You don’t go to San Francisco’s Chinatown to find good coffee. Five-dollar tabi boots, yeah; a plate of steaming xiaolong bao, of course; maybe even just for a small taste of San Francisco culture, slowly being pushed to the periphery. But if you’re looking for high-quality, specialty coffee, Chinatown was a morass, a desert for anything resembling a decent cup. Rafael Vizcaino is looking to change that with the opening of his new Boor/Bridges-designed, Four Barrel-slinging cafe, Chapel Hill Coffee Company.
The cafe is an elegant hole-in-the-wall, but not one you’re likely to stumble upon. It’s hidden, just off Chinatown’s main drag on pipe-cleaner sized Commercial Street, under a tattered red banner advertising for massage. The cafe’s presence is announced by a sleekly carved signboard and a large plate-glass window with a gold-inked logo shining in the late afternoon sun.
Vizcaino isn’t a newbie to strange locations. Prior to opening Chapel Hill a few months back, he’d capped a decade running a series of successful burrito trucks in and around San Francisco with his father. Tired of the mobile grind, and with his brother in tow, Vizcaino began searching for a small space to open a kiosk or a tiny cafe. With the support of Four Barrel and Bonnie Bridges (one of the two partners at Boor/Bridges) pushing him forward, Vizcaino took the next step, signing a lease earlier this year at the minuscule spot on Commercial.
With a Fetco drip setup and a two-group La Marzocco GB/5, Vizcaino and his small group of employees are settling in to the neighborhood, embracing its culture as their coffee is embraced in kind. I sat down with Vizcaino to talk about the switch from burritos to coffee, the changing nature of Chinatown, and what’s next for Chapel Hill.
How do you go from operating food trucks to serving coffee?
I got caught up with making a “successful” business out of a food truck. I set myself up to keep breaking our old sales records and customers trying to prove that it could be done out of a burrito truck. But once I hit that target I had given myself, I saw there was nothing there for me. I was busy for the sake of being busy and I wasn’t any happier. That’s when I decided to roll back and search for something else.
I wanted to find something I could be passionate about. I wanted to start out small but when that hadn’t worked, I began searching for a tiny space or garage for a kiosk. Than it just kind of snowballed into the shop.
What prompted you to choose Four Barrel over all of San Francisco’s other coffee offerings?
I started hitting up Four Barrel, Sightglass, De La Paz, and so on. I wanted to source what I personally liked but also wanted to make sure I could relate to or be inspired by the people around me. I could relate to De la Paz and was inspired by how Sightglass had done but Four Barrel was both. They’re rad people. I couldn’t help but love those guys.
Of all the neighborhoods in the city, why did you select Chinatown?
I met with Bonnie Bridges, told her my idea, and showed her some spaces I had interest in. She shot them all down. When we met again, I showed her a hole-in-the-wall on Commercial Street. All she said was “Good job.” Bonnie kind of took me under her wing and set us up for something great. I feel obligated to make her proud.
What’s it like operating a cafe in Chinatown?
Pretty amazing. The neighbors are excited that they have a “cool” shop on the street and expect we could change the neighborhood. Commercial Street was kind of underused and forgotten. We hope to change that.
Your front window opens up entirely into an awning, which is unique. Tell us about that design choice.
To me, it’s the most important part of the buildout. It tied the entire project together. The space was tiny but Commercial Street is closed to traffic during the day. So I had asked if there was a way to open up the window and somehow tie it to the street. My hope was to make the shop look and feel larger than it really is.
Is there a guiding philosophy behind Chapel Hill?
Enjoy life. Treat yourself with something better. Surround yourself with good people. Maybe learn something new, and don’t be a dick about it.