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SF Chronicle


Cafe-workspace a caffeinated crossover shaking up downtown S.F.


By John King

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Workshop Cafe has every amenity you expect to find in a tech-friendly enclave. There’s souped-up Wi-Fi access, multiple outlets near every chair, background music that’s propulsive but not intrusive.


The unexpected factor is the location: the bottom of a 25-story office tower from 1978 on Montgomery Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. Not only that, it’s open seven days a week until 10 p.m., the only sign of life for blocks in all directions.


Changes like this don’t have the symbolic drama of Twitter’s move to Mid-Market or the pricey new residential buildings along Valencia Street, but in its own small way Workshop Cafe is an equally vivid demonstration of how the Bay Area landscape is morphing before our eyes. More and more, we navigate a mashed-up culture at metropolitan scale — where neighborhood definitions that long seemed stable no longer apply.


This particular sign of the times dates back to August 2013. The cafe, which sits behind a tall, deep arcade along the sidewalk, opened in a space whose previous tenant was a Hair Club for Men.


“When we opened the doors, it was dead. Not a soul for a week and on the weekends, longer than that,” is the cheerful admission of Rich Menendez, 42, who conceived the idea. “But the people who got it told me, 'Don’t despair.’”


As the name implies, the caffeinated beachhead is a cross between a co-working space and the local coffeehouse. People who sit outside or in the nook by the counter are regular customers, but all the space across from the counter or in the back is for patrons who pay $2 an hour. You can check in at the discreet gate at the end of the counter or reserve a particular seat via app.


Technological convenience


What your entry fee brings is guaranteed space and technological convenience, not privileged comfort: Most of the seating options resemble the cubicle-free production line that’s all the rage now in corporate interior design. A flat surface, unlimited power and Internet speed: Who could ask for anything more?


But wait, there is more. Enclosed nooks with whiteboard walls for small meetings. An eye-catching wall mural by Mission District artist Erik Otto. Order from your seat via the app, and an old-school server delivers your food or drink, wine and beer as well as coffee or iced honey almond latte ($5).


There’s even a Bitcoin Teller Machine, which Menendez proudly describes as the first in San Francisco.


Which brings us back to where we started: huh? What is an of-the-era place like this doing on a stretch of Montgomery Street that for much of the 20th century was dubbed Wall Street of the West? Where the Starbucks to the south and the Walgreens to the north are closed on Sundays?


The answer is simple. Menendez did his research.


Once he decided to pursue the notion of a cafe with benefits, “I had somebody film the foot traffic, literally film everybody walking by. Then we tabulated the number of people carrying food or coffee cups,” says Menendez, who studied electrical engineering at Kettering University in Michigan before receiving an MBA from Stanford.


The space at 180 Montgomery jumped out from other available storefronts, especially with BART a short walk away. When investors voiced skepticism, Menendez was prepared: “They’d say, 'Why aren’t you looking in the Mission?’ But the Mission doesn’t have the density. It also has other options.”


Busy on weekends, too


You see the overlap of economic cultures throughout today’s Financial District. On BART, the guys who depart at the Montgomery station in the morning are as likely to be wearing T-shirts and backpacks as jackets and ties. A food truck parks on Sansome Street alongside the former home of the Pacific Stock Exchange. That columned temple of commerce now holds an upscale gym.


But Workshop Cafe is the most potent example. On some weekday afternoons, most of the 80 or so available seats are filled by intent nomads staring at upturned screens, nearly all of them Macs. When I stopped by on Sunday before the 10 a.m. opening — on weekdays the start time is 6 a.m. — five people waited outside. One, an app designer, anticipated a 12-hour session and explained how he didn’t mind the steep cumulative hourly fee in exchange for dependable Wi-Fi and comfortable surroundings.


The quintet stood quietly within the arcade, dark even on a sunny day given the surrounding towers. But the arcade felt homey, and that’s another wrinkle to this tale.


During the 1960s and ’70s, Financial District developers received height bonuses in return for adding sidewalk arcades that were expected to thrive as urban relief valves. Not so in real life. San Francisco’s climate isn’t conducive to shaded confinement on tower-lined blocks with little sun, especially when an open sidewalk is a few feet away.


Neighborhood evolving


Flash-forward to 2014, and this particular void finally has a purpose, serving a sector of the economy that didn’t exist until the 1990s. If the tower above remains grim, the generous scale of the arcade is inviting. The cafe also happens to sit next to an older building that extends all the way out to the sidewalk, so the end of the passage doubles as a cozy nook.


This is how cities and regions evolve: from one generation to the next, and in ways that no generation can predict. Montgomery Street will always be architecturally imposing. The lives that it leads may yet surprise us all.



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