Olton Rensch says that there’s a high-end coffee shop in every San Francisco neighborhood but the Bayview – an area that author and activist James Baldwin once referred to as “the San Francisco America pretends does not exist.” With his spot, called Tallio’s Coffee, he wants to change that, bringing what the rest of San Francisco takes for granted to this oft-overlooked community.
“In the rich neighborhoods you’re going to see these upscale coffee shops,” Rensch says. “We were missing that in the Bayview.”
Living with his family in the neighborhood as a youth, Rensch and his friends would walk to the Ferry Building for coffee every Saturday morning. That weekly trek inspired Rensch to open an upscale coffee shop inside a former barber shop on Third Street, one with reasonable prices that anyone in the community can work at — or just grab a cup of joe.
“We want to train people to do pour over, to enjoy coffee to the max,” Rensch says. “Just like what they teach those people who buy coffee from Blue Bottle, from Starbucks.”
Rensch followed a familiar path for the would-be business owner: starting with online sales in 2017, a stand at farmers markets in 2018, and a mortar lease in October of 2019. It took two years to secure the permits he needed to open, and didn’t get the OK until the coronavirus crisis was underway.
“I did not feel safe to be open for service in the beginning of the pandemic, especially in the community we are located in,” Rensch says. “Also, because of the high infection rate in marginalized communities, I did not want to contribute to the spreading of the virus.”
That why, until February of 2021, Rensch kept his operation online-only. With the pandemic devastating businesses of all shapes and sizes (though disproportionately Black and poor-owned businesses) Rensch has had to be flexible. He hasn’t been paying himself since March of 2020, he says, and has been working hard to make sure his employees collect a salary, even taking a second job to get them their paychecks. To Rensch, every dollar counts, and one recent order of 5,000 bags of beans helped pay all his employees a full salary for at least a month.
Rensch also found help from an unexpected source: a mentoring initiative from TV and internet provider Comcast called Comcast RISE. The program offers “marketing consultation, media placements, commercial creative production services, or technology services” to BIPOC business owners, but does not have a cash grant component.
“I’m definitely grateful that I had the opportunity, and that I applied,” Rensch says of the program, which so far, has offered him mentoring and training sessions.
“Tallio’s really represents what we mean. They’re in the neighborhood, they’re making a change, they’re involved in the community,” says Adriana Arvizo, the external communications manager for Comcast in California. “We want to create awareness so that people like me and you can make different decisions when they buy coffee.”
Rensch migrated from Suriname to the United States around 1989 when his brother, a human rights activist, needed to leave the country when the military government took over. The youngest of 11, Rensch says that sometimes it seemed like he was “behind” even more – his mother was responsible for the care of about 25 young people in their community.
The family first landed on 15th and Mission, then moved all over the city. By the mid-90s they’d settled in the Bayview, and it didn’t take long for Rensch to realize that his home was in a food desert, in a neighborhood with a reputation as a place hard-hit by systemic racism, crime, and poverty.
Like his mom, he wanted to support the community, so “I got started changing the image,” Rensch says, starting with a plan to attend college.
Dr. Oba T’Shaka, a professor at San Francisco State University, taught Rensch while he worked toward his degree in sociology and Africana studies. T’Shaka led protests against businesses that were not hiring people of color at the time, a strategy that opened Rensch’s eyes to community action, and illustrated for him how businesses could help, or hurt, through their location and hiring practices.
Though San Francisco has recently recognized the Third Street Corridor as a historic merchant district. Rensch says that typically, people only hear about the Bayview from news stories covering violence in the area. To his mind, it’s only Bayview residents that see the neighborhood in a positive light.
“That needs to change,” Rensch says. “It starts with elected officials, getting the community involved, and getting people to visit. There’s much more going on than the crime people think is happening.” People should “Just come enjoy the community,” he says. “A marginalized community could be an iconic area, like the opera house or Alcatraz.”
Rensch wants to hire other people who live in the area, and plans to offer barista classes at least once a month to help others enter the high-end coffee business, eventually bringing classes to other low income neighborhoods.
“Our audience are those in the community,” Rensch says. “The inspiration for coffee classes is more to share the beauty of brewing, drinking coffee, and bringing the barista out of each of us.”
Tallio’s finally opened for business in early February, when the city allowed outdoor dining to resume. Folks have been coming by for coffee and tea, Rensch says, and things are “going well.”
But if things shut back down, Rensch says he’s ready to pivot once again. He’s made it this far, and now, he says, “I refuse to give up.”
Tallio’s is located at 4732 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA, 94124. They’re open Monday to Saturday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sundays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Comcast RISE is accepting applications for all BIPOC business owners now through May 7. BIPOC business owners can check to see if their business qualifies and apply to receive support here.