighbor, colleague, amazing chef, client, and friend. Range was a favorite location of mine for a casual dinner, usually seated at the bar, always including excellent food and cocktails.

Phil remembers the neighborhood as being, “full of artists, industry folks, and other interesting people,” and being “a bit rough around the edges, making the area exciting and unpredictable.” Like all my Valencia colleagues, Phil was attracted to the somewhat derelict nature of the area as well as the creative and artistic populace. He saw the space that would eventually house Range, and now The Beehive, and he “just knew it was right.”  The locals that originally frequented Range helped to make the restaurant a success, but according to Phil, “as we got into the early 2010s and beyond it seemed like the neighborhood community had shrunk and our customer base shifted to folks from outside the immediate area.”

But Phil noted that due to several forces beyond his control, “margins at moderately priced restaurants were horrible and we didn't want to become expensive.” Also, as many entrepreneurs feel as they start to settle into mid-life—myself included—he and Cameron wanted to spend more time with their family. Running Range kept them both constantly tied to the restaurant, even after 10 years, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. “With new partners and more of an administrative role,” says Phil, the “Beehive was a good solution to the problems we faced.” 

Back when Peet’s and Starbucks were dominating the coffee market as “second wave coffee,” Eileen Rinaldi had a dream to bring a third wave of coffee to San Francisco, the likes of which could only be found in the Pacific Northwest. Local San Francisco cafes still offered syrup flavored espresso beverages (funny, that’s where Starbucks seems to have landed) and pint glass lattes mounded with fluffy foam.

Drawn to the neighborhood, in part by David Egger’s 826 Valencia, Eileen recalls, “I wanted Ritual to be at the center of the literary movement of the early 21st century, in addition to elevating the bar for specialty coffee in the Bay Area.” But like others with whom I spoke, she followed with, “I knew that Valencia was where my people were—the artists, the writers, the unconventional thinkers.” In May of 2005, Eileen realized her dream and opened Ritual Coffee Roasters which was San Francisco’s first brick and mortar cafe serving the style of coffee for which San Francisco is now known, described by Eileen as, “single origin, freshly roasted coffee beans, latte art in all the drinks, and a focus on quality.” I recall my first sip of Ritual coffee, and like that first night at The Firehouse 7, it changed my outlook, this time it was coffee, not nightlife.

In fact, so many people were flocking to the café, I remember a passerby commenting on the line out front with, “What are they putting in that stuff, crack?” Thinking back to the mid-2000s, Eileen muses, “There was a feeling of optimism in the Mission—an anything can happen feeling. And amazing things did happen. With the cost of rent being what it is now, that feeling is much more elusive.” Like other earlier Valencians, Eileen laments some of the changes to the corridor, yet she’s optimistic and still believes in the “idea of San Francisco,” taking great pride in her location in the Mission. “I feel so lucky to have opened Ritual on Valencia Street in 2005. It was just the right place at the right time. And we’re still going strong thanks to the foundation from that time.”

Like Dema, I met Eileen, through the VCMA where we’ve worked together for over a decade. Throughout that long relationship, I’ve admired Eileen for her intellect, knowledge of local politics but, even more for her apparent business savvy. Perhaps, like many of us, she’s putting out one fire after another, and barely keeping it together. It certainly seems otherwise. As I see it, Eileen has guided Ritual with skill and hard work, helping to bring San Francisco coffee culture to an entirely new level. Under her guidance, Ritual has grown to include five locations as well as a local roastery and she recently opened a spot in the Harvey Milk Terminal at SFO. You can catch up with Ritual’s goings on in Instagram at @ritualcoffee. 

Don and Lanee Alan are the earliest adopters of the neighborhood with whom I spoke. They opened Radio Valencia Café at 23rd and Valencia in 1991 staying open—with a short respite due to a firetruck crashing through their front door—until 2000. I worked at Casanova Lounge which Don and Lanee purchased 1997, shortly after I made the move to Kilowatt. Don and I never worked together but crossed paths often because of his active involvement in the neighborhood, including time with the VCMA and the Mission Merchants Association.

