San Diego's been called a lonely city, a place lacking the social hubs that bring people together to talk and share ideas. Henry Rabinowitz must have recognized this when, 23 years ago, he, along with his brother-in-law, father-in-law and a friend, opened Gelato Vero Caffe on India Street. Since then, Gelato Vero's been a gathering spot for artists, musicians, scholars and other creative types. It's a place where grad students talk over their dissertations with advisors, where new bands kick around names and where politics junkies try to convince others to see things their way.
It's where you can find some pretty good gelato and coffee, too.
Rabinowitz wanted to keep the business in the family, one day handing it over to his son, Aaron. “He'd been getting the traveling bug,' Aaron recalled Monday afternoon, sitting at one of the café's small indoor tables. The 23-year-old, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz last year, is taking on his dad's role sooner than expected. Rabinowitz, 60, died on Thursday, April 5. His family's waiting to hear from the coroner on the cause of death.
Rabinowitz had gone to the café's detached walk-in freezer. He'd been gone for about a half-hour, longer than expected, so Aaron went looking for him. He knew something was wrong, he said, when he spotted Rabinowitz's briefcase sitting outside the freezer door. Aaron said he doesn't remember whether the door was shut or not.
“All I know is that I found him on the floor,' he said. Aaron tried to resuscitate his dad, but he didn't have a pulse. “Whether it was an accident or he had a heart attack, we don't know.'
His dad was in good shape, Aaron said. He ran regularly and had recently become a vegetarian.
Rabinowitz was a Jewish boy from New York who, in the mid-'80s decided he wanted to start his own business. His brother-in-law told him how popular gelato places were in San Francisco, and Rabinowitz had just returned from his honeymoon in Europe, where he'd tried the frozen dessert. “It was serendipitous,' said Byron Pepper, Rabinowitz's long-time friend and the café's first manager. Pepper convinced Rabinowitz that the café should also serve coffee. At that time, Pepper said, there were only two other coffeehouses in San Diego-Pannikin in La Jolla and Quel Fromage in Hillcrest.
Soon there was a line of people waiting to get through the door, Pepper remembered. The spot became a popular hangout for artists and musicians, and Pepper, an artist, started putting together art shows; the café's kept up a regular monthly rotation. Currently on display is work by Jacob Faust, the young artist who was shot and killed by a San Diego police officer two years ago.
It was from the café's creative patrons that Pepper and Rabinowitz culled a staff.
“He was very supportive, very helpful,' Pepper said. “People who worked here just loved him because he would really help them out.' A lot of employees considered Rabinowitz a father figure, Pepper said.
When it came time to hire new staff, Rabinowitz looked for people who had something about them that made them different-more interesting to be around than the average person.
He wanted 'an eclectic mix,' said business partner Michael Sammon.
'He had a knack for it,' said Jason Gaona, an eight-year employee of the café and a musician who booked live bands until recently, when the café started getting too many noise complaints. Gelato Vero was long one of the few venues where you could catch touring acts on small, independent record labels.
Aaron plans to keep the café going just as it is. That means remaining the gelato supplier for local restaurants and figuring out the chemistry behind creating the custom flavors that his father mixed up, either from his imagination or at the request of local chefs looking for an accompaniment to a special dessert.
Pepper's known Aaron and his younger brother Ian since they were born. 'That's what his father wanted him to do,' he said of Aaron taking over the business. The two boys and their father lived together in Solana Beach.
'It's a little bit of a rough transition,' said Aaron, who looks like his father. One of the hardest parts, he said, has been finding out how many people cared about his dad. 'There's all these relationships I feel like I'm supposed to carry on for him,' he said, 'not just business relationships, but personal relationships with people he's known around here forever.'
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