You can’t officially call yourself a Lower Haighter until you know Zahra from Cafe International. The East African native has been running the cafe at 508 Haight Street since 1992, doling out wisdom, wisecracks, and plenty of coffee along the way.
Recently, we got the opportunity to sit down with her after cafe hours to get her thoughts on customers, politics, mimosas, and the craziest thing she’s ever seen in the Lower Haight.
Haighteration: What was your first job?
Zahra: When I was 12 years old in Eritrea, I was a diamond runner for my dad who was a jewelry designer. I used to put rubies and diamonds into my pockets and run across town to deliver them.
H: What’s your favorite language to speak besides English and why? (Zahra is fluent or near-fluent in 7 languages)
Z: I love to speak Tigrina (a native Ethiopian language) because it’s the language of my motherland. And I also love to speak Tigre (an Argentinian language) and Italian. So many beautiful languages out there, it’s hard to choose just one.
H: If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?
Z: Angela Davis, because she is the black panther.
H: If you met Barack Obama, what would you say to him?
Z: Good job.
H: If you weren’t running a cafe, what would you be doing?
Z: I’d be an economics professor. (Zahra has her doctorate in economics)
H: Who’s your favorite customer at Cafe International? And how long has he or she been coming in?
Z: No way! That’s too impossible for me to answer. It’s too unfair to say one person because I love so many of my customers.
H: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen in the lower haight?
Z: A woman came in the cafe and told me to go back to my country!
H: What is the most popular item on your menu these days?
Z: The grapefruit mimosa!
H: If you could only eat one item on your menu for the rest of your life, which one would you pick and why?
Z: Definitely the bagel with melted brie, it’s so delicious.
H: When did you know you wanted to open a cafe?
Z: I knew I had no other choice than to work for the woman, not the man.
H: If you could open your cafe in any other city than SF, where would that be?
Z: Absolutely no other place than right here in the Lower Haight in San Francisco.
H: What are three things you love about the Lower Haight?
Z: 99.9% of what I love about the Lower Haight is my customers. Also, the boho feel the neighborhood brings. And the diversity.
H: What do you predict will be different about your cafe 10 years from now?
Z: Nothing. It will still be the same wonderful place. As long as I am alive, I will be working at the cafe.