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One of San Francisco’s Buzziest Coffee Shops Just Planted Its Flag in Civic Center

Owners Liza Otanes and Rich Lee say they think San Francisco’s downtown is worth investing in

A sign for SPRO. Paolo Bicchieri
Paolo Bicchieri is a reporter at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, coffee and cafes, and pop-ups.

There’s no lack of San Francisco critique in the world — even amongst San Franciscans — but those concerns aren’t stopping coffee maestros Liza Otanes and Rich Lee. Their business SPRO Coffee, which is known for playful and inventive coffee drinks, is planting its flag right on the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Polk Street. The new coffee shop will host a grand opening on July 17, taking over the first floor of the San Francisco Public Utilities building, placing it in a cohort of new and buzzy restaurants in the area including Outta Sight Pizza, the soon-to-open Azalina’s, and La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace.

Each SPRO location — beginning with a tiny red cart at SPARK Social in 2017 and expanding into a well-lit corner cafe on Church Street in 2021 — offers a core menu of what the business calls “over the top” drinks such as sangria cold brew and yuzu and honey espresso tonics. But this newest outpost will feature items only available on Golden Gate Avenue. Breakfast burritos stuffed with mole-cooked refried beans and hashbrowns, and sandwiches, all made to-go, will be new offerings on the food side, along with cold sesame noodles and Japanese egg sandos.

It’s a furthering of SPRO’s approach: Pairing specialty coffees with a robust food menu, such as the shop’s tangy shots of espresso served with flavor profile-matched fruit like blueberries or Ritual Chocolate served alongside the Cold Fashioned, an orange-laden cold brew mocktail. There’ll be new specialty drinks, too, as Lee keeps riffing with ingredients including seabuckthorn and Moroccan saffron. “I have pink peppercorn and sea salt at the ready,” Lee says. “And people are like ‘This is gonna taste terrible.’ Then they drink it and it’s amazing.”

Fare exclusive to the new SPRO location.
SPRO Coffee
Cold brew sangria and espresso with fruit paired on the side is nothing new for SPRO.
Paolo Bicchieri

It was on a birthday trip to New York in January 2023, ostensibly to relax, that the couple got the news that they’d be able to open the new shop. In November 2022, they’d submitted a proposal to a lottery held by the City of San Francisco to take over the formerly Hayes Valley Bakeworks space, a massive cafe with an accompanying basement prep area. Then, while touring La Cabra’s Manhattan shop and Hamlet in Brooklyn, they got the email that they’d been selected — both a happy and panicky surprise.

To get in gear, they tapped Tinkering Monkey for design, one of their go-to firms, and the couple says their fanbase is already excited about the new location. City employees, construction workers, and academics and students from UC Hastings have already come by asking about opening day. And it didn’t take long for chef Eric Ehler of Outta Sight Pizza to hit up Lee via Instagram, either. The SPRO team took up all the tables at the new pizza shop for a field trip of sorts, a welcoming to the area. With Fluid Coffee and specialty coffee favorite George And Lennie off of Golden Gate Avenue both gone, SPRO is the new caffeine dealer on this side of the Tenderloin. “A lot of folks there are coffee-deprived,” Otanes says. “We see a lot of opportunity, and want to create a welcoming vibe to help people succeed.”

The couple sees a big future beyond even this third shop. Lee wants to keep growing the business, so much so that he says his staff has to remind him to slow down sometimes. He and Otanes love experimenting with the menu, envisioning their own ice cream made downstairs at the San Francisco Public Utilities building down the road. They’d like to roast their own coffee, too, though they’re enjoying the relationships they’ve built with roasters, including the current offering Black & White Coffee Roasters. Despite doom and gloom tales of the Bay Area, neither of the owners are worried. “I don’t see the doom loop,” Lee says. “I don’t believe in it. We’re an affordable luxury, and we certainly don’t have a shortage of patrons coming to see us.”

SPRO Coffee will open its newest location at 525 Golden Gate Avenue on July 17, open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Two people.
Rich Lee and Liza Otanes have been pushing SPRO forward for more than six years.
Paolo Bicchieri
A space.
The cafe space at SPRO’s newest location is huge and decked with massive windows.
Paolo Bicchieri
A guy.
The prep area for the new SPRO lies directly below the utilities building.
Paolo Bicchieri


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