San Jose’s SoFA Market got a bit of good news this month after a year of declining foot traffic and tenant attrition amidst the pandemic, which left the arts and entertainment district bereft of conventions, film and music festivals, symphony and opera performances, street fairs and nightclub patrons.
Natural Sweet, a new Italian-Colombian fusion custom bakery and sandwich shop, opened Feb. 1 inside the food hall at 387 S. First St. While downtown San Jose has lost some restaurants over the past year, Natural Sweet is one of a growing list of businesses that have forged ahead despite it all.
The couple behind the new restaurant are Davide Cantara and Lina Diaz. The location formerly occupied by Vero’s Coffee will serve espresso drinks and such items as caprese sandwiches and savory pastries in addition to sweet confections.
“We do get a lot of interest and some of it pans out,” David Ma, general manager for the SoFA Market said in a recent interview. “They are very determined and immediately when I spoke to them I could tell they were serious. I was very honest. I said, ‘Hey, this is the worst time ever to be opening in downtown,’ but they understood.”
Before opening Natural Sweet, Cantara owned and operated Sole Mio Italian Restaurant in Saratoga for the past three years. Diaz, meanwhile, has been making custom cakes and desserts for about five years. Her family owns a pastry and coffee shop in Colombia, and she’s been growing her business through referrals and social media in the United States.
As the pandemic raged on and Diaz’s small custom cake and dessert business continued to grow, the pair decided to tackle a new, full-fledged business as a team.
Sole Mio closed for good in December.
“I decided to turn to something smaller where I can be more of a participant, because I was so busy with many events with the restaurant—it was very productive,” Cantara said. “It went well for the past years but it was now very hard with Covid to find the right chef to teach and I have a small child.”
Cantara says that between the two of them, they’ll bring something to downtown San Jose that diners can’t get at other local eateries, leaning on their Colombian and Italian roots.
“We're going to do Latin and Italian mixed together into one concept, but as a coffee shop, as a sandwich shop, as a pastry shop and … we’ll do custom cakes that you don't see at many pastry shops.”
The restaurant is just the latest effort for Cantara, who has been in the hospitality and restaurant industry for about two decades, working at hotels and upscale coffee shops and eateries in Spain, Italy, Australia, England and in recent years, the United States.
“I'm very familiar with downtown San Jose and when I entered the SoFA Market, I really liked the idea of sharing our community area with other restaurants,” Cantara said. “I decided to give a try, even now during Covid, because … we already have a lot of requests, so I'm quite sure that we're going to be successful.”
The opening comes after SoFA Market has lost three eateries in recent months, though not all of those losses were entirely due to the pandemic or loss of business.
All across downtown, change is afoot. Businesses have shuttered storefronts and others have taken their place, with owners ambitious and excited, despite the challenges ahead.
Forager, an event space and food venue across from the SoFA Market closed its doors (though events that were already booked will be honored), making way for GuildHouse, a new gamer lounge that will become the “spiritual successor” to the now-closed AFKgg lounge.
A few doors down, Good Spot owner Thoi Trinh and managing partners Sammy Sok and Ivy Li are finishing construction on their new casual restaurant. Petiscos, a Portugese restaurant by the power couple behind award-winning Adega, started serving its tapas-style dishes in December.
Natural Sweet’s opening is a positive note for the SoFA Market as vaccinations to protect against Covid-19 begin rolling out and business owners get ready for a new “normal.”
“Hopefully the downtown community bounces back with more foot traffic and [the restaurants] will survive and it will sustain them,” Ma said. “If things are like they are now then they aren’t going to do well and no one is going to do well, so we are hoping for things to turn the corner a little bit.”