The Castro has been considered the “gay neighborhood” of San Francisco since the early 1960s, the Castro still thrums with an energy and excitement built upon proudly queer roots. Today the Castro is crowded but friendly, composed and grown-up but still shot through with a solid streak of San Francisco’s oddball personality. In a city knee deep in the growing pains of gentrification, the Castro is trying hard to hold onto its sense of community, the type of place where people know each other’s names and personal lives, where folks plunk down at a local restaurant to wile away a few hours catching up. You can say a lot of great things about The Castro and now you can add one more: the arrival of Hearth Coffee, a new addition to the changing Castro, owned by a couple with deep roots in neighborhood.
Opened by the husband-and-wife team of Ariana Akbar and James Kafader (one time owners of the now defunct Parkside coffee haunt, Brown Owl), Hearth Coffee sits a hundred feet off Market Street, tucked in the shadow of the gorgeous and historic Castro Theater. A one-time tanning salon, Kafader and Akbar have gone the distance in converting the room into a bright, airy, space marked by a distinctively Scandinavian design aesthetic. White walls soar upwards from the untreated wood floors (reclaimed pier pilings) and a gleaming and a polished wooden bar zigs and zags its way almost the entire length of the shop, with polished white steel and wooden chairs tucked beneath it.
Hearth Coffee pulls off the trick so many other coffee spots hope to: it looks clean, cool and modern, but it feels warm and comfortable. From the house made pastries to the smiling baristas, this isn’t just some new, hip coffee shop looking to elbow its way in; this is a place that wants to be a genuine addition to the neighborhood, and even more so, to the community. It’s a notion that’s especially close to co-owner Ariana Akbar’s heart: she grew up in the Castro District, where her mother worked as a public health nurse for 25 years.
Akbar and Kafader have big ambitions for Hearth and it is readily apparent from the dizzying amount of offerings. Shots of their house-roasted Snake Bite Espresso is prepared on a two-group La Marzocco Linea espresso machine. Their beans, roasted on a Probat in the back of the shop, are treated to a bevy of brewing options, including pour over, a Clever brewing set-up, and a pair of mini-siphon vacuum pots. Coffee offerings are complemented by four rotating beer taps, a smart wine list, and breakfast, lunch and dinner options. The cafe’s pastry service is entirely house made and organic.
With food, coffee, libations and pastries, Hearth is something like a complete package for the neighborhood, and could become a destination for those living elsewhere in the city. To learn more, I sat down with Ariana Akbar to discuss her very newly opened shop, and learned more about what she hopes to bring to The Castro.
What lessons have you brought with you from your previous cafe, Brown Owl?
When people say: Location, location, location! it’s no joke.
It’s important to match the personality of your business with the personality of a neighborhood. You need a large number of people who are into your product and of course coffee, being an item you need to sell a lot of, needs a heavy foot traffic location.
What drew you from Parkside all the way to The Castro?
The neighborhood. My mom was a public health nurse here for 25 years. I grew up here and love this neighborhood. It has soul and personality and it really embodies the spirit of San Francisco.
Do you think The Castro – with you guys moving in and Reveille’s second spot just opening – is in the midst of a coffee renaissance?
All of San Francisco is in the midst of not just a coffee renaissance, but a food renaissance. The way all food is produced is coming to light and more people are caring about the quality and integrity of where their food comes from. We work hard to maintain that all our coffee and baked goods are organic and non-GMO. We source from suppliers who are focused on craft and care about the effects of food production on society.
What do you want Hearth to give back to The Castro?
We are so impressed with the strength of the local community. It draws all kinds and the people are what make it a great and dynamic spot. We hope to add to it by bringing people together over good quality food. We’re happy to be moving into a neighborhood that appreciates the unique element that individual small businesses bring to the community. The world is made up of all kinds with different kinds of tastes. We hope to add to the number of options for the neighborhood.
And finally, what’s your philosophy behind Hearth?
We strive to be a business with heart. Integrity of ingredients and personal touch is important to us. Deliciousness and a excellence is our goal. Nothing elates your mood like a great food experience.
Noah Sanders is a contributor to SF Weekly, The Bold Italic, and Sprudge.com. Read more Noah Sanders on Sprudge.
Photos by Brad Kayal for Sprudge.com.