Beloved North Bay coffee shop, a symbol of the American Dream, may be priced out

Family owned small businesses took the brunt of the pandemic with hundreds of thousands of them gone forever. Only now are they beginning to see daylight even as they must contend with another new plague: inflation. 

In San Rafael, a beloved coffee shop has a potentially fatal problem: landlords unwilling to renew its lease. This is an immigrant American dream that may become a business obituary.

San Rafael's Royal Ground Coffee Shop, which has served the downtown residential, business and visitor community for more than two decades, may soon be gone. 

"This is like shock me and I feel so devastated," said Royal Grounds co-owner Mathilda Chan. Chan and her husband are both boat refugees. She’s from Cambodia. 

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

But now, having survived the wholesale destruction of small businesses by the pandemic and just as things were beginning to turn around, they got 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," said Ms. Chan.

Customers are angry. "Every time I come in here, they're so nice and they're such a big part of this neighborhood. So, I couldn't imagine seeing them leave," said Erin Craig. "They're just incredibly generous, kind people and they're funny. It's a wonderful place. Everybody I know thinks this is the best coffee in Marin," said Lenny Levy. "We were really upset when we saw that sign over here coming in. This is an established place," said Penny.

We tried to speak to the landlords who would not answer questions or be interviewed. But Chan and others told us that another coffee shop is likely to take the space at a higher rent this fall.

Frequent customer and mortgage lender Kerry Ettinger says the pandemic cut the couple's incomes, that they can't qualify for a business moving loan. "Given six months' notice on the tail end of a pandemic, does not really give them enough time to get their affairs in order to be able to make a move," said Ettinger.

They survived Ho Chi Minh and the Khmer Rouge, but maybe not landlords or lenders. "My husband and I feel so sad, devastated, scared and angry. I could not really sleep well. You know, it's like, it's just sad," said Chan.

A customer has set up a Gofundme site to assist the couple in finding new footing so that customers can, once again, go to a place where everyone knows your name. 

"I would say if we would be able to get financial help we would be able to make things possible," said Chan. "It's not just about the name or the brand. It's about, you know, the service that you get and the feeling that it make you feel," said Craig.