From Container to Café

Hi Friends!

In today’s newsletter, I want to share with you a little bit about how our Hayes Valley shop came to be. It’s a part of a larger project called PROXY, which they describe as a “temporary two-block project which seeks to mobilize a flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail within renovated shipping containers.”

Lovingly referred to by the Ritual staff simply as “the container” 
or “R5” as it was our fifth location to open, this tiny café will be celebrating its 9th anniversary in just a few weeks!

This was the container before we turned it into the first café in a shipping container in the United States. Photo by Matthew Millman.

PROXY was the idea of Douglas Burnham from envelope architecture + design.  He and I met when we co-designed an extremely ambitious temporary cafe that gave over 6000 people an amazing coffee experience as part of the Taste Pavilions at Slow Food Nation in 2008.  

When Douglas told me that he had won the bid to activate this otherwise unused parking lot in the middle of Hayes Valley, I immediately signed on to the project. Our shipping container was built at American Steel, a warehouse in West Oakland full of fabricators and artists building large scale work.

Something that feels relevant right now is that we built this in 2010, at the height of the last economic downturn. The metal fabricators, welders, plumbers, and electricians who took on this ridiculous project, building the first permitted cafe in a shipping container in the US, would not have had the bandwidth or enthusiasm to take on such a project during a "boomtime."

Here’s what Ritual PROXY looked like in 2011 when we opened. Photo by Joseph Perez-Green, envelope A+D

The project was always meant to be temporary. The original timeframe for it was three years, but because of its success, they have extended the program twice now, with the latest taking it to 2021.
Here’s the Container in 2014.
In 2017, the City of San Francisco, whose health department guidelines had not evolved to include written standards for restaurants located in shipping containers, forced us to make a very pricey addition to it - a full enclosure. At first I was strongly opposed, but as the enclosure was being built and I saw it coming to life, I realized that this was just what this location needed! By the second day of being open with our new shell in place, it was apparent that the baristas who had been accustomed to working out “in the elements,” which included frigid rainy days and a near-constant stirring of dust that traveled from nearby construction sites, actually enjoyed the warmth and coziness of the new space and welcomed the change. Some cute new patio furniture and colorful planters completed the transformation.
The enclosure came in 2016.

Douglas Burnham shares his history of PROXY: 

“PROXY came about after two successive disasters. The first was the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which damaged the double-decker 101 Central Freeway that used to snake its way through the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Eventually the freeway was torn down, Octavia Boulevard was built in its place and 23 vacant lots were created from the leftover spaces that were dedicated to housing of different types. The second disaster was the Great Recession of 2008, which put the development of the Octavia vacant lots on hold due to the precarious economic times.  

At the time, the neighborhood was concerned that these vacant lots would become a blight, a literal void, in the fabric of the neighborhood and they were hoping for different types of temporary activations on these lots until the development projects could get going again. The team at envelope A + D studio saw the two vacant lots along the east side of Patricia’s Green as having unique potential for a mix of temporary activations rooted in commerce, culture and community. We had seen activations of similar types on our travels in Europe, where interim uses on sites that were waiting to be developed actually had the most interesting activations and constructs in the neighborhoods that they occurred. We took on the project, because we saw that we had the skills and talents to transform these sites and, with them, the neighborhood though an intentional design-forward bottom-up project that grew incrementally and always in direct communication with the neighborhood.  

PROXY started as a micro-enterprise project, with, Smitten, Ritual, Biergarten, Aether and Juice Shop, as well as a series of regular food truck activations. It then transformed into a public space experiment with the creation of the open plaza and the crowdfunded outdoor movie screen and projection booth. We’re now excited to be bringing free outdoor cultural programming through our Fall and Spring Film Festivals and other cultural partnerships through the year.

We called the project PROXY, because we saw it as a placeholder, a stand-in for a more permanent development.  When we started, I don’t think we had any idea the impact that we would have on the place through our durational presence, and we feel honored to have had a nearly ten year run with the project.  We know that the City’s plans for development of these lots is continuing and we expect that one day, we will be asked to dismantle the project. Our hope is that we have planted a seed within the community that having compelling places to come and to be together — in actual space in the heart of the City — is a part of what makes a city, this city, worth living in.”  

Check out envelope A + D's latest big temporary activation project, on the site of the former PG&E Hunters Point power plant called NOW Hunters Point.

Thank you Douglas and envelope A + D for letting us help make history with you!

Ritual in Hayes Valley a.k.a. The Container:
currently OPEN for safe service from 7:30 to 5 daily, and Order Ahead is available.


Until we can meet again for coffee,


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