While I was checking out the efforts to preserve the Kelco Community Historical Mural the other day, I stopped in at Ryan Bros. Coffee with my friend Alberto. Three weeks ago, the owners added grilled panini sandwiches to their existing food offerings (bagel sandwiches and pastries.) The new items all sound yummy, and I can testify that The Veggie (hummus, provolone, caramelized onion, tomato, red & green peppers, spinach, and sprouts; $6.50) doesn’t disappoint. Not so long ago, it would have been hard to imagine such a place thriving in Barrio Logan. Rather than newly roasted gourmet coffee beans, the signature scents of the neighborhood were industrial fumes and sizzling burritos and carbon dioxide from the traffic on the bridge that looms over so many of its 550 acres. Spilled beer and Mexican food smells permeated the two-story brick building on the northwest corner of Main Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard, where the much-loved Chuey’s Restaurant operated for decades. But when its founder died, his offspring moved the business into the building on the opposite side of the intersection. The Ryan family (consisting of Tom Ryan Sr. and his wife Helena, brothers Tom, Harry and Carmine, and Tom’s wife Jennifer) relocated their coffee-roasting business to the older site in 2004.
At that time, their prospects might have looked dim. The brothers had started the coffee business in the mid-90s, roasting their own beans and selling drinks from carts in La Jolla and Old Town and from their signature cafe in Old Columbia Square, where they prospered. But they were forced out (via eminent domain) in the deal that led to the construction of the W Hotel. Just as Petco Park was opening, they had to leave downtown and move into the former Chuey’s space. Jennifer says her husband and his brothers worked night and day for 18 months to rehabilitate the property, bootstrapping their success on their own, without the support of either the banking community or government handouts.
As they toiled, the real estate frenzy downtown and in the East Village was approaching its frothiest excesses. I imagine it was then, also, that some of the residents of Barrio Logan began to worry about losing their community to gentrification. In the spring of 2008, San Diego City Beat ran a long article airing their concerns; a year and a half later, Bill Manson wrote a Reader cover story plucking at same theme.
It’s possible to walk around Barrio Logan and wonder what the hand-wringing was about. It’s still not the Gaslamp; it’s way more tired and blue-collar than even Golden Hill. But changes finally appear imminent. Three months ago, the San Diego City Council approved a definitive agreement with a private developer to build the so-called Mercado project on the 6.8 acres directly across the street from Ryan Bros. Coffee — resolving 20 years of legal squabbling over the plans for the property. Organizers are saying work will soon begin on more than 90 affordable apartments and a retail center anchored by the upscale Gonzalez Northgate Markets, the Southern California chain which already has a half-dozen Hispanic food outlets throughout San Diego County. (The Barrio Logan branch will be the first grocery store to serve that neighborhood in decades.) The San Diego Community College District has bought the site where the second incarnation of Chuey’s once operated, and its new Cesar Chavez campus reportedly will also soon break ground. Just a block from that, where the mural is being preserved, the Restaurant Depot is building its huge new facility. Jennifer’s eyes sparkled when she talked about the promise and potential in this influx of investment and energy. There was a new electricity in the air, she attested.
I could feel it too and imagine that the ramifications on the established Barrio Logan community will be complex, even unnerving. But for anyone feeling stressed out, old-time resident or invading yuppie, the coffeehouse has to be a comfort. The brick walls are weathered but the beautifully colored concrete floors are polished and new. The Ryans preserved some of the old murals that once adorned Chuey’s, but they added cozy lighting and ceiling fans. You can sit at the antique bar where Jesse James once sat (back when the bar was installed in northern California) and sip on sweet Mexican cocoa or a blend of white tea and yerba mate or — have an excellent cup of coffee to wake you up.