This article is the first in a four-part series that examines San Francisco’s cultural fixtures.
From namesake desserts to sandwiches and hot drinks, Toy Boat Dessert Cafe in San Francisco remains well known for its locally-produced ice cream and vibrant display of 80’s collectibles.
Stepping off Clement Street and onto Toy Boat, customers are greeted by vintage posters, comics and Pez candy dispensers. Colorful armies of figurines plaster the walls, and all of the decorative items in the cafe are for sale.
Jesse Fink co-founded Toy Boat in 1982 with Roberta Fink, before the two were married.
“I opened [the cafe] pre-Starbucks … pre-dot-com, pre-checkings, pre-engaging with chain stores,” Fink said.
Over the years, Toy Boat has gained a loyal following among locals. Customers of all ages congregate at Toy Boat, from children eating ice cream after school to locals ordering their daily coffee, Fink said. The late comedian Robin Williams was also a Toy Boat supporter, he added.
“[Williams] played gigs across the street in [a comedy club] that was called the Holy City Zoo,” Fink said. “He was always a very nice man.”
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also paid a visit to Toy Boat. The cafe’s restroom displays a picture of Pelosi alongside Fink and his wife. Dozens of other memories in the form of portraits and quotes fill the remaining wall space.
Fink and his wife said they hoped to create a welcoming space for individuals from different backgrounds.
“We thought about young people, older people and immigrants … and we came up with Toy Boat,” Fink said.
He recalled a customer’s mother flying in from Vietnam for her granddaughter’s graduation a few years ago. Toy Boat was the first retail establishment she entered in the United States.
“Seeing all the toys, seeing all the colors, it was totally new for her… she was in shock,” Fink said.
The interaction was a highlight of his nearly 40 years at Toy Boat, he added.
“Her English was nonexistent, and my Vietnamese was nonexistent, but I thought we had a nice time,” Fink said. “It was a real treat for me.”
While Fink is a constant presence at Toy Boat, he said, he is never behind the counter. Rather, he enjoys socializing with customers and establishing a welcoming environment.
“Jessie looks out for his customers; it’s really heartwarming,” said William Kami, who has been a regular customer at Toy Boat for nearly twenty years.
When Kami moved to San Francisco’s Richmond District in the early 2000s, he tried every coffee shop in the neighborhood in search of the perfect espresso. According to Kami, only Toy Boat hit the mark. Toy Boat has been Kami’s go-to coffee shop ever since, he said.
“I even have my own mug,” said Kami, smiling. “Jessie bought it for me.”
Toy Boat has fostered a strong sense of community for staff members and customers alike, Kami added. He said he has met close friends at Toy Boat and often sees former employees stop by to say hello and catch up.
Fink feels strongly about protecting the community from formula retail businesses, which he says threaten to diminish the character and uniqueness of San Francisco. In 2007, Fink, the head of the Clement Street Merchants Association at the time, led a petition to appeal the proposed opening of Starbucks in the Richmond District.
Fink accumulated more than 4,000 signatures opposing Starbucks’ planned location, the SF Examiner reported in September 2007. Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors vetoed the Starbucks’ construction.
Further, Fink continues his commitment to supporting local businesses by using locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible. The only ice cream sold by Toy Boat, for instance, is Double Rainbow-brand ice cream produced in San Francisco.
“I’m very fortunate that I enjoy what I do,” Fink said. “People have a choice and they come into Toy Boat every day. I think that’s just wonderful.”
Contact Caroline Ghisolfi at ceg1998 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Alexandra Chang at alexandrachang‘at’ stanford.edu.