Many hip-hop heads will find the colorful mural behind the coffee bar at Abanico Coffee Roasters familiar. Jason Jägel, the artist responsible for the work, is known for his collaborations with the acclaimed left-field rapper, MF Doom.
To cafe proprietor Ana Valle, however, Jägel’s clout is of little importance. After working for the better part of a decade to open Abanico, she’s been far more concerned with serving top-notch coffee than earning points with fans of the late Daniel Dumile.
“The mural is beautiful. It’s amazing,” Valle says, clarifying that she is happy her landlord had the work commissioned. “But I had no idea who he was.”
The seeds for Abanico were sown in 2013 when a recently laid-off Valle resolved to never return to a traditional office again. She looked to her Central American roots and love of coffee as a means to that end.
Valle was born in El Salvador and moved to California in 1986 when she was seven. She says she has always appreciated San Francisco’s multicultural heritage and that she views Abanico as a way to contribute to the diverse tapestry of the city.
“You meet so many people from all over the world in San Francisco,” Valle says. “My best friend is from Ethiopia. I have Latino friends not from El Salvador. I grew up eating Filipino food. It’s beautiful here in the city.”
With the help of her husband, Michael Walsh, Valle steered clear of the corporate world and threw herself into coffee — travelling to meet growers, taking roasting classes, and tinkering with recipes that highlight her Salvadoran heritage. In 2014, she gave birth to a daughter, which put the business on hold for a spell, but it wasn’t long before Valle was back at it — roasting beans in the kitchen of her Sunset District home.
“I got a good feel for roasting on my little machine,” says Valle, who toggled between caring for her baby and running a pair of roasters — one designed by San Francisan Roaster Co. and the other by Hottop USA. “I became a bit of an expert on my own.”
By 2015 she was selling bags of her roast to family and friends, and serving her own creations at local pop-ups. “Little by little, I felt it out,” Valle says. “I thought ‘I’ll just keep pushing and see where this goes.’”
As her business grew, Valle sought to make a difference in the industry with her purchases. She met and befriended female coffee producers in Latin America — learning not just their methods of harvesting and preparing the raw beans, but also “understanding the intent of the producers — how they want their coffee to shine.”
In 2018, Valle began negotiations with the owner of 2021 Mission, making plans to move into the space formerly occupied by a quirky bag manufacturer called Lady Alamo. As is the experience of many who attempt to open a new business in San Francisco, it was a bureaucratic headache that lasted well over a year.
“There were days I thought, ‘Oh they’re just not leasing it to me anymore,’” Valle says.
But by the end of 2019, the red tape cleared and the lease was finalized. Valle planned to open March 1, 2020, but the universe had other plans.
As the pandemic dragged on, Valle focused on growing the business online and preparing the store. In this way, San Francisco’s notoriously difficult permitting process served as something of an unexpected blessing. The shop, at 2121 Mission St., opened for business in May.
Valle does her best to translate the wishes of her partner coffee producers while also sharing her vision with the customer and elevating preparations not found in other local shops.
The Cubana, a sugary, caffeine-packed beverage, was inspired by drinks Valle has enjoyed at cafes in Miami, while the Morro Latte features morro seeds — a principal ingredient in horchata. She enjoys watching her baristas, many of whom did not know anything about morro before starting at Abanico, sharing their newfound knowledge and passion with customers.
It’s clear that Valle’s identity as a Latina from El Salvador is a key ingredient in every item on the Abanico menu, but the way she tells it, her understanding of coffee and coffee culture is far more important.
“We all have to label ourselves a certain way,” Valle says. “Women-owned. Local. But I wanted my coffee to stand on its own. And I know it does.”
As far as what the future holds, Valle is less certain. With the Delta variant threatening the fragile state of San Francisco’s pandemic recovery, Valle says anxiety is high.
“I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. Everybody says ‘Oh, how brave of you to open this right now,’” Valle says. “To be honest I don’t know how things are going to play out,” Valle said. “But I’m in it. We’re here every day.”
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