For many decades there was a small grocery store at the corner of Hearst Avenue and Congo Street called Frenchie’s. The family who ran the store from 1909 through the 1930s wasn’t French, and the store was never listed that way in the SF Directories, but such is the way of neighborhood shops–you are known by what your local patrons want to call you.

201 Hearst Ave, SF. Photo: Amy O'Hair.
201 Hearst Ave, San Francisco. Photo: Amy O’Hair.

In 1909 Ruben Rodriguez Navas, age 46, left Colombia with his wife Helena and their first four children. They took a steam ship to San Francisco. Helena’s sister Marguerita Hotchick came with them. Below is the ship’s manifest showing the family.

1909 Ship manifest showing the Navas family's arrival.
1909 Ship manifest showing the Navas family’s arrival. From Ancestry.com.

Later that year, Ruben bought property in Sunnyside, a double lot, now 201 Hearst and 143 Congo. He then commissioned a building, a house and shop-front combined, for the corner; that building still stands at 201 Hearst. It may have been bigger; it certainly wasn’t sunk as deep–street grading in the 1920s left the building somewhat submerged in the concrete of the new higher level of the sidewalk.

Before the house was finished, they lived in Russian Hill, in a flat on Vallejo Street. Ruben was listed in the directory as an oculist, which could be considered to be confirmed by the fact that on the ship manifest he gave his occupation as “physician.” By May 1910, they had moved into the new house, when the census taker that year interviewed them there. Ruben’s sister-in-law Marguerite got married by December of that year and moved out.

In any case Ruben did not remain in his original profession, as for several years (1911–16), he listed his occupation as barber in the directory, while Helena was listed as running the shop at 201 Hearst. He was probably cutting hair at the shop.  It was difficult to support a large family such as theirs on only the receipts from a small shop. Helena seems to have taken other work as well—in 1920 she told the census taker she worked sewing at a factory. After 1917, Ruben was also listed as grocer, and no longer as barber, including being under ‘grocer’ in the classified section for some years.

The part of the lot that faced Congo was likely used for animals before they built a second house there in the 1920s. In 1915 Ruben asked the city for and was granted a permit to construct a stable on his property, stating he had one horse and two goats. Perhaps they also had chickens, like so many people then with any sort of yard to keep them in.

Goat eating, Monterey and Circular, 1911. Detail from SFMTA photo U02893. Courtesy of SFMTA Photo | sfmta.com/photo.

Ruben and Helena worked at their grocery for many years. They ran the shop at least as late as 1935, when Ruben may have been as old as 77; there is some discrepancy in the various places his age is listed, and he may have lied about his age to disguise the 23-year age gap between him and his wife. His age doesn’t seem to have kept him from having a large family.

Ruben and Helena may have been cousins—her father and his mother had the same surname, an unusual one, probably from central Europe, Hotchick, also spelled Hotochieck, Hoschicke, or Horschick in different places.

In all they have nine children. The youngest of the four that they brought with them from Columbia seems to have died soon after they arrived, but Helena gave birth to another child early in 1910, the first one born in America. There are four more after that, making all told 7 or 8 that survive.

In 1928 or 29 they had a house built on the adjacent lot, now 143 Congo, a brand new house that also still stands today. They kept the shop going until at least 1935. Ruben died in 1946, at age 88, finally giving his true birth year—as so many who’ve lied about their age, finally proud at the end to have made it to such an old age.

Helena died in 1950, at age 68. With that many children, they are sure to have many descendants, but no one has made a family tree for this Navas family online, and I could not find contacts for any of the grandchildren.

The evidence for the shop being called “Frenchie’s” comes from oral histories from early Sunnyside residents, which are archived at the San Francisco History Center.

3 thoughts on “Frenchie’s, a local shop at Hearst and Congo

  1. What fun to read these histories and see the photos! I like to imagine I am walking along a dirt path to go buy something from Frenchie’s! To note: the spelling of the country of Colombia is with 2 o’s; no ‘u’ is in the name of the nation. 🙂

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