Manny Yekutiel is the proprietor of Manny's — and a whole lot more. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)
Manny Yekutiel is the proprietor of Manny's — and a whole lot more. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

Manny about town: S.F. cafe owner is everything, everywhere, all at once

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The plush orange sofas, thick Persian rugs and swoosh of espresso machines might lull patrons into feeling comfy and cozy.

They shouldn’t get too comfortable.

This is Manny’s, San Francisco’s essential civic engagement space for progressive politics. It’s a place where nearly every night, key political, social and cultural issues facing the city and the country come up for discussion. For owner Manny Yekutiel, success means that attendees end up feeling challenged, and maybe a little provoked.

“I’m trying to create a new kind of place,” said Yekutiel, 33, an observant Jew who keeps kosher and wraps tefillin. “This is a niche political space, a place where politics happens, where politicians come. But my goal is to be able to reframe and reshape what a political space feels like.

“I’m competing with movie theaters, happy hours, bars and gyms. I want people to finish work and think, ‘Do I go to the movies, or go to Manny’s?’’’

A lot of them are choosing Manny’s, and so are many big political names: Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, Jane Fonda, Pete Buttigieg, Nancy Pelosi, journalist Ezra Klein and Gavin Newsom have all appeared in person or on Zoom. During the crowded 2020 Democratic primary, 17 presidential candidates made their pitch at Manny’s events. Yekutiel is usually on stage himself interviewing the guests.

On any given day, Manny’s will host serious conversations on, say, the future of San Francisco’s downtown, or the wisdom of city-sanctioned safe injection sites. How about a discussion of the lives of LGBTQ communists in the 20th century? Yeah, Manny’s hosted that.

On the docket this month are a four-part series on understanding homelessness; state Sen. Scott Wiener and Jewish Community Relations Council CEO Tye Gregory talking about how antisemitism is being normalized in America today; and, on Feb. 20, Presidents Day, a marathon 16-hour live reading of the House subcommittee’s Jan. 6 report because, as the event description puts it, “we need to know.”

But Yekutiel’s sense of civic engagement goes beyond weighty discourse. There are weekly movie nights, bingo and trivia contests. If it’s Sunday morning, it’s time for Manny’s weekly neighborhood trash pickup, where volunteers tackle litter as disco classics blast on loudspeakers. It was Yekutiel who found the funds to string 8,000 cheery lights along Valencia Street. Just because it made the neighborhood prettier.

In the four years since opening Manny’s on Election Night in November 2018, Yekutiel has built up the vibrant salon he envisioned. But it has been more than just a marketplace of ideas. Sometimes it has been a house of healing.

Last November, the University of California Board of Regents squared off against 36,000 graduate students who worked as unionized teaching assistants. It was one of the largest higher education labor strikes in history.

With both sides at an impasse over wages, representatives from the Board of Regents spoke before a packed house at Manny’s to explain their position. Outside, a group of striking students protested noisily.

Vice President Kamala Harris hugging Manny Yekutiel during an event at Manny's. (Photo/Daylen Yang)
Vice President Kamala Harris hugging Manny Yekutiel during an event at Manny’s. (Photo/Daylen Yang)

Yekutiel approached the protesters. “I totally respect your right to protest,” Yekutiel told them. “But you don’t have to protest outside. This is a different kind of space. You’re welcome to come inside and talk to [the regents] directly.”

They took him up on it, and within minutes the two sides were meeting face to face for the first time. The strike ended a few weeks later.

This wasn’t Yekutiel’s first time reaching out in a disarming fashion. Not long after opening his establishment, he found himself on the firing line when anti-Zionist protesters routinely stood out front chanting anti-Israel slogans and urging patrons to boycott. They saw Yekutiel as an interloper masking a hidden Zionist agenda.

“The protesters wanted me to make a public statement supporting BDS and denouncing Israel,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it. My mother’s family survived the Holocaust. My father’s family escaped 1,000 years of persecution [in Afghanistan] to the State of Israel. I couldn’t turn around and denounce the existence of the State of Israel. It wasn’t true to my values.”

“He became the focus of this protest activity [which was] deeply unfair and in some cases antisemitic,” said Yekutiel’s friend, S.F. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. “It was deeply disturbing to me. But I was struck by his grace and fearlessness and also his composure and willingness to continually try to reach out to these folks who were protesting him.”

Yekutiel did have an army of supporters as well. To counter calls for a boycott, some in the Jewish community called for a “buycott.” Said Yekutiel, “The reaction to the protests was love and support and community. Most of my neighbors were very helpful, [and] the Jewish community was super supportive.”

Organizations that showed their support by attending Manny’s events or renting space there included JCRC, AJC, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and congregations Sha’ar Zahav and Emanu-El in San Francisco.

“I was being attacked,” he said, “and Jewish organizations rallied to protect me. The greatest danger was not financial but emotional, and feeling all alone.”

Said Emanu-El Rabbi Beth Singer, “Lots of people from our congregation got the call that he needed support and showed up. It’s not hard to show up to a really cool public space to talk about civic engagement. But he was really the courageous one; he didn’t back down in his principles and beliefs.”

Though Yekutiel initially felt embarrassed by the tumult and planned to ride it out, in October 2019 he took a step not unlike the one he took the night of the UC Regents dispute. He chose to fight fire with water, as he put it. (Nothing of the sort could be done in June 2021, when vandals spray-painted “Zionist Pigz” and “Racist Pigz” on the outside walls of the café.)

“I walked into the office of the people protesting me,” he recalled, referring to one anti-Zionist group that had kept up weekly protests for many months throughout 2019. “I said, ‘I know you have these feelings about me, but you have me wrong. Let’s talk. I’m your neighbor.’ The woman leading the protests said, ‘You were in my dream last night. It’s time to talk.’ We sat in a circle and talked for an hour. I explained my family history. We decided then and there the protests would stop.”

