In 2018, when Diana Days opened Café Buenos Aires in South Berkeley, her life was just starting to resurface from a series of major upheavals and hardships. Starting a food business had not been in her plans at all.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do something,” Days said. “It’s like the universe came here one day and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Days had just moved to Berkeley from Mar Del Plata, Argentina about a year prior, and was in the midst of transitioning into a new life, in many ways. In 2015, Days came out to her family as transgender; two years later she started her first surgery, and not too long after, her marriage ended. Heartbroken, Days was also just starting to recover from financial troubles and rocky career changes that were a result of a business partnership that failed and the 2001 Argentine financial crisis.
“I guess they say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said about that dark period in her life. “It’s not easy to see from the other side what one goes through but I think it was a healthy balance between my personal needs and the needs of those I love.”
When she moved to Berkeley, Roxie Delicatessen was a place she stopped into often. Located on the corner of Shattuck and Ashby avenues, the longtime convenience store-deli was close to her home. She had heard Roxie was on the market, as owner Bill Bahou was looking to retire. At first, she didn’t think much about it. Days had prior food business experience from her years living in Argentina, including working at a café. But one day, she said, the idea to buy the place and create something new from it seized her out of nowhere.
“It might have been wanting to prove myself or something,” Days explained. “But the catalyst, the thing that helped me make this decision, was that the people in my family often lived for other people’s dreams, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be the one person who doesn’t do that.’ That’s what gave me the courage to start.”
Once her resolve hardened, Days asked Bahou about the store and within eight months, she officially became the owner of Café Buenos Aires.
“I’ve grown to love what I do,” Days said. “I don’t really know why I started, but I like it. I like interacting with people — I have lots of people and friends here. I’ve been in different types of businesses so I thought it should be easy, but it’s definitely not. But, you know, certain things are really fulfilling.”
Days strikes up heart-to-heart conversations with the many customers that come through her door. No matter who they are or where they come from, Days said she and customers often offer each other advice and share stories.
Café Buenos Aires serves as a community hub in other ways. Days has held two tango nights at the store, for people to learn and enjoy the traditional Argentine dance. She hopes to do more tango nights in the future.
She also displays art pieces by local artists and craft makers at the cafe. One such artist is Ian, a regular Café Buenos Aires customer who is currently experiencing homelessness. Days displays the leather baby shoes he crafts on the top shelf of a glass display case. The bottom shelf is filled with other leather products made by another regular named Maxi, who is also from Argentina. When people buy any of the items from these artists, Days collects the money for the creators, keeping none of it for herself.
Days is looking into securing funding to expand the café and build an atelier for people to converge. The idea came to her after one of her regular customers passed away; she’s been wanting to dedicate the new space to him and his wife, who now lives alone. Noting that many older folks feel isolated and alone, without anywhere to go or anyone with whom to hang out, Days — who says she knows too well what this feels like — would like to create a place for people to gather and express themselves.
Along with expanding the space, Days is looking to expand the menu. Currently, Café Buenos Aires serves coffee, breakfast items, salads, empanadas and other Argentine pastries such as alfajores, torta nocciola, dulce de leche bars and chocolate beignets. Many of the café’s Argentine pastries are made in house, but about 30% are sourced from local makers. In the future, she aims to make everything herself; she also plans to add Argentine sandwiches, namely the choripán, a sandwich with chorizo sausage, and the lomito, a traditional tri-tip sandwich. When these more substantial items are added to the menu, Days will expand the café’s hours further into the evening.
Although Days started Café Buenos Aires with no idea of what it could become, with little steps, she has developed it into a warm and open space for the community. The experiences she’s had, both good and tough, have implicitly shaped her progress as a person and as a café owner, but it’s the people she’s met since opening her business that really have made a difference.
“It’s cool when you discover people. You look at them and go, ‘I wonder what they’re all about?’ and it’s like a flower that opens up. People stand there to buy an — I don’t know — an empanada and we end up talking about their lives […] and stuff like that. so it’s really… really an education, but it’s entertaining.”
With a smile, she added, “It’s like a new movie every morning that just starts.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included Days’ previous name. Although we received permission from Days to share this name for the story, we have decided to remove it in accordance with LGBTQ-related editorial guidelines.