By Thomas K. Pendergast
Roberta Mindich-Fink and Jesse Fink remember so many people who have come through the doors of Toy Boat Dessert Cafe, at the corner of Clement Street and Fifth Avenue, that it is hard to recall all of them at once.
Sitting in their small ice cream parlor surrounded by a menagerie of 20th century Americana toys, they reminisce about Mike, who always said “hubba, hubba, hubba;” the elderly lady, Bernice, who made the Toy Boat a part of her daily routine; and famous people who stopped by, like actor Robin Williams or Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
They started their business in 1982, so they have been a part of the neighborhood fabric for 38 years.
But, just as all fairy tales must come to an end, this “Toy Boat” is sailing off into the sunset, because Jesse and Roberta are retiring.
“Jesse spends many hours working here and it’s open seven days a week and he’s very devoted to it and it’s starting to wear,” Roberta said.
“I’ve been doing it for 38 years; I love it with a passion,” Jesse explained. “I’m going to be 67 years old. It starts to wear on you. I looked at all the other merchants, they were all kids, you know, they’re like 35 years old, 40.
“I thought maybe this is time,” he said, then elaborated: “I’m not closing because of a virus; I’m closing because it was time.”
Like many businesses along Clement Street, he was ordered by the City to shut down on March 16 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he had to lay off about 10 workers. He has not done any business since.
Adding insult to injury, after all the years he had paid for business interruption insurance – which is supposed to pay out when a disaster beyond the control of the owner makes the building unusable to serve their customers – the policy didn’t help.
“So, if someone drives their car into your building, or the ceiling falls down, or if there’s a flood, you have insurance to cover you when your business is interrupted,” Jesse said. “I called my broker and she said: ‘I’m sorry Jesse, look at page 58,’ out of 150 pages.”
He saw a specific clause that said the policy did not cover viruses.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s like getting into a car accident because you got a flat and they go: ‘Oh, we don’t cover car accidents when you have a flat.’”
Had this pandemic happened a decade or two ago, he might have hung in there because he has always been a fighter, like when he took on Starbucks and won.
In 2007 the corporate giant wanted to open up a cafe just a few blocks away from him on Geary Boulevard, where the Toyota Dealership is now. He was the president of the Clement Street Merchants Association at the time, and he organized enough pushback that they managed to defeat the project on appeal at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with a 9-1 vote.
“The neighborhood got together and we kept Starbucks out, because we wanted to keep the quaintness, the uniqueness of the Inner Richmond,” he said.
“We didn’t want the City to turn into another strip mall with the same cookie-cutter locations and with no personality,” Roberta added.
Because, at their cafe, personality counts.
“I think about 99% of the customers were lovable, depending on who you could love,” Jesse said. “People just came in here and were attracted to the atmosphere. That’s the kind of people we attracted, not people who wanted to go to a coffee house and read Sartre and Camus and write their memoirs.
“It was a more fun person, people who came here and then later came here with their children … a real 360-degree crew of people. We attracted a lot of people who felt comfortable and stayed here. I think I only threw out three people in 38 years.”
Jesse recalled Mike, a customer who “had like a whole following. And he always used to go ‘hubba, hubba, hubba.’ And my daughter must have been about 5 and he’d say ‘hubba, hubba, hubba, Annie Rose! If I had eyes like yours!’ And then one day she said ‘Mike, what does hubba, hubba, hubba mean?’ And the entire store cracked up laughing.
“Mike came here for years and then disappeared.”
“Didn’t he also build you a boat?” Roberta said.
“He built me a boat,” Jesse nodded. “He used to build boats.”
“He was very crusty, like an old sailorman,” Roberta nodded.
“He would sail them in Sprekels Lake. And he made me one,” Jesse said, smiling.
Then, of course, there was Bernice, an elderly woman who lived down the street and was a regular at the café, coming in daily with her walker.
“She’d have coffee and a muffin. For her to get dressed and look pleasant and come in every single day was very special,” he said. “Then she’d come back again for dinner. She’d have her sandwich.
“And then for a few days we didn’t see her, so we went to her house and it ends up she was in the hospital. Bernice was special.”
Aside from ice cream, food and a friendly atmosphere, there are the toys … wall to wall, hundreds of them, surrounding a mechanical pony named Butterscotch. Roberta recalled the first toy they bought together while they were in Europe. Little did they know it would be the start of a lifetime collecting all kinds of toys for their future business and home as well.
“We found a battery-operated automobile,” she said. “It had plastic dolls, boy and girl, in the front and the girl’s holding a camera. When you put the car on, it would ride and then it would stop. Then the girl would turn her head and then she’d take a photo. And then she’d turn back and then they would ride off.
“And that started the whole thing.”