Yekutiel readily points to deeply ingrained Jewish values as the source of his activism, and what Singer sees as his courage.

My faith has been really important to me, as important to who I am as my gay identity. Both are immutable, and I wouldn’t change either.

“I love that Manny doesn’t fit into any specific category or denomination,” she said. “He’s a Jew, a very proud Jew, a very dedicated Jew. I like that he is not Conservative or Reform or Orthodox. His pan-Judaism enables him to relate to all different kinds of Jews.”

Yekutiel’s Jewish backstory goes a long way in explaining the path he took in life. His father was born in Herat, a town that had been the center of Jewish life in Afghanistan. That community no longer exists, and there are only a few thousand Afghan Jews left in the world, though estimates vary. “They still practice very ancient customs,” he said. “It’s a very deeply Mizrachi culture.”

His father left Afghanistan for Israel as a teen and served in the air force, learning to repair helicopters. In his early 20s he immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, and then to Los Angeles, where he met his future wife. The couple married and raised Manny and his two sisters in L.A. With his dual Jewish heritage, Yekutiel calls himself a “Halfghan.”

Manny's bar mitzvah credit needed (Photo/Courtesy Manny Yekutiel)
Manny’s bar mitzvah photo

Yekutiel grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson. The family practiced Modern Orthodox Judaism, keeping kosher and sending young Manny to Jewish day schools, including Yeshiva University High School.

By his mid-teens, Yekutiel began experiencing a roiling inner conflict. He knew he was gay, and that some aspects of his life didn’t fit together. He left yeshiva for a secular private school. It changed his relationship to Judaism for the better.

“I ended up closer to God and my faith,” he noted. “My faith has been really important to me, as important to who I am as my gay identity. Both are immutable, and I wouldn’t change either. Growing up Orthodox and then leaving yeshiva, you lose friends, your community, the people you walk to shul with. I was the only kid who wore a yarmulke in high school. I ended up turning to HaShem as a buffer against the fact that I was flying solo.”

After graduating Williams College in Massachusetts, in 2011 Yekutiel served as a White House intern in President Obama’s Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and the next year moved to San Francisco. “As a gay man, San Francisco is sacred ground,” he said, “where generations of gay men before me have built new lives for themselves.”

He wasted no time getting the lay of the land, which included getting to know his elected representatives.

“When I was in the Senate I had a visitor at my office one Friday afternoon,” recalled former state Sen. Mark Leno. “Manny had come to introduce himself. I had only positive impressions. Here was a bright, impassioned young man who wanted to get involved with his new city.”

For two years Yekutiel worked as chief of staff for Fwd.US, a grassroots organizing entity that addresses such issues as immigration and criminal justice reform. In 2016, he served as Northern California finance director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

After that, he said, he “felt lost, in search of something to do.” That’s when the idea for Manny’s started bubbling up. The concept centered around civic engagement, something he learned as a child.

“I grew up in a religious Jewish family where you needed to be useful,” Yekutiel said. “My father had three jobs and a small business. My mother worked 18 hours a day. I endeavored to be a part of the fabric of this city’s civic life and devote myself to making San Francisco the best city it can be.”

Though he’d never started a business before, he drew up a business plan, found a group of investors, and brought Manny’s to life. Today, it provides a space not just for people, groups and topics he finds interesting. Manny’s is available at little to no cost to outside groups that wish to hold their own programs. To survive financially, Yekutiel solicits subscribers, who pay $36 or $360 a month (or other multiples of chai). Twenty percent of tickets for events are given away free, and no one is turned away.

He has now moved his civic work beyond the four walls of Manny’s. Yekutiel served on the San Francisco Small Business Commission and currently sits on the boards of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association and the JCC San Francisco. He has been a director on the S.F. Municipal Transportation Agency board for three years.

“I felt small-business owners didn’t have enough of a voice in how the city was spending its money,” he said. “Then the mayor asked if I would join the SFMTA board.”

Mandelman, who takes weekly walks with Yekutiel in the Castro neighborhood, notes it’s not unusual for his friend to talk to transit workers, check up on the condition of Muni bus shelters or take note of potholes that need repair.

Yekutiel has encountered his share of personal potholes. When he came out to his parents nearly 13 years ago, his tradition-minded father essentially disowned him.

“My father is an amazing man,” he said. “He came to this side of the world with almost nothing, and I am proud to be his son. He is the hardest working person I’ve ever met. At the same time he grew up in a different world, so having an openly gay son is very foreign to him. And it has been a very difficult journey. We didn’t speak for a decade, but it is my hope that the ice has begun to thaw, and we will very soon build back a more normal relationship. There’s a lot I want his advice on.”

Yekutiel said he has a strong relationship with his sisters, both of whom live in Israel.

He also had a bad health scare. A year ago he went public with a cancer diagnosis that left him with outbreaks of Kaposi sarcoma, normally an indicator of HIV/AIDS. Fortunately his is that rare case in which AIDS is not a factor. He says he’ll be fine.

“This process of having to be faced with my own mortality, then basically being given my life back, affected me,” he said in a podcast at the time. “It affected my outlook on life, how I think about my time, how I think about what I want to do on this earth, how not to sweat the small stuff.”

As for the big stuff, Yekutiel last year started the Civic Space Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to improve San Francisco’s civic life and identify like-minded projects and activists in other cities. He is even contemplating opening another space like Manny’s elsewhere in S.F.

“He throws himself all in,” said his friend Mandelman. “He is passionate about the projects he takes on, and he digs deep to understand a problem. He listens to people who need to be heard.”

Yekutiel put it more simply: “The thing I care about is making our city work better.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.