From the White House to the Coffee House

Illustration by Amanda Legge

“From the White House to the Coffee House” is an adapted excerpt from an episode of Futtner’s podcast, “Seismic Shift,” which aired on August 9, 2019.

As we scroll our newsfeeds on MUNI, leaf through mindfulness magazines at Rainbow, or march down Market Street in protest, we feel a persistent tug at our psyches, like the LED notifications flashing on our phones. What are we doing to make a difference in the world?

This nagging question prompted me to start a podcast. I wanted to meet people who had made fundamental change in their work lives in order to effect change in society.

One person I met opened a coffee shop.

After departing as deputy finance director of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, that’s the path Manny Yekutiel took to create change. And only a year in, his eponymous Mission-based café feels like a San Francisco institution.

On the corner of 16th and Valencia, Manny’s is a civic-social gathering space. It is a wildly successful new business that comprises a bar, restaurant, politically-themed bookshop, and an event space.

The back room of Manny’s, formerly refrigeration for a sushi restaurant, doubles as the quiet side of the cafe by day and an event venue by night. This large room is like a funky Victorian parlor, warmed up with Afghan rugs, sofas, and soft lighting. Three full-frame windows in the room front Valencia Street, an intentional choice of Manny’s to be welcoming to the neighborhood.

The restaurant is operated by the nonprofit Farming Hope, which runs an apprentice program offering full-time employment to formerly incarcerated and formerly homeless individuals.

The café is bursting with activity seven days a week.

You can watch a livestream of Congressional hearings, see local comedians, and donate goods for migrant families. I got a selfie with the author Michael Pollan at Manny’s. And 17 of the presidential candidates have held events at Manny’s.

Yeah. Right now, you’re asking, “Who IS this guy?” That’s just what I wanted to know, too.

Prior to interviewing him, I attended a few events at the café to see how he works a room. And how he cleans up a room. A glass broke during a panel with Stacey Abrams’ campaign team and Manny swooped in to sweep it up. That’s how he operates. Always on, ready for anything.

Upon sitting down with him, it’s immediately apparent that Manny is profoundly thoughtful and a bit intense.

“I read nine books on the history of politics and coffee,” Manny tells me. “I read scholarly articles on the creation of civic space and what the public sphere could look like as it relates to architecture.”

Barely a decade out of college, Manny approached his small business enterprise like the studious undergrad he was at Williams College. He did his research. “I treated it like a term paper,” he says. “I had one question and that one question was ‘How do you create a physical space that encourages civic engagement? How do you do it? What does it look like? What does it feel like?’”

Turns out the notion of combining activism and food in a civic social space is 600 years old, probably older, Manny tells me.

A movement emerged as early as the Ottoman empire, when the coffee houses were some of the first secular spaces where people gathered to plot the overthrow of the Sultan.

“San Francisco has such a strong lineage of these third spaces that have a very clear political, civic gathering purpose. Think about Haight Street in the summer of love and how they turned the coffee houses into free clinics and free libraries … the bars in North Beach, City Lights. And of course, of course you can’t forget Compton St. Cafeteria in the Tenderloin, and the bars in the Castro, and Harvey’s camera shop. We didn’t invent the idea of these commercial activist spaces,” he explains.

While political inspiration and impact are undeniable drivers for Manny, there is another force at work here. As there often is.

For Manny, a rift with his father is a motivating factor in his drive to succeed.

Manny’s father looms large in his life, despite the fact that he hasn’t spoken to Yosef Yekutiel in years. “My father disowned me when I came out to him in 2011.”

Disowned. The word is a little jarring. Isn’t that something that happened in the 80s, the era I came out in? Living in my San Francisco bubble for 20 years now, I thought contemporary urban families—such as Manny’s—had moved on.

Manny speaks with great reverence when sharing his father’s story. Originally from Afghanistan, Yosef’s life is an immigrant’s tale.

“He was the only one in his family to make it to America. And he washed dishes. He pumped gas. He opened up his own restaurant. He worked hard to create a life for me, and anyone that’s the son of an immigrant understands or should understand the sacrifices that are made just so that I could have the privileges that I’ve had,” Manny emphasizes.

A rabbi who represents an ultra-orthodox community in southern California, Yosef is aware of his son’s life in San Francisco. Aware of the café’s success, of the political celebrities who appear there. Perhaps Yosef has even read coverage of Manny’s Café in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times.

Manny’s mother and two sisters are certainly aware of Manny’s San Francisco success. His mom attended the café’s opening on Election Night 2018.

Still, Yosef remains persistent in his silence.

Manny’s forgiveness is equally persistent.

“Even though my father has disowned me, one shouldn’t judge an individual just by where they come from or what they believe,” he says.

Manny credits Yosef’s dedication to family for his own access to opportunities. He was able to become an intern in the White House. He worked for two presidential candidates and for a sitting president. He excelled in school, received scholarships and fellowships multiple times over.

In contrast, Manny explains, “My father grew up with nothing in Afghanistan. I definitely feel like I’m living the American dream, so the feeling I feel towards him is one of appreciation more than anything.”

And yet, looking at Manny, with his joyful energy as he sits in his San Francisco café surrounded by people of all ages and identities, I wonder, How could a parent possibly reject him?

The irony is that Yosef has given his son the tools to succeed. Not only “the bedrock lessons of getting involved, giving back, and doing good,” as Manny puts it. Yosef modeled for his son the diligence and tenacity of small business ownership. “On Sunday mornings, I’d have to wake up before dawn and pack a truck with my dad and go to Jewish festivals and sell yarmulkes and tablecloths to people,” Manny says. “I was his helper.”

Manny recalls his father working three jobs throughout Manny’s childhood. “I was taught at a very young age that strong work ethic. So when I get here early and stay late, and I’m mopping floors, and I’m putting on events, I’m doing what I believe my father taught me to do and how my father taught me to work.”

As in nature, when the cure to a toxin often can be found growing nearby, so it goes with Manny and his father.

While his father’s rejection is desperately hurtful, Manny is using the gifts from Yosef’s life to help create a brighter future. 

“I feel super appreciative and grateful to be able to do this and to do it on this corner, in this city,” Manny says. “It is a factor of my privilege that I was even able to create a small business … I’m just excited for what the future holds.”

For the full story, check out the original podcast episode, “From Political Staffer to Activist Coffee Shop Owner: Manny’s Cafe.”

Maureen Futtner has been a communications professional in San Francisco for 20 years. When not interviewing remarkable people, she loves to play music with her wife and enjoy sunset views of Sutro Tower from their home in the Mission.