Photography by Jeff Hunt and Michelle Kilfeather
Welcome to the final episode of Season 5! We saved a special one for last for a good reason.
Mini Bar is, of course, where we're having our first art show (Hungry Ghosts) in more than three years. But it's also a neighborhood bar, and neighborhood bars are such a great symbol of the beating heart of San Francisco. Our whole dang thing, Storied: SF, was founded in a neighborhood bar, in fact.
In Part 1, we meet Mini Bar co-owner John Ordoña. (Nerius Mercado is Mini's other co-owner.) John was born in the very maternity ward at Kaiser on Geary where his mom, a Filipina immigrant, worked. He was the third of three sons to his mom and dad, both from the Philippines. Born into a Catholic family, John attended school at Star of the Sea and then Sacred Heart, where he was part of the last boys-only class at that school.
John grew up in 1970s and 1980s San Francisco. He shares a funny story about being young and seeing TV ads for the Planet of the Apes show and news stories about the SLA's kidnapping of Patty Hearst. He'd hear the SLA described as "urban gorillas [sp]" and his parents would exploit this misunderstanding to get John to behave. Then John goes on a sidebar rattling off many of the notable incidents in San Francisco in the late-'70s.
John says he went to the "hat trick" of Catholic education in San Francisco, as he later attended USF for college. In grade school, he played some sports, and especially took to basketball and boxing. He shares stories of his dad taking him to Newman's Gym in the Tenderloin at Leavenworth and Turk. He loved it and eventually needed to get there without parental accompaniment. This meant riding the bus to, not through, the TL.
He spent some time at City College before getting into USF, working jobs including one at a fledgling company called Esprit, run by Susie and Doug Tompkins. He answered phones at Esprit's 900 Minnesota Street office in Potrero Hill and loved it. John said he still runs into Susie Tompkins Buell from time to time.
From right after high school until the end of college, John partied and went clubbing a lot. Over the years, he also worked at Dryer's and Levi's to help put himself through college. He got offers to move to New York City and thought about it, but never took the leap.
For a while, the idea of opening a bar was in the back of his head. John shares a story about his dad showing him and talking about drinking spots around The City when he was a kid. "Bars are a great business to open," the elder Ordoña told his son.
We open Part 2 with a discussion on the nature of neighborhood bars. An opportunity arose for John when he left the corporate world. His then-wife, Sommer Peterson, reminded him of his idea to open a bar when she also left the 9 to 5. Sommer researched spots in the general area of Divisadero and stood in lines at City Hall.
After scouting a couple other locations, they found the current spot, which looked like it would work. Sommer and John worked out an agreement with the landlord and they got to work building the space out to become a bar.
John's childhood friend, Nerius Mercado, asked to be part of this new adventure, and came on as a co-owner, which he remains to this day. Molly Bradshaw, whom you might remember from our episode this season about Mission Bowling Club, was a good friend of Sommer's growing up. Molly knew bartending and also wanted in. The four formed a partnership and signed the initial lease in early 2008.
John and I go on a sidebar on Divisadero neighborhood history at this point in the recording. We also delve a little into John's personal history. He lived at McAllister and Masonic as a kid before his family moved, first to the Inner Richmond and then to Anza Vista.
We trace some history of the Mini Bar location. When they signed the lease, there had most recently been an artist who lived there and effectively turned it into a live/work studio. Before that, it was a produce market. And before that, according to one patron, it used to be a Black video store run by her dad.
Sommer and John had talked about making it a community space and the importance of art that comes from the neighborhood. They talked with neighborhood groups about their plans to get feedback and share their plans.
Shortly after signing the lease and starting the build-out, they ran into issues. A neighbor wanted money to drop his protest of their opening, which put the approval of their liquor license on hold. They were forced to stop the build-out while they waited for an ABC hearing in Sacramento. At the time, Mark Leno was SF's rep in the state legislature, so John reached out to his brother to see whether they had any connections. Leno sat on the SF Nightlife Commission then.
The very next day, John got a call from ABC to let him know that they would issue a provisional license and work on the build-out could resume. A week later, on Friday, August 15, 2008, Mini Bar opened its doors to patrons.
They hadn't yet established a price list, a little hiccup in the face of the enormous task of building a bar from scratch. John asked his partners to call nearby bars and restaurants to see what the market rate was, which pushed the opening back by a whole hour. No bigs.
John ends the podcast talking about the importance he places on having clean bathrooms. That's where patrons spend alone time, after all. "Respect them in their alone time, and they'll respect you back," he says. Not a bad way to run a business.
In Part 3, we meet Mini Bar's Operations Manager, Erin Kehoe. Erin is a sixth-generation San Franciscan. Her uncle researched family history, which was complicated by the fact that her grandma was orphaned. When you consider time in the state of California, her family history goes back here to when it was part of Mexico.
Much like John, she was born at Kaiser on Geary. In fact, Erin says, John's mom could've delivered her and her twin sister. She comes from a lineage of twins, actually. Her mom was one of four sets of twins. Erin's dad was a firefighter with the SFFD, though the family lived down in South San Francisco when Erin was young. They did spend lots of time at her grandma's place in the Sunset, the same house her dad and his brothers grew up in and which the family sold only recently.
Erin remembers trips into The City when she young to go to places like Ghirardelli Square, the Emporium, and I. Magnin department stores. They went to some football games at Candlestick, but not so much Giants games.
She says that she grew up somewhat sheltered until, as a teenager, she and her twin sister discovered goth and industrial music. She recalls stories of calling in to Live 105 for ticket giveaways and how her mom would drop her and sister off at places like Slim's. Around the time they turned 18, the sisters started going to clubs and places like the Trocadero. This got her into the SF nightlife scene, and she says she "never looked back."
But her job at Mini Bar is her first bartending gig. Erin did work in the service industry for 20+ years, at joints like the Peppermill in Daly City, B44 and Café Bastille on Belden Lane, and then at both the original and the current location of Bar Crudo. That restaurant's 2009 move to Divisadero is how Erin started coming to Mini Bar.
She met John quickly and right away, he wanted her to work at Mini Bar. Only problem was—she didn't bartend (yet). Fast-forward to 2021, when her friend Susan was bartending at Mini and asked Erin yet again to consider coming on, which she did. Four months later, they asked her to manage the bar.
Erin takes her work seriously, and she thinks that she was someone Mini Bar could count on. She picked up the bartending side quickly, but didn't know where to start with curating art shows. And so, she went through archived Mini Bar emails and found people she recognized. From there, she put together a show, and then things started rolling. Erin soon met Anita Beshirs (curator of the current show at Mini Bar), and the two are good friends now. She says she's honored to be part of art and community.
When the conversation shifts to our upcoming show, Hungry Ghosts, Erin mentions that she had wanted to branch out and try something different. Joining forces with a podcast feels for her like the beginning of something new at Mini Bar.
We end Part 3 with a chat about the current show at the bar, which Erin says "is very SF." "Around Town" features Jack Keating, Millie Kwong, Missstencil, Anne-Louise Petersson, and Danielle Bellantonio. "Anita crushed it," Erin says, congratulating her friend. We agree.
We hope to see you all at Mini Bar on August 17 at 6 p.m. for the opening of Hungry Ghosts. Thanks for listening throughout our fifth season, and we'll see you soon!
We recorded this episode at Mini Bar on Divisadero in June 2023.