Neighbor’s Corner sits on the edge of Douglass and 21st. It’s kind of a corner store, but not in the traditional sense. It’s somewhat convenient, but off the beaten path. It offers milk and eggs, but doesn’t carry booze and canned beans. Still, neighbors around the Castro often walk up hills and climb hidden stairways to get there. What’s the allure?
Co-owners Tim Luym and Ryan Kenkel both use the word “serendipitous” to describe Neighbor’s Corner. Luym, formerly the owner and chef of possibly-haunted Poleng Lounge and partner/business developer of the Frozen Kuhsterd food truck, found the space at 499 Douglass St. in 2014 with the help of neighbors/friends Chris and Tom from Delinear. Tim then brought in Kenkel when he had a bright idea for a new business there.
Kenkel and Luym worked together about a decade ago at Poleng Lounge, from 2006 to 2010, although Kenkel also has a background in catering around the city. While honing their venture at Neighbor’s Corner, they brought on Laurel Stewart as a third partner. Stewart makes all the pastries for Neighbor’s Corner, which are also served by Wildcraft Espresso Bar down the street. Stewart used to work in biotech but cooking is her real passion, so she decided to give her dream a go.
Laurel Steward and Ryan Kenkel.
Neighbor’s Corner officially opened back in September of 2015. Its three owners claim that its development has been a real collaboration between them and the neighborhood. "We were lucky to be welcomed into this neighborhood," said Kenkel. "We started kind of slowly. We really wanted to bring things in here that people are asking for, such as prepared foods. And we serve coffee from Andytown—we'd be remiss not to offer a good coffee bar. It's been something that the neighborhood is appreciative of."
But Neighbor’s Corner is more than a coffee joint. In addition to serving coffee and pastries, it offers plenty of goods from Bay Area artists and locals, such as Luym’s Frozen Kuhsterd, June Taylor Jams, homemade bags and other one-of-a-kind textiles from Hiroko, and sushi from Takoba.
"We also have locally-made dog treats in here. We get a lot of lot of dogs,” said Kenkel. “Laurel probably knows more names of the dogs than people."
The space used to be a corner market that sold liquor, cigarettes, and lotto tickets—everything people would expect of a San Francisco-based corner store. "Some people in neighborhood called it an ‘inconvenience market’ because they went there only because they had to," said Luym. "It wasn’t trying to be one with the neighborhood; it was just a traditional model of what everyone knows a corner store to be so they operated like that."
"And, so coming in here, we wanted sort of a hybrid of that," he said. "We want to fit peoples’ needs but we can’t be everything to everyone. So some people might want us to sell toilet paper, but we aren’t focusing on that."
The owners say they don’t want to impose themselves on the neighborhood: instead they want to really feel like they are neighbors themselves. Even the name came from people coming on and telling them, "Oh, I’m a neighbor. I live just down the street, or, I live just around the block." "People really identify as a ‘neighbor’ in this area," said Kenkel, "so that’s where the name came from. It was very organic."
Running a "corner store" is definitely different than working in a restaurant or in biotech. Luym told us he enjoys the simplicity of Neighbor's Corner as a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of catering and restaurants.
“It’s peaceful,” he said. “You meet people on more a personal level. There’s an allure for all of us about that. It’s not just the grind where we are getting off at midnight and getting up early again just to do the same thing.” But, Luym later admitted, he still loves the restaurant life as well.
As far as the interior of the space, Michael Woo and Brent Kanbayashi helped with the design of the store; Woo lives right up the street, and did the counters, the shelving, the metal work, and the backroom.
Kenkel says that they are still evolving and changing with the neighborhood. They've talked about having arts and crafts classes for kids in the neighborhood in the future, and about partnering with schools to do some after-school activities there.
As far as the corner store concept, Kenkel said, "We still want it to be a place where people can come in here and get their milk and eggs. We’re still working on what people want, but we also want to bring in things that people haven’t thought of, such as the bags and things made by local artists, and possibly some future events. But the point is that we want it to be a neighborhood hub. This is where we want people to start their day."
Luym added, "We want to serve the neighborhood, but we also wanted to think of a new way to integrate ourselves as a corner market."
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