From The Bay to Palestine & Back, How Grand Coffee Became a Mission Staple
Interview & Photos by Derek Tobias
To hear the audio version of this interview with Nabeel & Derek visit AusformMag.com, where each week you will hear a new interview with one of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place.
Nabeel Silmi of Grand Coffee: The story of how a Palestinian man from Castro Valley dropped out of college to work in the restaurant industry in North Beach and after losing his job in the recession of 2009, went all in on his dream to create the next great mission neighborhood coffee house.
Ausform: let’s go ahead and, start with a little bit of your upbringing and where you were raised
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I was born in San Francisco, but, I grew up in the East Bay, a town called Castro Valley. I was in Castro Valley till about eight.
My parents are Palestinian immigrants. so we actually moved to Palestine for two years, so I did like fourth to fifth grade there. And then, we came back to the United States after fifth grade and back to Castro Valley. And that’s where I grew up for the most part.
And I’ve been in San Francisco since, I started college at San Francisco state in 95.
A: Do you get to go back to Palestine often to experience that culture as opposed to San Francisco?
Oh, yeah. first of all, growing up in my parents’ household was like being in Palestine. I grew up in an immigrant Palestinian family household. With like a lot of cousins and my grandparents around and in a Palestinian American community. So I was very much immersed in my culture, both here and over there as well.
But, moving over there for the two years was really nice to let us grasp the language more, much better than if we would’ve just been here the whole time. I used to go back every couple of years after that. The last time I was there was two years ago actually because my parents moved back there.
A: You went to college at SF state. What were you studying originally?
I started off, with no major, and then moved into, international relations and ethnic studies. But while I was in school, my best friend told me if you want to make some cash, you need to start working as a valet in North Beach. This is like 97, 98. and so I started working as a valet parking attendant in North beach. And that’s actually what brought me into working in the restaurant industry. Shortly after that, I ended up leaving school and just working in restaurants.
I started off as a valet parking attendant and I ended up bar backing at this restaurant called Rose Pistola. And then from there I started working in other cafes and restaurants throughout the city.
A: A lot of people start off in valet positions or bar backing, and are part of that while going through college, but, not a lot of people just go full force into it. What kind of motivated you the most about that industry?
I always grew up with appreciation for food, but it wasn’t until I started working as a valet that I got exposed to more varieties. As a valet you would move around from restaurant to restaurant depending on your schedule. In a given week you can work at three or four different restaurants. I was getting to see how all these different places operate. And I surveyed all the different logistics, and mechanics of the restaurants, from the front of the house to the back of the house and the valets. I was enthralled by it. And I haven’t turned back since,
it’s funny cause I got fired from valet parking. right around 2000 and I was hired to work at a restaurant, the next day from one of the restaurants I was a valet parking at. They hired me inside the house to be a bar-back and that was right when Anthony Bourdain’s kitchen confidential came out, so I was introduced to this amazing but chaotic mess. It was like a party, but also it was hard work and it was all happening at the same time.
it was different from school because at school, you work all semester long and then you get your grade at the end of the semester and, I wasn’t really vibing with that. Whereas in the restaurant it’s instant feedback. Everything you do, you know right away whether it was good or bad, you could tell by when you serve them coffee by how they drink it or when they serve them a cocktail, but how they drink it, you get instant feedback on whether they like it or not. And I think that was what created my passion to work in this industry, getting instant feedback and knowing whether the person is enjoying what you made right away.
A: So going from, international studies to now bar-backing, how did you get into coffee making?
I was working as a bar-back nights, and that is where I learned how to make coffee. it wasn’t the best coffee program, but it was a pretty good. During the dessert course, that’s when you get like a million coffee orders. And as a bar-back I’d have to bust out all the drinks and I learned to get really fast. I wasn’t necessarily very refined at that point because our restaurants didn’t have the same standards for coffee that like third grade coffee shops do. But It was a good place to get started and learn, the fundamentals.
A: Were you passionate about coffee before that or is that what sparked your interest?
No, ever since I was a child I loved coffee, but I wasn’t into it in a geeky coffee way. It wasn’t like I want to try all these single origin varietals like an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or I want to try this.Kenyon or this Geisha from El Salvador. It wasn’t even about doing pour overs and drinking these micro lots. I was more about the culture of the cafe and hanging out and working in North Beach. North Beach had all these amazing cafes like Caffe Trieste, Caffe Roma, and Mario’s Cafe was there. And I loved hanging out in coffee shops more than I liked hanging out in bars. Caffe Trieste for me has set the standard for what a neighborhood coffee shop should be.
I liked the different characters and the Bohemian vibe that it had. Everybody knew each other and there was great interaction between the baristas and the regulars. That’s something that really rubbed off on me. When it came time for me to open up my own shop, I wanted to take influence from those old style coffee shops, and make the coffee shop a fixture of the neighborhood.
