Walking into Timeless Coffee in Oakland, punk music ricocheting above tattoo-clad workers, Rai Littlejohn understood what he wanted to do was not only possible but already happening. At the time, Littlejohn was tired of working for others and he wanted to run his own cafe; he dreamed of a place that was unapologetically vegan, committed to top-notch quality, and hospitable as can be. But this kernel of an idea came to him in February 2020, weeks before COVID locked down the city.
His pop-up Deathless Coffee launched out of a shipping container in summer 2020, located in an alley behind Bond Bar on 16th Street, and became a much-needed checkpoint for San Franciscans in the hellish early months of the pandemic. He secured a permanent location in fall 2022, though even this is just one move the 36-year-old skater is playing toward his final vision. “Coffee is a ritual, a commodity, a resource — and it’s here to stay,” Littlejohn says. “I just want to be a part of that rather than something that will fizzle out.”
Ever since he was a kid in San Diego he wanted to run his own cafe or restaurant. As an adult, he realized it could be a reality, but he still needed the chops to make it happen. He moved to San Francisco in 2007 to pursue graphic design, and faced with a high cost of living and mounting student debt, opted to get right to work, first as a bike messenger. He always saw himself working the front of house at restaurants, stoking conversations while the cooks and chefs did their part behind the scenes, so he moved into the restaurant industry, taking jobs through friends’ recommendations. Then in 2018, he began the coffee chapter of his life with a post at Cento in SoMa. “I knew step one was to learn to make coffee,” Littlejohn says.
Within two years he went from full-time pursuing his dream to sitting on his bed, unemployment as his only financial lifeline thanks to a COVID-induced furlough. He recognized that if he couldn’t get something going right then, he might never have the same momentum. His plan was to use the shipping container as storage, but as he visited the site to get gear in and out he’d strike up chats with locals who asked for coffee straight away. “It was outdoors, and it was just pour-overs,” Littlejohn says. “Nothing wrong with that.”
In short order, his new fans asked for espresso. So he bought himself a tiny blue Marzocco rig and became an installation at the end of that Mission District alley. He started his famously cryptic Instagram just to chat with his dispersed fan base, arranging times when he would make drinks while customers could chat over coffee at the storage container. People kept telling him these events were the most important thing to them, socially speaking, during the pandemic. “It inspired me,” Littlejohn says. “I said, ‘How about this: I’ll keep showing up, and the day no one shows up, I’ll stop.’” But that day never came.
Deathless has been, from the beginning, an all-plant-based operation. Oat lattes made with Grand Coffee beans are how Littlejohn stays plugged into his political and social commitments. The project is vegan straight edge, a punk subculture that focuses on clean living. Littlejohn also hopes to serve Over Yonder Bakehouse or Whack Donut’s animal-free pastries in the coming months. He’s yet to share the address of his permanent spot widely, not to be cute, but because he’s still hiring staff, which means a lack of a full and solid schedule at the moment. No matter, as it continues Deathless’ signature IYKYK mood.
Littlejohn would like to see this new space make real that dream of owning a punk, vegan venture. Harlow in Portland, a robust cafe but also a plant-based restaurant, is another inspiration alongside Timeless: powerfully aesthetic and well-designed, vegan, and coffee-forward. The new Deathless space is a triangle of windows with pink and green walls — and a Sega Genesis available for customers to play Sonic the Hedgehog near the coffee bar. Espresso drinks, filter coffee, and that same premium level of conversation are what’s on the menu — so far. Down the road, he could see the business morphing into a restaurant with a strong coffee program, but for now, it’s exactly where Littlejohn feels it should be. “What kid didn’t think owning their own shop would be cool?” Littlejohn says. “It’s an uphill battle, but it’s feasible.”
Deathless Coffee at 1825 Market Street is currently open Wednesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and aiming for an early summer grand opening.