The New Tastemakers

Maxwell Borkenhagen and Hiver Van Geenhoven have known each other for years. More recently, they’ve become partners with a shared vision of attracting more people to downtown San Jose—SoFA, specifically. Van Geenhoven is the roaster at Chromatic Coffee, which is served at Cafe Stritch, the renamed and remodeled SoFA restaurant that has been in the Borkenhagen family for over 35 years. Maxwell Borkenhagen books the musical acts and art displayed in the restaurant and music venue, bringing new life and crowds to downtown San Jose. Both Borkenhagen and Van Geenhoven are optimistic about the future of downtown San Jose and want to share their passions with old friends and new customers alike.

How did you two meet?

MB: We had a lot of mutual acquaintances when I was in high school…

HVG: The way we met was actually over coffee. The guy that taught me how to roast coffee was hanging around with Maxwell. We just got along. Maxwell, your parents owned Eulipia before Cafe Stritch, so you’ve been a part of the restaurant business for a long time. Did you ever think you’d be here, running part of it?

MB: No. All throughout high school, I was very weary of getting into the family business. Mixing business with family can be good for the business, but not as good for the family. It adds a level of strain. Part of why I moved back to San Jose is because I had started discussing reviving Eulipia, bringing it back to its origins and modeling it after these places I encountered while in Portland.

When I moved back, I saw potential in this place to do more than a restaurant. There was potential for live music. For so long that’s what I’ve wanted to do. Seeing that opportunity with this place gave me a new motivation to work for my family. I’ve come to embrace San Jose more. I love San Jose. I truly want to commit to building a better community here. When my parents opened this place in 1977, there was nothing here. They were the first young people to open up a cool, hip place down here.

 

What sets you guys apart from other businesses in downtown San Jose?

HVG: Passion. When it comes to Chromatic, it’s a dream that I had. I love what I do, and I love working toward it. I love seeing the reaction that people have of “Wow, this coffee is different.” That drive of providing an authentic experience…I want you to have something that’s unique.

MB: What sets us and a number of others apart is that we have a belief in San Jose that it does not have to be a secondary market. I want San Jose to be respected as a place where quality doesn’t have to always be less than San Francisco. Whether it’s in music, art, food, beverage, what have you. I don’t want to be better than SF, but there’s no reason we can’t be as good.

Hiver, where did your love of coffee come from?

HVG: I started working at Peet’s Coffee and learning about coffee. It caught my attention and held my attention. Nothing much had ever really held my attention. After a couple of years, Peet’s had moved their roasting facility, and they had an open house. I went and saw the machines and thought, “This is what I want to do: I want to roast coffee.”

I’ve thought of coffee as a medium of directing culture. The ideas that can be shared over coffee can be very interesting. I’m mainly interested in bringing coffee to the forefront and sharing the value of what that beverage is.

You’re both a part of businesses that are bringing people to downtown San Jose and breathe new life in the SoFA district. What else do you want to see happen here?

MB: Low-rent housing downtown. I see this as a huge resource. I would love to get to the point where San Jose State students make this community their home, but SJSU only accounts for a segment of the community that I’m a part of. If we had one high-rise that had rent that your average 20-something could afford, that could bring such a breath of life into this community. We need a bigger group of people concentrated down here.

HVG: We want to show the rest of the Bay Area that we too take things seriously.

You are both raising the bar in your respective fields in San Jose: downtown venues and coffee culture. Can you talk about your influence on your customers?

HVG: I’d like people to enjoy themselves. But if I can spark an interest to where they want to learn more or be exposed to more… For so long, this area has been inundated by mediocrity. Mediocre clubs, restaurants, food, shit on TV. We don’t overwhelm; we’re approachable.

MB: There’s a lack of tastemakers in the South Bay. Inevitably, if we’re going to build a culture here, it’s going to be much more embracing and unpretentious than in other cities.

I attribute the lack of this niche art and music culture that we’re trying to cultivate to a lack of people that have the confidence to take things they perceive to be good and expose those things to as many people as they can. I don’t claim to have better taste than anyone, but I do have the drive to take something I like and have the confidence to put it on stage and create an environment where all these people can be exposed to something. It’s not shoving things down anyone’s throat, but it’s “Hey, look at this, we think this is good.”

What’s next for each of you? What can we look forward to?

MB: A big motivating factor that drives me to try and build the art and music community is that I don’t want the youth in San Jose to have the same experience that I did. San Jose can be a cool place. You don’t have to just love it because it’s your hometown. I want to see South First Street be the central point of downtown San Jose.

HVG: We’re aware that there were these culminating points in SoFA history, but it always fell off. I feel determined that this is the last time that’s going to happen. We’re bringing authenticity. It’s important to me to create this sense of a little city in San Jose and allow that sense of community to evolve around music and coffee.

Written by Flora Moreno de Thompson
Images by Daniel Garcia

Entire article originally appeared in Issue 5.4 Form

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