As with everyone, Don recalls a vastly different population, “Lots of creative types lived in the Mission, artists, and musicians. Everyone was in a band … young DIY entrepreneurs with a flair for the unique, offbeat, and vintage.” I

n his memory, the neighborhood, “was pretty sketchy. Gangs occupied the midsection, between 19th and 20th Streets.” Paxton Gate’s future home. “Muggings were frequent, break-ins, and shootings. It’s hard to believe now, but it wasn’t very safe to walk Valencia alone at night.” Despite all of that, the neighborhood around 16th and Valencia was experiencing a night-life explosion of sorts. Numerous bars and clubs were opening or changing hands, and joining the others already nearby, including The Albion, Blondies, Jack’s and the Elbo Room. “It seems like within a year or so, the neighborhood arrived in the San Francisco and Bay Area nightlife consciousness. Weekend nights were crazy busy at all these spots, bringing in what was then called the Marina and Bridge and Tunnel crowds.” And, as always happens when a bar gets busy, Don recalls, “The neighborhood regulars lamented the loss of their unknown, little hidden gems.”

With the influx of more people, the groundwork had been laid for the future of the corridor to become what we see today. With those new visitors came the impetus that would lead to change. The progression had started and there was no turning back. Don sums it up nicely, “It was evident that young, San Francisco newcomers had discovered the Mission, and for better or worse, change was happening.”

Eventually I found a location at 824 Valencia, and after a significant remodel moved the original, tiny Paxton Gate to its much larger, grander digs in what was seen as “the middle of nowhere.” For me, coming from an alley off an obscure alley, it wasn’t a hard decision but still, friends, colleagues, my dad, my accountant, questioned the move. Why not move to a destination with more foot traffic? Why move to a bigger, more expensive space where there still aren’t any shoppers? When we opened in late 1999, foot traffic was still nearly non-existent, and many people were afraid to come to the area. I remember at an early incarnation of the VCMA when we devised a plan to work with concierges in downtown hotels to have them recommend Valencia for alternative shopping to the likes of Union Square, only to find out that they didn’t feel comfortable sending their guests to the Mission. Or, when only months after opening, a person was shot in the Mission Playground, just steps away from Paxton Gate. (He lived. In fact, I saw him casually walked to the ambulance with a small red hole just above his shoulder blade).

Shoplifting was even more prevalent than it is now. Crime was high. Perhaps instead of “the middle of nowhere” it could have been described as “the wild west.” Sometimes it felt that way, lawless and a bit reckless but also exciting and full of opportunity.

In addition to paying vastly more for rent (although cheap by Valencia’s current standards), I had secured an SBA loan to finance the move which would require a monthly payment approximately equal to my rent for the space. The years spent paying that off were hard, and every bill, every expense, was a challenge. Using a complex system of Post-it Notes and dates, I mastered the art of managing float time, which I did not learn in college or include in my business plan. If I mail this check today, it will get there in two days. They’ll probably deposit it the next day—at the earliest—by which time I should have enough money to cover it so long as sales are pretty good. Cross your fingers and mail the bill!

Some people thought that the move was a mistake and possibly the death knell for a company that I’d already spent seven years building. And, in some ways they were right. In truth, the only reason Paxton Gate didn’t close in those early years was because I refused to let it. Living in San Francisco was expensive but nothing like it is today. I could eke out a living from a couple bartending shifts per week, while slowly building the business and the neighborhood. In short, I was able to provide free labor to subsidize the company while people learned about us and about the corridor and its unique selection of shops, cafes and restaurants. I can only imagine what it’s like to open a business on Valencia now, with rents where they are, not to mention the nearly constant new costs of doing businesses in this incredibly expensive city. Even with foot traffic where it is today on Valencia, and with it being a destination unto itself, it’s still incredibly challenging to run a small business and stay in the black. 

This is our 30th year so something must be working beyond pure stubbornness. There’s certainly still a degree of Paxton Gate’s success that’s due to my refusal to let it be otherwise, and there’s a strong degree of determination by me and my staff to ensure we stay solvent. Our revenues are higher than those early years, but so are our expenses. In part, this is brought on by outside forces but we’re also able to provide more for our staff. We pay more than we used to; we offer healthcare, retirement plans, and other benefits; all things of which I’m incredibly proud. That’s a long way from mastering float time and hoping your check doesn’t bounce! More income comes in, but more goes out. Such is the nature of small business and, like Phil from Range, I’m always eyeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But what’s next for Paxton Gate? How does it continue into the future and prosper for years and—dare I say—generations beyond my time? How long can one strive to get “there” before making a drastic change or throwing in the towel? And where is “there” after all? This all feels like an entirely new subject which, I suppose, I’ll have to get into in December’s issue of The Paxtonian.


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