North Bay’s beloved cafe, symbol of the American dream, can be overpriced


Small family businesses have borne the brunt of the pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of them gone forever. Only now are they beginning to emerge even as they have to deal with another new scourge: inflation.

In San Rafael, a beloved cafe has a potentially fatal problem: the landlords won’t renew its lease. It’s an American immigrant’s dream that could become a business obituary.

The Royal Ground Coffee Shop in San Rafael, which has served the downtown residential, commercial and tourist community for more than two decades, may soon be gone.

“It’s like a shock to me and I feel so devastated,” said Royal Grounds co-owner Mathilda Chan. Chan and her husband are both refugees by boat. She comes from Cambodia.

Her husband is from Vietnam. Together they built their American dream.

But now, after surviving the pandemic’s massive destruction of small businesses and just when things were starting to turn around, they have received some very bad news.

“From our landlord and his son that they don’t want to renew our lease. So the last day will be September 30,” Ms Chan said.

Customers are angry. “Every time I come here they’re so nice and they’re such a big part of this neighborhood. So I couldn’t imagine seeing them go,” Erin Craig said. “They’re incredibly generous, kind and funny people. It’s a wonderful place. Everyone I know thinks it’s the best cafe in Marin,” Lenny Levy said. “We were really upset when we saw this sign coming here. It’s an established place,” Penny said.

We tried to talk to owners who refused to answer questions or be interviewed. But Chan and others told us another cafe would likely take up the space at higher rent this fall.

Frequent shopper and mortgage lender Kerry Ettinger says the pandemic has reduced the couple’s income, that they cannot qualify for a business moving loan. “Given six months’ notice at the end of a pandemic, that doesn’t really give them enough time to settle their affairs so they can move,” Ettinger said.

They survived Ho Chi Minh and the Khmer Rouge, but perhaps not landlords or lenders. “My husband and I feel so sad, devastated, scared and angry. I couldn’t really sleep well. You know, it’s like it’s just sad,” Chan said.

A client has set up a gofundme site to help the couple find a new footing so that customers can once again go to a place where everyone knows your name.

“I would say if we could get some financial help, we would be able to make it happen,” Chan said. “It’s not just about the name or the brand. It’s about, you know, the service you get and the feeling it makes you feel,” Craig said.

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