Coffee is more than a simple brew, a morning pick-me-up, a liability for nearby laptops and white pants.
Coffee is community, according to Jojo Ty. Ty is one of the founding members of Fluid, a cooperative cafe in the Tenderloin’s La Cocina Marketplace, entirely owned and operated by trans folks like themselves. At Fluid, that taste of community can come hot or iced, sometimes paired with a pastry.
“It’s not just coffee and food,” Ty said. “It’s something that is very gathering. It could be in celebration or for healing. Being fed, and being taken care of, is unfortunately not something that is common for everyone, especially for our communities who face law discrimination, housing inequities, all those difficulties.”
Fluid offers a safe space for people of all identities, but was curated with the joy and healing of specifically trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people in mind. According to co-founder and “HBIC” Santana Tapia, the cafe fulfills the founders’ dream of having a spot in the city to simply just hangout and be themselves.
“When I was growing up, I watched Disney Channel and Nickelodeon,” Tapia said. “And I would look forward to having the spaces they had in those TV shows, like a smoothie shop or pizza place to go and just hang out with friends. But growing up in San Francisco, there was nowhere that you can actually hang out. It was all about loitering and gentrification. And I grew up around the time when Dolores Park was getting heavily policed, so you couldn’t even hang out at Dolores Park.”
Tapia and Ty both said they wished a place like Fluid was around for them when they were younger. When the co-founders met through community organizing, they wanted to build a friendship, but struggled to find spaces to spend time together. Ty was not yet 21, so bars were off the table, and spots where they could just sit down for a while and feel comfortable were hard to come by.
“There was always a lack of spaces to just chill, and just exist. So, over the pandemic, I received a text from Jojo, and he was like, ‘Hey, we have this idea.’ And so we started just thinking of what it would be like to have a space that was made for us,” Tapia continued. “And we wanted it to mean something to us as well, you know, and coffee is so different in its culture, but it’s so impactful.”
Tapia and Ty, alongside their mentor, trans-owned cafe trailblazer Shannon Amitin, started Fluid in August with a dream, a $3000 seed grant, and an in at La Cocina. When Fluid was first born, they were only offering drip coffee and cold brew. According to Ty, they were barely able to get a coffee machine in the beginning, and their espresso machine didn’t come into the picture until much later.
However, the co-op now boasts a “coffee daddy”—cooperative member Sarello Buyco—and a full-blown menu, featuring their long-awaited espresso.
Their space in La Cocina is decorated with the light blue and pink colors of the trans flag, and educational pamphlets for queer youth find their place on the bar next to the milk and sugar. Much of their menu is inspired by the founders’ individual backgrounds and identities.
“Coffee is so queer,” Ty said. “Especially in San Francisco, there are so many queer and trans baristas, I’ve noticed. We all grew up with coffee.”
Whether in the mood for their coffee of the day using queer-roasted coffee beans, an HR-Tea (femininitea or mascunlinitea, both having naturally occurring, estrogen or testosterone boosting and/or blocking ingredients), Ty’s favorite calamansi-ade, Japanese sweet cream cold brew, or cafe de olla made using Tapia’s family recipe, the wide variety of drinks Fluid offers are reflective of the founders’ themselves.
“Most of our drinks are going to have a cultural or personal significance to them,” Tapia said. “Because we’re not only trying to sell a product, but also share a piece of ourselves with the community and with our customers.”
For Tapia, who is Latina and a child of immigrants, coffee has “always been cultural,” something that has been a part of her everyday life since she was a kid.
“One of the core memories I have with coffee is sitting at my grandmother’s table whenever I would go to visit her. And she always made cafecito,” Tapia said. “My family grew up making do with what they had, and we didn’t have access to all the spices used in traditional cafe de olla. So we just used cinnamon sticks and sugar. But everything was just always perfect. So that’s how we do it here, bringing in the classic flavors of Mexico through a more humble upbringing.”
Fluid’s beginning, too, was humble, and the biggest challenges the cafe has faced have been financial.
“Our community doesn’t come from a lot of money, we recognize that,” Ty said. “That’s why we are really pushing for allies, like, hey, even if you can’t donate to us, coming to us instead of a Philz or a Peet’s does a lot.”
Despite the fiduciary obstacles they have faced, Fluid continues to grow and give back to the community. Fluid customers who cannot afford a cup of coffee or something to eat can simply take a small butterfly from the cafe’s wall and hand it to the cashier, without needing to utter a word, and receive their order for free. This is their “pay it forward” program, and the colorful butterflies are available for purchase for those who wish to contribute. According to Tapia, butterflies were the perfect symbol, as they represent the trans experience through shared qualities of transformation and migration.
“Before we started a Pay It Forward program, we were more than willing to give free beverages to folks who couldn’t afford it,” Tapia said. “We understand that the way that you greet someone, when they first come into the door, a smile to start the day can be just as impactful as a cup of coffee. Once you walk in, we want you to feel like a part of the family.”
For Tapia, Fluid’s success has been measured in joy, and relaxation. She says that giving queer folks a space to go and feel the liberty to laugh, and experience self care without worry, is especially important in the face of legislative and personal attacks against the LGBTQ+ community.
“We’ve been able to experience having the space around us be filled with queer trans people who are just existing and enjoying life without having to go the extra step of like feeling safe or like doing whatever to feel safe,” she said. “Because they already know that this space is made for them. At the end of the day, we want people to be here, you don’t have to get a cup of coffee. You don’t have to buy anything. Just come in and we will always make you feel welcome.”
San Francisco is opening up to new community spaces like Fluid, but the concept of curating safe spaces for queer people in the city, especially in the Tenderloin, is not novel. Fluid was built with the divisive history of community gathering places like Compton’s Cafeteria in mind.
“Fluid is nothing new,” Ty said. “We always say, Fluid, or the very existence of our community, I feel like our role is to continue what has already been started by our trans-estors, our queer ancestors. They’ve always been fighting to have a space to be seen, to have a space of their own.”
In contrast, though, as highlighted on Fluid’s website, queer folks now are not just fighting for acceptance and a seat at the table, they’re building the table themselves. Part of the vision for Fluid’s future is to hold more community events, like annual queer proms and homecomings, game nights, and other opportunities to celebrate queerness and promote community and healing.
“Now with our programming and what we’re doing, we’re scaring a lot of people because we are creating that table,” Tapia said. “And people aren’t settling for crumbs anymore, when they know they can have a piece.”
FLUID is located inside the La Cocina Marketplace, 101 Hyde, SF. More info here.