If you’ve been reading the series about Robin’s Café, you know that the cafe got off to a rough start. It was chaotic and frantic and terrifying, but those feelings were put into perspective when we lost our early employee in a tragic accident. This post is in honor of Frank.
The first week of opening Robin’s Café was an unmitigated mess. Opening Rush, combined with enthusiastic Design for Dance attendees who all wanted to support the cafe, created a bonafide lunch rush on our first day with a full menu. In those early days we were a team of 4, and were often making up recipes on the spot to cover orders. The original employees and I often look back on those times after tough days and realize that no matter how terrible things get today, it will never be as chaotic and insane as those first days were.
I honestly don’t remember much of it, but going back and even looking at the numbers from those days is nuts. We desperately needed additional staff. Monday or Tuesday of our second week, with a hiring sign posted on the window and our usual morning rush waiting for their coffee, Frank dropped off his resume.
I didn’t even notice him at first, he quietly dropped off his resume and left while I was elbows deep in an exploding keg of cold brew. If he’d stuck around long enough, I would have hired him on the spot — we needed workers so badly. I later realized that it was just a mark of his professionalism and knowledge of the industry to realize that we were at a busy time, and not to linger. As soon as I mopped up the lake of cold brew, I gave Frank a call. I was struck by his playfulness and openness as well as his professional experience. He had been working in Lake Tahoe in real estate and catering, and recently moved back to the city, he was already a chef at a popular BBQ restaurants across town, he was just looking for a second gig so he could work mornings. I invited him into the cafe to meet in person.
Frank arrived at the same time as our weekly bread shipment and immediately started talking shop. He knew our supplier and their product well, he started talking about his favorite loaves and uses for our day-old bread. By the end of the meeting, I had discovered that he was also a B-boy, and a member of a troupe in town, and he had a working recipe for a version of bread pudding, an ideal use of our day old crusts.
As April turned into May, the cafe finally began to fall into a routine. After two weeks of practically living at the cafe, I finally felt able to take a day off, and let the cafe run without me. I made it halfway through my day of “relaxation” before I swung by and checked up on everything. Frank was working the counter, and as I confided some of my feelings that I had abandoned everyone, he simply laughed and said, “Oh, Robin! Your presence here is felt.” I asked what he meant and he said that he noticed when he came in that I had come by and made new chai, because it was on his list of things to do in the morning, he said that customers were asking and commenting as they came through and talked to each other. “You’re doing the best you can,” he said, “and people notice.” I left, excited to enjoy my day off.
On May 20th, Frank was scheduled to open the cafe. Around 9:30, I got a call that Frank hadn’t shown up. Was he sick? I had no message from him. I emailed and called him, but his phone kept going to voicemail and I got no response. On Friday I sent him an email titled, “Are you Still Alive?” We had all assumed that he was a no call, no show — a fairly common occurrence in service — and that Frank’s cut contact was probably due to job abandonment for whatever reason. Still, it didn’t seem like him, and I wanted to make sure he was okay. By Sunday, I was really worried, and turned to Facebook to see if I could find him, or find someone who knew him. I found his brother, and friended his with my question. I heard nothing for another week.
Frank’s brother called me out of the blue seven days later. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” I remember him saying, “My brother is dead. He was hit and killed by a train.” He went on: “I want you to know how happy he was to be working at the cafe.” I remember that Sunday vividly.
At the cafe, we remember Frank as someone who was always thrilled to be in contact with our guests. Checking in with him after his first week of work, Frank had said to me, “I’m great! I got to serve customers all day! Normally I don’t get to see them; everyone is so nice!” We were all touched by his delight in people, and his delight in our community. He taught me how to price out recipes, and had endless creative ideas about how we could use our leftovers to delicious advantage. One day a woman came up to me out of the blue, and exclaimed that she had never had such delightful service, and how glad she was that we were in the neighborhood. When I asked who had served her, she described Frank, primarily by his smile.
In how Frank showed up to work, in his professionalism and kindness, knowing him and losing him reminds us what we are working for at the cafe, and astounds us with the possibilities of a daily contribution. Last month, we brought back the bread pudding in his honor.
This article was originally published on Medium. It is the third installment in a series about opening of Robin’s Café, a cafe, gallery, and event space in the Mission, San Francisco and exploring what it means to create a Responsive company.
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