Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Arts & Culture
Published on February 01, 2017
Lower Haight's Cafe International Secures Legacy Business StatusPhotos: Diana Gaffney/Hoodline

Café International (508 Haight St.) has become the Lower Haight’s second small business to achieve Legacy Business status. 

Owned by Zahra Saleh since 1987, the cafe is now officially part of the city's Legacy Business Registry, which recognizes businesses that are "30 years or older, have contributed to their neighborhood's history, and agree to maintain their identity, name and craft." Its Lower Haight compatriot on the registry is Two Jacks Nik's Place, which was added last summer. 

The registry comes at a key time for Saleh, whose lease on Café International is up in two years. Her rent is already at $9,250 a month, which is "a lot of coffee to sell," says Aaron Jackson, the attorney who helped her prepare her application to the registry. 

Now that Café International is on the registry, Saleh can apply for assistance from the city's Legacy Business Fund, which can help her secure a longer lease, offer her an annual grant of $500 per full-time employee and subsidize her rent at the rate of $4.50 per square foot per year.

To receive legacy status, a small business must be nominated by the mayor or a member of the Board of Supervisors. District 5 Supervisor London Breed nominated Cafe International for the registry last fall.

"Zahra knows people from the neighborhood; she’s watched kids grow up and adults grow old," Breed told us at the time. "Places like Café International keep our history and culture alive—and they also happen to make really good coffee." 

The mural at Café International, painted in 1994 by artist Kemit Amenophis.

After being nominated for legacy status by Breed, Saleh had to undergo two hearings with the Historic Preservation Commission and the Small Business Commission. Many of her longtime patrons turned out to offer their support, traveling from as far away as Vallejo and Berkeley. 

"I’m one of the genuine San Franciscans that go to Café International," patron Clifford Johnson told the crowd at the Historic Preservation hearing. "I retired a couple of years ago [and] I now live in Vallejo, but my community life is still in San Francisco, thanks to Café International."

“I’ve known her in many forms as a friend and boss," said Katherine, another supporter. "She introduced me to my future husband, and she will minister [our wedding].” (She noted that while many patrons know that Saleh speaks seven languages and has a master's in economics, few know that she's also an ordained minister.)

"This is the third hearing we’ve had for legacy businesses," said Historic Preservation Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman at the end of Cafe International's first hearing. "[But] it’s the first time that the patrons of a business have actually come before us and spoken so highly of a place. That just speaks huge volumes." 

Saleh (center) at the cafe. 

The prospect of Saleh remaining in business is a relief to many longtime patrons. "The Lower Haight is going through a demographic change," her attorney, Jackson, said. "You count about 10 hair salons within a four- or five-block radius, but now only two coffee shops in the neighborhood … Café International is one of the last of its kind.”