Hugs Mandatory

If you’ve breakfasted (or lunched) at Little Cafe Poca Cosa, Marcela and Sandra Davila probably remember the dish you ordered.

May 1, 2014

In the BusinessIssue 6: May/June 2014
Marcela (left) and Sandra Davila keep track of the charitable donations that trickle (or pour) in from loyal customers.

Marcela (left) and Sandra Davila keep track of the charitable donations that trickle (or pour) in from loyal customers.

Does Little Café Poca Cosa represent a certain kind of cuisine?

Sandra: We like to call it comida casera, home cooking. If I’m roasting chile ancho, I might put a little tamarindo, with a little bit of goat cheese, and it’s like, Oh, my God. Where does it come from? I don’t know. I just invented it. Marcela: That’s the joy of what Sandra is so good at. See what you have, what you can get, what is in season, and create, play.

Sandra: What you’re feeling goes into your food. I know I can count on at least 150 hugs a day. That goes into our cooking.

Has growth changed your crowd?

Marcela: We know everyone by name. They have been coming for years. My daddy started this—fed people, gave people a hug, a cup of coffee.

Sandra: The same people, more people, different people, but people stay, they continue to come. I can walk down any street and tell you what the people had for breakfast. I may not remember your name, but you are huevos rancheros with barbacoa on the side. That’s very community feeling.

How would you describe your management style?

Marcela: Actually, it’s a matriarchy, and the mama is in charge.

Sandra: I’m 11 years older. She’s doing her new business venture, which is a fabulous thing for her.

Marcela: We grew up like this, waking to a pot of something delicious emanating out of the kitchen. I’m the only one of my siblings who grew up here. The rest grew up in Mexico.

Where in Mexico?

Sandra: Guaymas. That’s where I still go to, the fishing village outside of San Carlos.

Marcela: That’s where Sandra does her volunteer work.

Sandra: We take care of three schools and help out with an orphanage program.

Marcela: It is amazing. People will come, pay their bill with a $50 bill, and say “Take a fair tip, and put the rest for the kids.”

Sandra: My fishing village has no running water or electricity. We had a little girl in a wheelchair, and what can we do?

Marcela: Sandra, because she drives back and forth all the time, is able to see this little girl is going to need a $300 operation, a world of money to them.

Does the restaurant have capital considerations?

Marcela: We don’t own the building. It would be silly for us to put investment into something we don’t own.

Sandra: Daddy’s rule always was: You give good food at a good price and put out a good plate, you’ll never be empty.

Marcela: We honor a lot of what Daddy started.

Sandra: Women in their 30s will come in and say, “I remember your Daddy used to put the rice bag on the chair so I could reach the table.” And now they have kids.

Do you have ceremonies?

Marcela: In a family sort of way. We don’t beat around the bush with what we say. We don’t like to throw food away because we see people every day asking for food. We put together these stunning plates. I wouldn’t throw that away. Things like that are very ceremonial to us. There are times that we mess up. We don’t follow recipes. We don’t pretend to give people hugs.

Can food change a person’s heart? Say Jan Brewer walked in the door.

Sandra: We don’t discriminate; however, I also don’t hold back. If you’re going to walk in with attitude yourself, I’d just as soon lose the chair. We leave politics at the door, as we leave religion; we leave all of that behind. We love food, and we love people, as we love creativity, and tasting stuff. And we may not remember your name—

Marcela: But we remember your face. We remember that you asked for roasted jalapeño on the side, no rice, and a big salad with no tomatoes. We have a customer who comes in every day. She eats chicken soup every day of her life. One day, we take off holidays, and she calls me and she says, “Hey, doll, are you going to be open?” And I’m like, “No, we’re closed, but I’m at the assisted living home. Come join me for coffee.” Damn it if she didn’t show up. I opened the door of the assisted living and there’s Rose: “Hey doll, did you bring creamer?” So she sat down and had a cup of coffee with me. Those are the customers that we have.

Are local foods on your menu?

Sandra: Depends on what’s available. The tiny key limes from Colima I use to make limonata normally are $17 to $23 a case, but they went up to $65 today, so I may make beet mandarin with some lemon. When you cook fresh, you have to know what’s available and tasty at the time. Five-thirty in the morning, my hour to play, I’ve got every burner going on the stove. I’m roasting garlic; I’m roasting chilies; I’m roasting pecans; I’m roasting almonds. Everything’s going to get incorporated.

Do you prefer raw or refined flavors?

Sandra: Raw, not refined. The beets are raw, and with mandarins and lemons and limes, it’s refreshing. Whoa, what just happened to my lemonade?

Marcela: I like taking regular dishes, like meatloaf, and changing them. Something people feel comfortable with can actually become a hundred different dishes.

Is that love?

Marcela: Absolutely. We like to love people.

Sandra: We have so many people say, “Not only are you in the heart of Tucson, but you are the heart of Tucson.” Nothing feels better than that. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that what you’re doing is coming across. ✜

Little Café Poca Cosa. 151 N. Stone Ave.

Lisa Levine believes in fiction. Her short story, Shelter, inaugurated Bird’s Thumb literary journal, and her backcountry lit blog lives at

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