Fresno native Albee Sanchez plans to open Frida Cafe in water tower

March's ArtHop featured an event with live music and more at Frida Cafe's future location, the Fresno water tower. (Wyatt Bible/The Collegian)

Albee Sanchez said he describes himself like many others who grew up in Fresno: someone with dreams to leave and find bigger, better things.

He moved to Los Angeles at 21 years old and lived there for six years before returning to his hometown. 

While the big city life took a toll on Sanchez, he credits his time there as a period that taught him to view Fresno in a new light.

“Before, I saw Fresno as an endless quicksand pit; that if you stay too long, you’ll never get out. But when I came back, I didn’t see it as a sandpit. I saw it as a land of opportunity,” Sanchez said. 

While in LA, Sanchez worked at a vegan coffee shop called Zia Valentina, which was founded by his sisters Dorit and Naomi Kashi. This position gave him many opportunities to explore a management role, Sanchez said.

At the time, he knew little about coffee and had no experience with an espresso machine, but that would quickly change. 

He soon found out the science and art to making espresso, both for which he had a deep-rooted love and passion. 

Today, Sanchez uses the same machine he learned to use at Zia Valentina at his own business, Frida Café. 

Sanchez opened Frida Café on Sept. 12, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic with hopes of improving his hometown through his love for coffee, culture and art. Now, with the business surviving the bulk of the pandemic, his vision is opening doors at a new location at the historic water tower in Downtown Fresno.

The interior of the water tower, which will one day host Albee Sanchez’s Frida Cafe. (Wyatt Bible/The Collegian)

Prior to the pandemic and to opening Frida Café, Sanchez was already running a traveling paint-and-sip business. Once shutdowns began, he was no longer able to partner with businesses to host his events indoors, so he decided to use the opportunity to bring life to another dream.

For Sanchez, opening Frida Café during a pandemic didn’t present as many obstacles as one may think. 

“To me, it was normal because I didn’t know any different. I didn’t experience what a coffee shop would have been like to own pre-COVID. We did what we had to do,” Sanchez said. 

When Frida Café first opened, Sanchez partnered with Los Panchos, a Mexican restaurant on Fulton Street, to run his café out of its bar area. He described it as a permanent pop-up, which was new for the city.

“It worked great. You have this beautiful space that is empty in the morning because it’s a bar, and by the time the lunch crowd was really strong and wanting a beer, we were gone. It was perfect,” Sanchez said.

As time went on, Frida Café kept growing bigger and bigger, attracting more people than Sanchez had imagined. 

Over time, customers left  limited parking spaces for the restaurant’s customers, and the consequences of running two businesses out of one space became apparent.

“All of the people we were bringing in, although I was thankful for them, it was hindering this business that gave me a helping hand. It wasn’t fair,” Sanchez said.

He decided to no longer operate out of Los Panchos despite being unsure where he would take his café next.

During its time at Los Panchos, Frida Café had attracted staff from the city for coffee that could also support local businesses in or close to their district. 

Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias, who represents District 3, including Downtown Fresno, frequented Frida Café often.

Arias recalled his experiences at the café, highlighting the miniature pan dulce it served him and his son, as well as the sales pitch that first got their attention. 

“It was the first time my son was at a coffee shop that spoke to his own culture and [he] saw something that wasn’t a bagel, which was very significant for him and I,” Arias said. 

It was the start of a bond between Sanchez and Arias that eventually brought forth a new opportunity for Sanchez, and a new location for Frida Café. 

Arias said that, while the Latinx community has made up the majority of Fresno’s population for decades, the members rarely see themselves represented in local businesses.

“Frida Café was the place where the café con leche, café de olla, the café con canela that we grew up drinking at home could be done in a place that was occupied by the general public. It represented home in the big urban center,” Arias said. 

When Arias found out Frida Café needed a new location to operate, he mentioned that the city was looking for a coffee shop to occupy the water tower. 

Sanchez kept this news to himself until it was officially decided that Frida Café would be moving into the water tower, though he said it was hard to keep secret. 

Sanchez said he fell in love with his Mexican culture through his relationship with his grandmother, as well as through music and art, which he hopes to share with others at the water tower.

The name of the café comes from famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Sanchez said Kahlo’s spirit and essence is the heartbeat of Frida Café, where he wants to welcome all regardless of their culture, ethnicity or sexual orientation. 

“[Kahlo] was bisexual. She was a very strong person, very strong-willed and she led her life in a way that made her happy. And I’m doing the same, and so can you,” Sanchez said. 

“Frida Café will be the perfect symbol of how a Latino millennial can take the culture and the richness of Frida Kahlo’s legacy and make it relevant in today’s environment and to today’s generations,” Arias said.

Sanchez urged other young entrepreneurs to not feel the need to leave Fresno to start a business and to reconsider the possibilities that are here.

“For too long Latinos have been perceived as the help and the workers, not as the intellectual artistic beings that we are in Latin America and in major cities. This will allow that identity of Latinos to resemble and to be projected across the Valley,” Arias said.

While Sanchez isn’t sure when the café will officially be able to open, he’s hosted various events at the water tower for fans. March’s ArtHop featured a live music performance and more at the water tower.

Future events at the location will be announced on social media accounts for Frida Café.

The Fresno water tower, future location of Albee Sanchez’s Frida Cafe. (Viviana Hinojos/The Collegian)
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