Cafes Bring Unique Blend of Coffee and Community to Northside

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On the 1600 block of Shattuck Avenue, between Cedar and Lincoln streets, coffee connoisseurs come to a quandary. Sitting side-by-side on this block are Guerilla Cafe and Philz Coffee - two cafes that serve some of the most hyped coffees in the Bay Area. Both strive to embrace the community around them but do so in different ways, and both have collected their own variety of "regulars."

Guerilla Cafe, which opened in 2006, has been a fixture of the Northside neighborhood for a few more years than Philz Coffee, which only came to Shattuck this May.

The two shops serve distinctive yet similar flavors of Bay Area coffee brands - Guerilla being one of the first to serve Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee and Philz serving its own coffee beans, which debuted at the original San Francisco store in 2003.

Upon walking into the cafe, the "vibe in Guerilla is evident" said employee of two years Sandra Lawson-Ndu. A portrait of Howard Zinn covers one wall, works made by the owner and employees cover other walls and the sound of a bongo drum beats overhead.

"We wanted to create a place where we serve really, really good coffee, kind of a low-fare breakfast menu ... and we really wanted the artwork to be a big part of the cafe," said an owner and founder of the cafe, Andrea Ali.

Ali, a ceramics artist who grew up in Berkeley and studied art at San Francisco State University, said many of the employees are artists as well. Lawson-Ndu sings "soul-indie" music and has performed at the cafe.

"I love the fact that a lot of people are just doing their thing and working at the cafe like they're artists or musicians ... and really all of those elements seem to come to the cafe," she said. "It's not like you do this on the outside and then you come here."

Founded in 2003 by Phil Jaber, Philz has since gathered a following with its seven stores around the Bay Area, including the Shattuck store, the company's first East Bay location.

Like Guerilla, Philz makes its coffee drip-style, but the process from order to finished product is quite "unique" and requires detailed explanation to new customers, employees said.

Customers choose from a variety of coffee beans - from light to medium to dark roasts - and the barista asks the customer how sweet or not sweet they want their cup of coffee to be.

"It was a lot of just telling people over and over and over what we do and how this is different and why you won't get a latte like you're used to," said store supervisor Brianna Skellie.

Employees at each cafe expressed a passion for the community, as both shops organize events such as musical performances to bring in locals.

Starting Aug. 20, Guerilla will be opening at 4 a.m. on Fridays during Ramadan for those who practice Islam. The shop has also organized a fundraising event to support relief efforts in Pakistan after the recent flood.

Philz's connection with the neighborhood is represented, partially, in the small rack on one wall that holds the mugs of regular patrons like recent UC Berkeley graduate Cecilia Ng.

"It's like the only coffee shop ... that's big, and I can study here and the people are really welcoming and friendly and the coffee is really good," said Ng, who has come to Philz almost every day since it opened. "I just love the atmosphere."

In a back room for employees, Skellie said they keep tabs on how some regulars with specific orders like their coffee as well as a "Wall of Awesomeness" that displays customer quotes about the coffee and baristas.

When Philz first opened, some said a rivalry might ensue between the two stores, but employees at both stores said there has not been too much competition.

"It's a different thing and a different product," Skellie said. "I think here there's no sense of competition, just kind of a respect of what they do and what they stand for and everything they offer."


Contact Emma Anderson and Stephanie Baer at [email protected]

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