.Berkeley’s El Tiny Cafe has a diverse menu and a worldly consciousness

Lilia Vizcaino is a working mother of two who regularly wakes up at 5am to do prep work for the day ahead at El Tiny Cafe. She compares her life to those of the harvest women and draws inspiration from them. “They have a family, like me,” she says.

Vizcaino has more than coffee and healthy sandwiches in mind for the future of El Tiny Cafe. “I want to make a Mexican rice bowl, something tasty, not heavy,” the chef and cafe owner says. Right now, Vizcaino’s menu includes breakfast items such as avocado toast, oatmeal and bagels. Lunch features sandwiches with turkey, tuna or a couple of vegetarian options. But the kitchen, while not literally tiny, isn’t as yet set up for stovetop cooking.

“Everything requires time,” Vizcaino says, sounding like a patient proprietor who’s slowly growing her business. For the first four months of 2021 when El Tiny Cafe opened, Vizcaino ran the place by herself. Opening her first business has been “challenging,” she admits, but once she renews her lease she is going to continue to expand the menu, and hopefully, the kitchen. In addition to a chicken-and-rice bowl with chile rojo and chile verde, Vizcaino says, “I want to focus on making pastries, ones that you won’t find in every coffee shop.”

El Tiny Cafe offers two different kinds of coffee. “Because the business is in Berkeley, we’re celebrating diversity,” Vizcaino says. Her husband, who now works with her at El Tiny, roasts the cafe’s espresso, Espresso 5 Blend Organic. But she also reached out to Rosalba Cifuentes, who imports beans from Mexico. Cifuentes lives in Berkeley but, Vizcaino says, founded Bella Vista Mayan Women Harvest in her native Chiapas. The coffee beans are harvested by some 60 women-owned farms there. “When I’m feeling tired, I think of those ladies who pick coffee, and I feel like I’m lazy.”

After looking for a location to start her own business for more than a year, Vizcaino was happy to find a space for rent on Adeline. She’d spent three years working at Sconehenge nearby, and her children were born in Berkeley. Vizcaino checked out the area, noticed the hood in the kitchen and thought it was perfect. The landlord also wanted her and her family to live in the flat upstairs. When her kids want a snack or a hot chocolate after school, Vizcaino is easy to reach.

Vizcaino’s culinary career started after she had her daughter. “I was looking for work that would allow me to balance my home life,” she says. She found work in a catering position at a Berkeley cafe and stayed there for five years. After that, at the Beanery and at Sconehenge, she started to learn about the practicalities of running a business. By that time, her husband was also a coffee roaster. After a decade working for other people, they both felt it was time to put a business plan together—in part to be her own boss but also, Vizcaino emphasized, because she wanted a family life that was as fulfilling as her professional one.

For the first few months though, she didn’t give herself a paycheck. Every dollar that came in went right back into upkeep and business expenses. “I didn’t have the chance to apply for a [P.P.P.] loan,” she says. But when we spoke, she was waiting to hear about receiving one from the City of Berkeley. Vizcaino says that opening during a pandemic has been difficult, but she doesn’t want to dwell on the negative. “I need to see what else I can do to make more sales,” she says. Last month, with her husband’s help, they opened on Sundays, too. With rent and bills to pay, Vizcaino says determinedly, “We have no choice but to keep going.”

El Tiny Cafe, open Monday to Friday 7am to 2:30pm; Saturday 7am to 1pm; Sunday 8am to noon. Located at 3219 Adeline St., Berkeley. [email protected] eltinycafe.com.
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