It’s important to have good coffee and to use excellent quality beans and highlight the terroir from which the coffee comes from. But at the same time the coffee shop has to understand its role as being a place for the community to convene. Kind of like the town square.
A: When did you decide that you wanted to open up your own coffee house?
The decision came after working at a few different coffee shops. I worked at a coffee shop for around six years and I left that place to travel. And when I came back from traveling I ended up settling into Foreign Cinema and I worked at Foreign Cinema for about four years. It was when I was at Foreign Cinema when I started developing the business plan for my own coffee shop. I wasn’t really motivated to actually do it at that point, I just knew how I wanted to do it and I had it all planned out. However, the thing that finally pushed me was when the great recession occurred. I had left foreign cinema for another job at a different restaurant and I was working there for like a month and then I got fired right when the great recession hit, so I was like, shit, what am I going to do?
I was freaking out, calling everybody I know in the restaurant business, trying to find anything and as I was panicking, trying to figure out what I was going to do, my brother called me and said, Hey, you know that spot on mission street that I have a lease on? I know you have a business plan for a cafe. Do you want to take it over and put up a coffee shop in there? So that’s kind of the Genesis for opening up Grand
A: It seems like you obviously had the ideas and you put the work through to come up with the business plan for a while, but then the actual like catalyst of everything was just perfect timing.
Yeah, It was all serendipity, but it wasn’t all just by chance, you know, the fact that I was ready to do something, before that I was too comfortable. I was 28 years old, working four days a week in a restaurant, enjoying life. I was living in Oakland at the time. My rent was cheap, and, I was comfortable. So it wasn’t until the economy got bad. And then I got fired from a job. That’s when I was like, shit. Like if I want to get back into work, I’m going to have to create my own job. And, and that’s basically how I started the cafe.
A: I think a lot of innovation and a lot of new businesses are definitely going to pop up from this situation that we’re in. People are scrambling and they have to figure something out.
Yeah. I mean, when I first opened the shop we were selling little miniature pies from somebody that was renting a bakery kitchen in the middle of the night, so she can make her little miniature pies. We were doing popups on the sidewalk where all these guys were doing cool street food in front of the shops. One guy was doing guacamole bowls, one guy was doing soup, another guy was doing, jerk chicken and barbecue. And everybody was just out there hustling, That was the energy that was going on in San Francisco at the time. It was before the tech stuff really hit hard, but there was this pocket where a lot of people were being really creative and doing whatever they could in the culinary world, to get out there. It was a really fun time.
A: So what is it about coffee that appeals to you most?
For me, really good well executed coffee Is far more accessible to everyone than say, really good food, really good wine or craft beer. Those things tend to be a little bit out of the reach of a lot of folks, whereas for only a dollar more compared to what you would pay at Starbucks or at some other chain coffee shop, you can get a very well-made cup of coffee that’s ethically sourced at origin, expertly roasted, and expertly, brewed. And that was what I wanted to do, with opening the shop on Mission street.
At the time when I opened in 2010 you already had Ritual or Four Barrel one block over on Valencia, but there were a lot of people on Mission street that would never walk that block over to those places to get their coffee, some people just don’t have that comfort level of going that way. So I thought I could take the same quality of product that’s served on Valencia but I’m going to bring it down to Mission street and I’ll make it more accessible and offer it to more people in a way that they feel comfortable accessing.
And I think what we manage do at the shop is bring this really high-end coffee and almost disguise it as not high end, even though it is. And make it accessible to a lot of people. And people have really responded well to it. Some people at first are skeptical and questioned us. Some people ask why we don’t have a bigger drink, or ask for a 20 ounce, but we explain that is just going to be cheap milk and it’s all Filler. And I’d make them a 12 ounce latte, and they could actually taste all the coffee. I would use whole organic milk and before they grabbed the sugar and slaughtered the drink with sugar. I would have them taste the drink before the sugar and tell them we’re using really good milk and It’s going to be natural and sweet and have a lot of flavor to it. And they usually taste it and realize it doesn’t need any sugar.
That’s been some of the most rewarding parts about the shop. Being able to raise people’s expectations, but still meet them at their level whatever their level is. Whether they are a really bougie coffee drinker or somebody that’s been drinking McDonald’s coffee their whole entire lives, we can meet them at their level and then raise that expectation just a little bit higher.
