Editor’s Note: I’m sitting in the corner of my favorite coffee shop, nestled away writing my weekly profiles. The amazing thing about this site is that it provokes you to ask questions to the people you have daily interactions with, oftentimes unveiling the most incredible stories that you otherwise wouldn’t hear. Havin, the 32-year-old woman that owns Ro Café, is a Kurdish immigrant that came to the United States under political asylum. Amidst all the political unrest our world is facing today, Havin is a wonderful example of things going so perfectly right. I cannot begin to sing her praises loud enough. This is a woman running her coffee shop without any staff, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK for TEN HOURS A DAY. When she closes the shop at the end of the day, she heads to the grocery store to shop for the food she’ll prepare for the next day. Her days are long, and whenever I start feeling tired and burnt out, I think of Havin, who considers this workload a privilege. I encourage you to read her story, support her business and go try her absolutely mouthwatering baklava. And if you read all the way through, we’ll make that even easier for you to do!
Havin Gavgasi was born in Kurdistan. If you look on a map, the region of Kurdistan spreads over Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Kurds are considered an ally to the United States, 40 million of them living in what some consider a more “peaceful Iraq”.
One of eleven children-- nine sisters and two brothers-- Havin is the seventh in line. She and her siblings were raised in the part of Kurdistan occupied by Eastern Turkey, born into a small village and later moving to a larger city.
Everyone in her family worked, but they were also extremely politically involved. They would attend protests fighting for Kurdish rights against Turkey and also fight for women’s rights and cases of political injustice.
After high school, Havin took the mandatory exam that was required for her to attend University, but her options for a career were limited.
Havin began studying for a few years but decided that the United States was ultimately where she wanted to be. She had family here—an uncle, a sister-- and the photos they shared and stories they told intrigued her.
During her second year of University, Havin applied for a tourist visa but was denied. It was right after 9/11 and the country was allowing limited visitors into the country, especially from the Middle East.
A couple years later she tried again, this time applying for a student visa so she could move to the United States to learn English.
She applied for political asylum, pleading to the US that the relationship between the Kurds and Turkey had all but eliminated her individual rights and freedoms.
Havin started working at a variety of jobs; a coffee shop, a salesperson at T.J. Maxx, a nanny and a hostess.
She watched her co-workers and their work ethic, learning from them and admiring them. A Kurdish restaurant hired her as their hostess even though she didn’t speak much English at all.
Havin knew she wanted to open her own business, possibly a coffee shop because, as she saw firsthand, coffee shops allow her to be active and talk with the various customers throughout the day.
She started searching the classifieds, looking for a coffee shops that might be for sale that she could take over.
After a few months of anxiously searching, she found the perfect storefront located in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Using the income she had saved from her past jobs, she spent three months fixing up the place, and finally, opened its doors.
Ro Café was named after the word “Ro” in Kurdish, which means “River” and “Flowing.” The rivers in Kurdistan produce clean and fresh water ideal for making tea, so the name was a natural fit. Plus, she says laughing, “Ro is easy to pronounce in English.”
After she’d close up the shop, she had to go to the grocery store, purchasing ingredients for the food she’d prepare the next day. There were days she would literally work all day and then all night in order to keep her business running.
Customers from all over began noticing the delicious food and coffee Havin was serving at Ro Café. Travelers would check Yelp and read reviews of her Kurdish delicacies, seeking out the coffee shop while they visited the area. After two years, her small brick and mortar with its tiny kitchen got to be too tight, and she was ready for a bigger space.
Six months later, the larger Ro Café opened its doors in the Lone Mountain Neighborhood of San Francisco. As one of the first Kurdish coffee shops in the city, neighborhood locals as well as distant followers come to try Havin’s famous baklava (which is a Kurdish specialty, not Turkish or Greek, she laughs) and her incredible sandwiches and salads, homemade with the recipes she created and perfected back home as a child.
You’re a Kurdish Immigrant, with all the headlines on immigration right now, what is your perspective on immigration issues facing the world right now?
I oftentimes think that the idea of opening a coffee shop can be romanticized at times. What’s the reality of opening a coffee shop now that you’re in waist deep?
You've faced a lot of personal hurdles to make opening this shop a reality. What advice do you have for a young woman who is trying to start her own business?
What’s your greatest hope for your career?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Ro Café is located at 2739 Geary Street, between Wood and Masonic in San Francisco.
When you visit, be sure to say hello to Havin and mention her DRIVEN profile for a free piece of Ro Cafe's famous baklava :)
Next week, meet Jessi. After a long career in television production, she decided to shift gears and open her own cycling studios that have taken Portland, Oregon by storm. She's up next on DRIVEN for Women!
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