Oakland kindergarten teacher Nancy Steimle says she first heard about Thornhill Coffee House from colleagues five years ago. Now, she’s hooked on the shop’s tuna sandwich, made with lettuce, tomato, and avocado, which she usually orders alongside an iced chai.
Thornhill Coffee House isn’t likely to earn a spot in the Michelin Guide, but the neighborhood favorite is noteworthy for something else: how integral it’s become to its Oakland Hills community. Lunchbox-style sandwiches, breakfast bagels, and the standard coffeehouse drinks are workhorses of the menu. But it’s the care taken with each item — whether it be the thick cucumber slices nestled into the tuna sandwich, the frozen coffee cubes that give the iced coffee a bonus buzz, or a fiery-fresh green papaya salad that’s always made to order — that have created a loyal clientele.
And then there’s the proprietress.
“People told me, you’ll love her sandwiches — and you’ll really love her,” Steimle recalls.
Thyda (TEE-dah) Yim, the shop’s exuberant owner for 16 of its 26 years in business, is the magic ingredient in Thornhill’s success and the reason many people love going there. “Thyda is a community treasure,” says Michelle Bertoldo, who’s patronized the shop for 13 years. She first became a customer when her kids attended the nearby elementary school. Now that her eldest is in college, they still go to Thyda’s. “We go back because she has great food,” she says, mentioning a variation on Caesar salad made with an egg, avocado, and extra veggies. “And Thyda’s warmth and friendliness, she just treats everybody like family.”
Children make “we love you” posters for her walls. Pet owners feel her generosity as she plies their dogs with treats on the patio. New moms get a momentary break as she cradles their babies. Yim knows the name of practically everyone who comes in, and those she doesn’t yet know are “sweetie” or “mommy.” Most people who frequent the cafe aren’t even aware it has an actual name, not just “Thyda’s Place.”
Second grade teacher Maureen Whalen marvels at Yim’s ability to remember everything about everyone. “I’m completely amazed at her retention for personal details, but also for how she manages all of the orders,” Whalen says. That multitasking can be head-spinning. In five minutes on a recent weekday morning, Yim whipped up enough breakfast sandwiches to run out, along with a handful of lattes and early lunches, all while keeping up with multiple conversations.
“I put $40 on the counter for you, Thyda. Because of inflation,” one person announced, referencing his overdue tab. The frequency with which this happens reflects how often Yim says, “Don’t worry! You can pay me later.” Noticing a group of preschoolers puttering by out front, she chirped to a customer, “Just a minute, honey, I have to run out and give them a treat!”
In 2006, Yim had worked at the cafe for only about six months before taking it over. Two factors motivated her. “I really liked being here because it helped me learn English,” she recalls of her early years as a Cambodian immigrant. A newly divorced mother of three, she was determined to be her own boss. She took a low-interest loan from her boyfriend (they’re still together, even as she continues to share a house with her ex-husband, an indicator of her unbelievably positive relationships), and paid it back less than five years later.
Little did she know how integral to the neighborhood she and her shop would become. “It’s like a microcosm of the Merriwood-Thornhill area,” Whalen says. “Everyone gathers here.” The 50-year-old cafe owner has summoned paramedics for customers’ medical emergencies and has a slew of unofficial tabs open for patrons. Kids visit after school. Salon employees from next door pop in for a soda. The local vet and his wife visit from across the street daily. Aging retirees spend the better part of every day there, socializing and reading the newspaper. Yim is a constant presence, seven days a week, with two of her own grown children working with her part-time.
“I don’t make enough to hire anyone else,” she says, sharing that margins are always tight and dipped dangerously low during the pandemic. Despite the challenges, Yim wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like having my own business, with no one in charge of me,” she says. “And I really love people, from here,” she adds, as she touches her heart.
She has a soft spot for kids, who adore her hot chocolates, overflowing with marshmallows and whipped cream, and freshly blitzed fruit smoothies. Little ones are also hooked on the chance to pick out packaged snacks from the corner store section of the cafe. Tucked into shelves and baskets, perfectly positioned at a child’s eye level, are Pocky sticks, fruit tape, a dozen varieties of potato chips, cookies, Takis, PopTarts, gum, and every sort of bubble water, juice box, or sports drink a kid could beg for.
Yim’s traditional Cambodian menu options have as devoted a following as her sandwiches. The green papaya salad is fish-sauce funky, spicy, and easily makes a meal for two. Plump spring rolls with rice noodles and delicate slivers of either poached shrimp or avocado, always come with a sweet, nutty dipping sauce.
When asked if her kids will take over the business someday, Thyda says what’s most important to her is that they enjoy life. “When you like what you do, time flies,” she says. But considering the way her most frequent coworker, her son Andy So, jokes around with the kids — his eyes dancing playfully above his mask — his destiny seems evident. Andy shakes his head, with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m going to retire early,” he only says, wiping down the tables between customers.