A: Do you have a go to, cup of coffee that you usually drink yourself when you’re at home or, or do you like to mix it up?
if I’m at home, I do Aeropress. That’s kind of like my go to. I live so close to the shop. I usually just walk down to the shop even if even if I’m not working since I live like a block away. So, at the shop I drink the Cortado, which is basically a double shot of espresso and some steamed milk, almost half/half proportions. That’s like my go to drink, but if I’m at home, I’ll make myself an Aeropress, which it looks like a big syringe. The diameter is probably about an inch and a half, and it has a cap on the bottom with a rubber valve that stays closed unless there’s pressure coming from the top. You just put the coffee grounds in there and boil some water, pour the water on top of it, let it rest for a couple of minutes, and then you push the syringe down and the coffee comes out of the bottom and for the amount of work you put in, you get really good coffee. The Aeropress only costs like 25, 30 bucks. It’s a great way to go for, for home coffee.
I don’t necessarily geek out that much with doing the pour over stuff. I do that at the shop, but I don’t do it for myself at home.
A: you recently started selling more Homebrew equipment online and started delivering coffee now that everybody’s sheltering in place, how has that shifted your business?
That’s something we were sort of working on, prior to the shutdown but when the shutdown happened, it really accelerated what we were building slowly on the website for the past three or four months. But now suddenly we saw the market open up. People needed coffee and they’re stuck at home. We had the website up, but we packed it with more products and promoted on Instagram. And, added some inexpensive coffee brewing equipment on there so people can make some coffee at home.
And, it’s worked out well for us. We can’t wait for this thing to open up so we can start seeing people again. but it’s been good though. It’s helping us get through these times right now with all the online sales that we’ve been doing.
A: Grand hasn’t had the largest space for hanging out compared to most coffee shops. Considering people will probably still have to abide by social distancing rules for quite a while, have you given any thought as to what the future of drinking coffee in public is going to look like even after we go back to everything?
Because we have the takeout window our transition to serving coffee to-go only was really quick. It was almost natural. But moving forward, it’s going to be interesting to see how things shift. Before this shutdown a lot of coffee shops were actually going to start moving towards a no to-go model because of all the waste it produces. It will be interesting if that trend continues or we’re going to stick with take out only. Going back to my view on how coffee shops should be, Ideally we would take influence from the old school Italian or Spanish cafes. Where you walk up to a counter, you order a drink, you can choose espresso, machiatto or cortado, nothing over six ounces. You drink it standing up, and you go on your way. I mean, that’s kind of my dream cafe. I don’t know if that’s possible anymore with the way things are going to have to change. For now we will just stick with doing take out coffee through the window. I think we’re positioned to handle it a lot better than other places though.
Even from the labor side, if you look at some of the big chain cafes, because they have such large menus and they’re doing blended drinks and, different types of creams and syrups ect. It requires a lot of people for that production. And it jeopardizes worker safety. Whereas for us, we have a very sleek menu and we don’t need more than two people inside the shop working.
A: Considering the fact that you are able to kind of reposition your model and create the takeout window to stay open for the most part. Did you have to apply for any of the grants or loans? Available from like the cares act.
we did apply for a PPP loan that we’re eligible for since, we didn’t have to lay anybody off. And, the jury’s still out on that, whether that money comes through or not. I think I’ll be able to survive either way though, with or without help. I’ve been around for 10 years now and, we can run the shop really lean if we need to.
Right now we’re running it with one person at a time, so that we don’t cross contaminate each other. And if there’s a line and somebody doesn’t want to wait a little bit longer for their coffee I find it odd. I ask myself, “where do you have to go? We’re all on lock down.”
When I’m in there by myself working and there’s a line, my instinct is to work faster. But I have to tell myself, you don’t need to work faster and accidentally touch something and then touch your face or do something that is quote unquote dangerous. Just work slow, work clean. And if people don’t want to wait, then okay, that’s on them. We do try to take our time and interact with our customers though. We say, “good morning, hi, how are you?” And have a little quick little chat because that might be the only person that they’re probably going to talk to in real life for the whole entire day.
A: You’ve always been very vocal about your politics and even had a line of espresso cups with, anti-Trump artwork. Do you think that’s impacted your business in it in any way?
it’s hard to say. I think it’s impacted us in positive ways. but I don’t know, it’s hard to say whether, people have come into the shop and have never come back because, some people could not be vocal and just never come back.
So I don’t know. There’s no way to really measure that. But at the end of the day, that’s our kind of stance, the coffee shop is kind of the stoop of the neighborhood. it’s a place for the community to convene.
I think we’re in the majority criticizing the president for his, stance against, immigrants from Latin America and Africa, from Asia , Muslim countries, all these different things that he said.
I’m pretty sure the community stands behind us in our criticism of Trump. I think at San Francisco, there’s always been a tradition of businesses that have taken pretty progressive stances on issues that might be unpopular in other parts of the country. To me it’s a human rights issue. if you have any world leader, whether it’s my leader as an American, whether it’s my president, putting children in cages is abhorant and absolutely wrong.
And I think it’s our duty as Americans to speak out against that. And just because I’m running a business, I might sell a few less lattes because I, I’m fine with it. I’m willing to take the loss on the money, but I think it’s important that we. speak truth to power whenever possible.
