Neighbors intervene to support Café du Soleil's staff after sudden closure

Photo: Vasiliy M./Yelp
By Teresa Hammerl - Published on April 23, 2020.

Last month, neighborhood fixture Café du Soleil closed after 15 years in the Lower Haight. In addition to Mustapha Hakkou, the cafe's owner, the closure left nine employees out of work — and unable to find new jobs, given the closures of restaurants and bars in the COVID-19 crisis. 

Now, a trio of neighbors have stepped up to raise funds for the employees affected. 

"The community wants them to come back," said Dan Johnson, who launched a GoFundMe campaign for the cafe with his neighbors, Brian Brooks and Allen White.

For Johnson, the connection is especially personal: he held his wedding rehearsal dinner at Café du Soleil. He now has a three-year-old daughter, Fiona, who sees the cafe as her second home. 

Johnson's family is socially distancing at home, but Fiona recently stopped by to draw a heart with chalk on the sidewalk outside. "CDS, we love you!" the family wrote. 

Dan Johnson and his daughter, Fiona, drew a tribute to Cafe de Soleil with sidewalk chalk. | Photo: Dan Johnson

The cafe's employees say they are also saddened by the closure, which occurred after Hakkou's lease expired in March. With the cafe's revenues affected by the shelter-in-place closure, Hakkou and his landlord were unable to come to terms on a new lease he could afford.

"It was an incredible place," said former employee Tina Nowak, who lives nearby and would spend time at the cafe on her days off. She recalled inside jokes with customers and the popular jazz nights, which would often end with attendees all singing a song together. 

"It was a place of celebration where wedding receptions, birthdays and baby showers took place," said another employee, Karley, who declined to use her last name.

Because of neighbors' generosity, Karley said, she was able to be independent in the city and pay for rent, college tuition and vacations.

"Most importantly, my coworkers and bosses were family to me, and oftentimes customers would mistake us for family," she said. "At Café du Soleil, we knew your drink order, milk preference and your [...] child’s birthday."

The once-packed café. | Photo: Mustapha Hakkou

The GoFundMe campaign's goal is to raise $18,000, so that each of the nine employees can receive $2,000, Johnson said. As of this writing, 59 people have donated $5,965 out of the $18,000 goal. 

Johnson said that he hopes the donations will help to make sure the employees can remain in the city, and return to the café if it reopens.

The cleared-out space. | Photo: Mustapha Hakkou

The cafe's space has been full cleared out. But earlier this month, Hakkou said he was still holding out hope that he might be able to return, if a new 10-year lease can be worked out with his landlord.

If not, he hopes to find a new location in the Lower Haight once the shelter-in-place is over. 

"We are family," he said. Moving to another neighborhood is "not who I am."

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