Orson’s Belly Fights for Survival Against State Bureaucracy

By Janice Bressler

Orson’s Belly, a cinema-themed café and vermouth bar in the Richmond District, has built a large and devoted  following since it opened four years ago on Balboa Street between 18th and 19th avenues.  

“It’s a community gathering place,” said Sandra Aguilar, a regular at the café and a longtime resident in the neighborhood. “We’ve never had anything like it in this area.”  

But despite the café’s popularity and its reputation as an asset to the neighborhood, Orson’s Belly is fighting for its financial life. The young married couple who owns and runs the cafe, Cem Salur and his wife Cigdem Onat-Salur, are locked in a bureaucratic battle with the California State Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC). The latest skirmish in that fight brought the Salurs, as well as dozens of Orson’s Belly supporters, to a Feb. 13 hearing before an ABC administrative law judge in San Francisco that lasted more than four hours.

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Jessica Cerami, with her daughter Melodie, came to a Feb. 13 hearing – along with about 25 other Orson’s Belly fans – to show her support for the café. Cerami lives near Orson’s Belly and has been a regular at the café since it opened. Photo by Janice Bressler.

At issue is the Salurs’ request to modify their wine and beer (Type 41) license to allow them to sell their popular vermouth spritzers and other alcohol, until 11 p.m. Currently, the cut-off time is 9 p.m., even though food service and the café’s popular live music and silent film events extend beyond that time. The Salurs say the unusually early cut-off time hamstrings their ability to stay afloat financially in the face of rising costs.   

“We can’t survive in the city by only selling coffee and croissants,” Onat-Salur told the judge.

The 9 p.m. cut-off was originally added to the Orson’s Belly alcohol license because of the complaints of a single neighbor who has since moved away. But when the Salurs made their request seven months ago for an extension to 11 p.m., a new protester in the neighborhood surfaced. At the ABC hearing, the neighbor testified that noise from patrons leaving the café in the evening is disruptive to her and her family, and she fears that extending alcohol sales until 11 p.m. would increase that disruption.  

The Salurs were not represented by an attorney at the hearing, but each spoke passionately from the witness stand about how hard they have worked to build a successful business that is a part of and an asset to the surrounding community. Onat-Salur, who like her husband is originally from Turkey, said the enthusiastic community response to Orson’s Belly represents, for her, the realization of a long-held dream. 

In a voice full of emotion, she told the judge: “Orson’s Belly is a family establishment. We work hard to create a place where people of all ages, of all backgrounds come and feel welcome, feel comfortable – young couples with kids on their way to school, older people, college kids, home-office workers. It is hard to find a place like ours in San Francisco. People in the city are craving contact.” 

Cem Salur presented a petition of support for Orson’s Belly’s request to modify its license signed by 300 neighbors in the surrounding community, including neighbors living in the apartments that are above and adjacent to the café. He also presented letters of support from the principal of nearby Argonne Elementary School, the community group Grow the Richmond and District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer. 

In her letter, Fewer acknowledges that ABC permits are out of her jurisdiction but urges the state agency to grant Orson’s Belly’s application to extend alcohol sales from 9 to 11 p.m.  Fewer’s letter also thanks the Salurs for their contributions to the Richmond District: 

“I would like to recognize Cem and Cigdem for creating a valued space for our community to enjoy quality food and beverages, and promoting art and film in the neighborhood,” Fewer said.

  Jessica Cerami, a young mother who lives near Orson’s Belly with her husband and baby girl, Melodie, has been a regular at the café since it opened. Along with about 25 other Orson’s Belly fans, Cerami came to the hearing to show her support for the Salurs and their request. During a recess, many of the café’s supporters talked about why they were there.

Holding her infant daughter in her arms, Cerami said the warm family-like feel of Orson’s Belly and the way it brings neighbors together is “really unique.”   

“We decided to stay in the neighborhood and a big part of that was because of the community we found at Orson’s Belly,” she said.

Al Davis, a 20-something artist and videographer, said he loves to hang out at Orson’s Belly, “to connect with other people, lots of locals …. to make art … and for great mochas.”

Sandra Aguilar, who lives just a few doors down from Orson’s Belly, raved about the “cultural offerings” at the café, from silent film and live music, to poetry readings.

The ABC judge’s ruling on the Salurs’ request is expected to be issued no later than mid-March. is sponsored in part by:

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