Business

Remembering Mars Hill Coffeehouse

Former managers speak on what the cafe meant to Hollister.
Julianna Miller, Kelvin Shalmy and Zack Freitas. Photo courtesy of Zack Freitas.
Julianna Miller, Kelvin Shalmy and Zack Freitas. Photo courtesy of Zack Freitas.
An improvisational comedy group performs at Mars Hill. Photo courtesy of Angela Prak.
An improvisational comedy group performs at Mars Hill. Photo courtesy of Angela Prak.
Angela Prak and two baristas play music after the 2019 Lights On parade. Photo courtesy of Angela Prak.
Angela Prak and two baristas play music after the 2019 Lights On parade. Photo courtesy of Angela Prak.

In late September, the proprietors of Mars Hill Coffeehouse, located at the corner of Sixth and San Benito Streets in Hollister, decided to close up the cafe.

Manager Angela Prak said that the pandemic was not “the ultimate factor” in the closing. “We tried to be sensitive to our mission, ‘Are we really serving downtown Hollister?’ And I totally thought we still were, but things were adding up.” Eventually, after a few months of curbside delivery, the risk of infection became too great.

Mars Hill opened in 2010, during the economic recession, as a ministry for inChrist Church.

“It kind of turned heads that we didn’t require you to buy something to come in and sit and hang out,” Prak said. “When Mars Hill opened everybody said, ‘There’s no way this coffee shop, with this mission, is gonna survive a year.’ And then this year was our 10th year being open, so I think we served the mission and then some.”

The cafe served as a community hub for Hollister. Several nonprofit groups held work meetings at Mars Hill, including Community FoodBank of San Benito, Hollister Pregnancy Center, Hollister Downtown Association, San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, and BenitoLink. That’s not counting tutoring groups, grief counseling, Bible studies, and Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Assistant Manager Darla Hernandez, Prak’s mother, remembers one grief counselor who represented the Visiting Nurses Association of Monterey County. “He drove from Monterey every Tuesday, and still does, and would sit outside Mars Hill even when we were closed, just in case anybody came for his support group.” The grief counselor now waits for his clients at Be True Cafe at 330 Tres Pinos Road Suite E in Hollister.

Mars Hill was a focal point for the arts as well. Artists associated with the San Benito County Arts Council had their work displayed on the cafe walls. Prak remembers elementary and middle school bands, the punk band Fugu, Soul Kiss, and the Josh Rosenblum Band from Turlock playing regularly on its stage.

“Mars Hill was the first place I ever performed,” recalled local singer-songwriter Zack Freitas. “I was playing bass with the first band I was ever in, The Scary Pinkies. When I was under 21, that was the only venue in Hollister a kid could cut his teeth as a performer.”

Most of all, Prak and Hernandez said they missed the community created by the coffee shop. Prak and her brother both met their spouses while working at Mars Hill, giving Hernandez five grandchildren in the last nine years. Without it, Hernandez said, “Our family wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Mars Hill also introduced Hernandez to inChrist Church, which she now attends. When Prak moved back to Hollister from Los Angeles, she asked her mother to go to her Bible study at Mars Hill.

“God met me at a coffee shop,” Hernandez said. Being a manager “was just a way to serve the community, and meet people where they were at, because I felt like God met me where I was at.”

Scott Kindred of Safehouse Web also found that working at Mars Hill deepened his faith in Christianity. “I re-learned the value of prayer there during our operations team meetings at a table inside the coffeehouse back in 2009 and I carried the practice of prayer to other meetings that occurred inside and outside of Mars Hill.”

Allowing people to sit inside Mars Hill for free also paid off. “Hearing groups of teenagers that went on to college and got careers to come back and say ‘I sat on this couch when I was a freshman,’ I think wow, either I’m really old or this place has done a lot,” Prak said.

She also said that a “family vibe” started with the baristas and branched out to customers. “My favorite part was getting to see our baristas interact with some of our favorite customers,” she said. “People whom you’d never expect to hang out with each other were hanging out with each other, having great conversation. It was the living definition of community, people interacting together, serving each other, right downtown.”

Hernandez reflected on the people deprived of necessities as a result of Mars Hill’s closure. “We had a group that would come every single day, straight from the [homeless] shelter to Mars Hill because they had to leave the shelter at 8:30 in the morning. Many mornings I would open the door before we were open, to let them come in and sit down and get warm. I’m thinking about those kinds of people. Where are they going right now, when it’s 20 degrees in the morning?”

Prak agreed. “You were able to be that dry spot out of the rain, that warm spot when it was cold. We were on a first-name basis with a lot of our homeless community, and that’s one of the heartbreaking things.”

Kindred said, “The impact it made on young people, old people, in-betweens, families and especially people living in the margins of our community was profound.”

Some of the audio equipment from Mars Hill will go to a few local musicians, but most was returned to inChrist’s facilities. The furniture was moved across the street to Farmhouse Cafe, which was remodeling at the time. “Even in closing we still tried to serve the community as best we could,” Prak said.

As for reopening, she said “That’s always gonna be a dream and a goal of mine, to do it again. As far as the church goes, I’m sure it’s gonna be whatever God will have us and lead us to, but personally I’m always gonna be looking for that Mars Hill 2.0. We laugh and talk about Mars Hill, ‘Oh, that building’s gone,’ but I think it was more than a building.”

Hernandez said that Mars Hill’s former trustees are still meeting on Thursday nights and Sundays after church. “That’s definitely something that we’re still praying about. We would love to be able to offer something similar again, because it was very unique and met [the needs of] a community that doesn’t always get met.”

 

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Andrew Pearson