bracero program, moved over here from a little bakery he owned in
Oakland. The Mission was a bustling Irish-Italian neighborhood then, and he was one of the first Mexican
businesses to move in.
He always said the best thing you can do is find yourself next to a
community center. And the biggest one here was the Catholic church
[located next to the building, on Alabama]. In Mexico, if you place
your bakery near a church, you're at least guaranteed a Sunday
afternoon crowd. He opened across the street, waiting for this space
for 15 years. It was Murphy's Drugstore at the time.
There had been an Italian bakery in the back in the 1930s. Slowly he
bought up the spaces around it, and now it's a jigsaw puzzle. Where we're sitting (in the cafe) used
to be an old farmhouse. Part of the space was a
speakeasy, which even had a gun rack. It had awful plumbing that was
pieced together in the 1920s or '30s. One of the former landlords
decided to put a patio between two buildings, which then had to be
reinforced and roofed over.
I took over the business right out of college in 1992. The first 10 years were ― well, I don't want to call them a disaster, but when you're teaching yourself, there's a big learning curve. I had this grand vision when I took over: to be this amazing coffee space with homemade pastries. I'd been thinking about this through the 1980s. I was an espresso drinker, and La Victoria had the first espresso machine on 24th Street. Even then I knew which way the neighborhood was going. I wanted people to congregate here. So when I finally started, I put together a little nest egg, and that was my decor fund.
Starting around 2000-2003, Maldonado brought tiles up from Mexico, put oilcloth on the ceiling, painted the walls bright colors, had tables made for the space, and invited neighborhood artists to hang their paintings in the back. The crazy plumbing -- the very definition of "makeshift" -- has slowly been replaced. Three months ago, he got rid of the last vestige of La Victoria's old market: a rickety cooler along the back wall. Now it's more space for tables and paintings. The work has been slow, paid for as he goes.
I don't have the million-dollar, half-million-dollar partners. A fancy place opens down the street, and the guy with the suit standing at the door says, 'I own this place.' No, you own 40 percent or 50 percent or even 25 percent of the place. And it's posh, but try doing that with only the sweat off your back. Try doing it this way, without those investors, and most of them would fail.
Now I'm waiting for all this [his partnership with Soul Cocina and the other street-cart vendors] to blow up. I don't want a crowd, but I'm waiting for all the angles to intersect: to have a following for a certain musician combined with the right food carts, the right people wanting those food carts, with people hearing what's going on in the strip. When
that comes on, we'll have
We've had vendors, artists, singers who have all taken a chance on this space. My next step is to bring in a pastry chef, someone with some notoriety who says, I see what this guy is doing, I like what he's doing. I want to create a new product environment that doesn't alienate the Latin pastries but adds European twists to create nuevo Latino pastries.