I don’t think just because you’re in the business world you should acquiesce and be like, “Oh I don’t want to rock the boat and say anything that may cost me customers because they might be pro-Trump.” To me. It’s not about being pro-Trump or anti-Trump. It’s about standing with human rights, you know?
It’s not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue. And it’s not like I’m on this team and my coffee is for people that are Democrats and I don’t want money from Republicans. That’s not where I’m at with this thing.
it’s about advocating for people that don’t have a voice. And maybe somebody that is pro Trump might come into the coffee shop one day and have a conversation with one of my regulars who doesn’t support Donald Trump’s views, and they could have a really good discussion. And this person could see things in a different light from then on out.
Michael Jordan has this famous quote where he says, Republicans buy Nike’s too. But you know, I’m not Michael Jordan, I don’t operate on that scale, so I have much less to lose. But at the same time, to me that’s what the cafe is all about.
Coffee shops have always been a place that happened to be more progressive than other kinds of businesses. It’s not like we’re running a steakhouse near wall street, Coffee shops have always been places that have more philosophers and radicals and where people hang out and congregate and talk and discuss things. So I think it’s okay to have debate in coffee shops and, and discussions and discourse. That’s what they’re the historically there for. if you go back and look at the history of coffee shops throughout the world, there are times when kings would close down all the coffee shops because of all the rebel rousers that were congregating in these places. I think we’re just continuing with that tradition. I think that when it comes to discussing politics, especially radical politics, coffee shops are definitely, a safe place.
A: What has been the most interesting or inspiring thing that you’ve seen during the shutdown period?
I think it’s been, the small act of acts of kindness that people are engaging in, with each other or to help people out. Just from the coffee shop itself, so many people have come by and said, “Hey, I want to support you, but I want to also support other people. can I buy the next five lattes? or five coffee drinks for people that come through?” Other people have been ordering coffee and having them sent to some of their friends or family that are healthcare providers working on the front lines. I think that the solidarity that people are expressing now has been really, really inspiring.
I’ve never really seen this level of solidarity where everyone’s looking out for each other. Everyone’s telling each other to stay safe. And I think hopefully, once this pandemic passes that we don’t forget that. The thing about this virus is regardless of who you are, we can all be exposed to this virus.
A: We’ll go ahead and wrap things up with some rapid-fire questions.
Burgers, tacos, or other?
Burgers, tacos, or other? all of the above.
Tacos. But I was on a burger kick when the Quarantine first started, the first week I was perfecting smashed burgers at home.
A: What would your top two tacos and burger shops be?
Oh, shit. Okay. I’ll do Sam’s burgers. North beach. that’s for my greasy cheeseburger. And then for my fancy burger, it’s going to be the burger at Boulevard restaurant. And then for tacos, it’s going to be the tuna tacon at Loló. That’s an Ahi tuna taco. And then my other taco would be a taco truck called Rambo number two in Redwood city. I used there when I was young, and I still go to that one from time to time. I just love it. It’s just a little greasy one-dollar taco. It used to be 85 cents back in the day. Now they raised their prices to a buck. And there’s nothing like having a paper plate with six tacos on it. I have to go with the taco truck taco.
A: favorite three coffee shops anywhere in the world.
Okay. I’d say a cafe Trieste in North beach. Number two. it’s a small cafe in Argentina called El Federal, it’s in a neighborhood called San,Telmo in Argentina, and it’s this old school classic cafe that there is something very rustic and beautiful about it. Then number three. it just closed, actually. It’s, the Gaylord’s coffee in Oakland on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. I think they were teetering business wise before and then the Covid thing happened and they shut down finally. But for me, that was the first place I ever got a cappuccino with latte art.
A: Favorite non cafe or restaurant business in the city.
I’d say AB fits. It’s a clothing store in North beach
A: Three places you want to go first thing once everything goes back to normal,
Actually I already talked about this with my girlfriend. There are three places I want to go all in the same day. I’m going to start off with Bob’s donuts that’s going to be my breakfast, and then I’m going to eat my Bob’s donuts while in line for Swans Oyster Depot, which will be my lunch. And then for dinner, I’ll go to La Ciccia. That’s the Sardinian restaurant in Noe Valley.
It’s going to be very seafood heavy cause I’m into seafood right now.
A: Anything you want to promote, additionally for yourself or for anyone else?
Just look out for more big things to happen in 2021 since 2020 kind of got paused. Check out the website, grandcoffeesf.com. And as far as other things. I think the the work that the San Francisco-Marin food bank is doing is really good. Keeping people fed. I think that’s a really good charity where your money goes directly to people in the community.
Grand Coffee – grandcoffeesf.com
2663 Mission Street
San Francisco, California
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