The counter at Toy Boat Dessert Café in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy)
The counter at Toy Boat Dessert Café in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy)

After 38 years, gregarious Toy Boat Dessert Café owner sets sail

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Toy Boat Dessert Café, a Clement Street mainstay that has served as an informal hub for the Jewish community, is on the block after 38 years.

Situated on the corner of San Francisco’s Fifth Avenue in a busy commercial district, the café is a quick hop from Congregations Beth Sholom and Emanu-El and the JCCSF. 

“A lot of Jewish meetings happened there,” said Michael Bien, who attended more than a handful himself over the years. “It had that kind of welcoming sense and friendliness. That’s the kind of atmosphere that people wanted, where they feel at home and aren’t rushed out.”

While the walls of vintage toys from a bygone era were part of the attraction — as was the 1950s mechanical “pet” horse named Butterscotch, set squarely in the middle of the shop, that kids rode for a couple of coins — owner Jesse Fink himself was a big part of the reason why people were drawn to Toy Boat.

“He’s the conscience if not the mayor of Clement Street,” said Alan Rothenberg, who has lived a few blocks away for 45 years. “He’s a mensch with a large M.”

“When you go out with him anywhere in the city, people come up to him and ask how he’s doing, and he’s friendly to everyone and remembers them,” said Bien.

Jesse Fink and Roberta Mindich Fink in front of Toy Boat Dessert Café. (Photo/AnnieRose Fink)
Jesse Fink and Roberta Mindich Fink in front of Toy Boat Dessert Café. (Photo/AnnieRose Fink)

Fink, who grew up in Brooklyn, followed his brother to San Francisco in 1978. After helping him and a friend start up Double Rainbow Ice Cream, Fink decided to open up his own place in 1982 with his girlfriend at the time, Roberta. Toy Boat: A Dessert Café was in business. They married and had two kids, and the café remained part of family and community life until last week, when the Finks decided to put it up for sale.

“I wanted to open up a store that wasn’t necessarily a store, that would make people happy,” Fink recalled. “This was pre-Starbucks, and we hit the nail on the head. We had a very successful business making people happy.”

In addition to Double Rainbow ice cream, they sold sandwiches, salads, baked goods, espresso drinks, Italian sodas and the like. Speaking of Starbucks, Fink made a name for himself in 2007 when as head of the merchants’ association he led a campaign against one opening a block away. 

While some might assume that the coronavirus prompted the decision to sell, Fink didn’t say that outright.

“My mother used to say ‘Moments of decision choose themselves,’” said Fink, who will be 67 later this summer. “And I think I got a knock on the door at this time. Was it the virus? Not necessarily, but I think spending the past two months at home with my wife made me think that it’s time to retire.”

In the early days, Fink began collecting old toys as décor; Roberta sold some of them at her own gift shop (since closed), Tutti Frutti on Irving Street. He continued collecting over the years and eventually began selling the toys from the café, as well.

“The walls were all covered with things you never knew you wanted 30 years ago,” said Rothenberg. “You wouldn’t believe how many Pez dispensers he had. He had both things in great taste and dubious taste,” from a 6-foot Pee-wee Herman doll to a life-size replica of Yoda from “Star Wars” to toys from China and the former Soviet Union. 

Especially in later years, when chains became the norm, Toy Boat functioned as a kind of flagship for San Francisco nostalgia, a one-of-a-kind, neighborhood mom-and-pop type business, which is much harder to find nowadays.

Rothenberg said there were only two places in the neighborhood where his grandchildren would want to go when they come to visit: Toy Boat and Green Apple Books. “It was like a reward to go to Toy Boat,” he said. “No visit was complete without making those two stops.”

Jesse Fink and Roberta Mindich Fink in the early days. (Photo/Courtesy)
Jesse Fink and Roberta Mindich Fink in the early days. (Photo/Courtesy)

Fink understands. “There’s a feeling you get when you walk in,” he said. “You can’t explain it. That’s the reason it’s been so successful.”

What Fink loved most was the cross-section of customers who came through his doors and the diversity of the neighborhood itself. “I got to meet a lot of different people from all walks of life,” he said, describing himself as a people person. “Toy Boat was for young people and for old people, for those who spoke English and those who didn’t.”

He also loved the many young people, or “scoopers,” who had their first jobs there; he especially loved when they returned to visit years later, bringing their own kids to meet him and have a cone.

He said the Jews always managed to find him, too, including a number of local rabbis. Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, a good friend, stopped in often to shmooze and drink espresso. One Orthodox rabbi came each week so he and Fink could lay tefillin together. One young Jewish scooper who kept seeing rabbis come in finally asked, “What’s with you and all the rabbis? Are you, like, the godfather of the rabbis?”

Fink recalled a time when a woman whose husband-to-be was Jewish but wanted nothing to do with Judaism asked for advice about where she could go to learn about Judaism and potentially convert. He recommended going to Rabbi Alan Lew, “and she’s still very active at Beth Sholom,” he said. (Lew died in 2009.)

The Finks, members of Beth Sholom, donated toys to the Purim carnivals and hosted several late-night study sessions at Toy Boat on Shavuot, the holiday when dairy foods are eaten.

But it was the personal connections Fink made with people that made Toy Boat a favorite. Bien recalled when one elderly woman who was a regular suddenly stopped coming in, Fink took it upon himself to find out where she lived and then had his staff bring food to her. He later ended up helping to arrange care for her.

“He noticed a customer not showing up and felt this responsibility for her,” said Bien.

In a message Fink wrote to the community, he concluded: “It is our hope that someone full of vigor and vim will take over Toy Boat, and keep The Boat afloat for many years to come.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."