With its glowing lamps and wooden, book-lined shelves, the interior of Chez Nous feels more like a 19th-century parlor than a small-town coffee shop. A large black and white print of a Parisian cafe covers the back wall, and people gather in small groups or to sip their espresso alone over some afternoon reading.
When Chez Nous opened at the Roosevelt Plaza Shopping Center early last November, residents were excited. The latest coffee shop in town would be more than just a place to caffeinate; it was a fresh start—somewhere new to gather and be together after so many months in isolation.
But the enthusiasm didn’t last.
As residents soon discovered, the owner of Chez Nous, a woman by the name of Maria Rutenburg, was not just any local—she was a lifelong conservative with far-right views and a reputation for stirring up controversy. In early February, as Chez Nous approached its three-month anniversary, Rutenburg was called out in a Facebook group, where people linked to her personal page and shamed her for everything from not enforcing mask mandates to attending the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, criticizing the Black Lives Matter Movement and organizing a pro-police rally.
Outraged, some residents have decided to boycott the cafe, urging others to follow suit.
Rutenburg, for her part, finds the whole thing ridiculous—and emblematic of deeper issues.
“California is very divisive right now, a lot of people hating each other,” Rutenburg said. “Republicans hate Democrats, Democrats hate Republicans. That’s the reality in California: We don't talk to each other.”
A 32-year resident of Redwood City, Rutenburg said she just wanted to create a space for all people to come together and share ideas—but that has backfired. Much to her disappointment, the very political and social divisions that she sought to bridge at her cafe seemed, at first, a threat to its survival.
Rutenburg is familiar with the danger of intolerance. Jewish dissidents, she and her family fled political oppression in St. Petersburg, ultimately settling in Redwood City in 1991 when Rutenburg was only 16.
“Our family had a history of persecution, and we came to freedom,” she said.
Since then, she has made Redwood City her home, raising four kids and becoming involved in local politics. Describing herself as patriotic, Rutenburg said that one of the things she has always loved about America, and California in particular, is a climate that’s welcoming different people and ideas—a stark contrast from her experience in Russia.
But in recent years, she said she’s started to notice the same sorts of intolerance in the Bay Area that she escaped three decades ago.
“I see terrible warning signs that a lot of things are turning like the way it used to be in Russia,” she said. “It kind of reminds us of the Soviet system when the government was dividing people.”
When asked about the current Russian-Ukrainian war, Rutenberg dismissed the question stating, “I don't feel Russian. I’m Jewish. I left that country and fully embraced the United States…I’m much more concerned about American issues.”
Like many, Rutenburg believes that the COVID-19 pandemic and recent election have exacerbated—and exposed—deep societal polarization. She chastised shops and restaurants for posting of Black Lives Matter and other political signs, something she believes stokes unnecessary division.
“It’s never been like that,” she said. “I mean, nobody cared about who was the coffee shop owner—if he's Republican or not…Sometimes when I see these huge signs of Black Lives Matter written all over the window, I don't see what has to do with the coffee shop. This is bringing your politics to everything. So for me, I’m not feeling welcome there.”
Opening a cafe was never a dream of Rutenburg’s—she works primarily as a lawyer and real estate agent who manages properties throughout the Bay Area, including Roosevelt Plaza. But she wanted to create a space where people could gather over food and ideas.
“We're trying to be a cultural place where people can relax and enjoy each other's company, coming from completely different walks of life,” she said. “I don't want it to be just a political thing. I want us to connect over something else, and then maybe kind of hear each other better.”
She conceived of Chez Nous, which means “our place” or “with us,” a French-style cafe that would celebrate the aesthetic and ideals of a traditional salon—a place for literature, art and intellectual debate to thrive. And it’s no coincidence that she chose Paris in the 1920s, specifically.
“2020s is the MAGA movement. 1920s was a Parisian cultural, Bohemian feel,” she said.
In Rutenburg’s mind, her cafe is a safe space for everyone, one that embodies the spirit of the Années folles, or “crazy years,” in Paris. She encourages people to read the books off the shelves—or bring their own to contribute to the cafe’s growing library—and hosts events, including everything from live music and tango nights to student book clubs and pro-school choice meetings. She is adamant that people of all races, political parties and beliefs are invited to use her cafe for their purposes.
“I like intellectual diversity,” she said. “I like to be able to be exposed to different kinds of ideas.”
But, perhaps ironically, her personal beliefs turned some locals away from patronizing her cafe.
Rutenburg said business was slow for the first few months, which she attributed to COVID-19 restrictions and her “liberal” attitude towards the since-expired mask mandate. Though she takes no issue with people choosing to wear masks, she said she refuses to wear one and has never enforced it in her cafe.
“It is what it is, I am what I am. And I'm not going to bend on my beliefs," she said in February. “I've seen an impact on my business. It's just unfortunate.
“This is a radical position,” she admitted. She said she felt unfairly targeted when the mask mandate was still in effect, especially when she received several warnings from the city for failing to comply with public health orders.
One notice from the city, which she shared with the Pulse, read, “Our office continues receiving calls regarding employees and customers not being required to wear face coverings per the San Mateo County order.”
Beyond her lax approach to pandemic restrictions, residents have also taken issue with her political activity. Most notable are her public campaign to “paint MAGA 2020” alongside a “Black Lives Matter” mural and her role in organizing a Back the Blue rally in Redwood City just four months after the murder of George Floyd.
“I've never seen anything that crazy in terms of treatment of police the way they're being demonized and defamed and I don't think it's fair,” Rutenburg told ABC7 News in September 2020. “It's one thing to advocate for police reform. It's another to create a culture where police are individually attacked.”
She also is open about having attended the Capitol insurrection, which she described as a “peaceful, respectful demonstration.” Insisting that she was only there to listen and did not witness any violence, Rutenburg said she attended as part of “a team of attorneys trying to uncover a stolen election.” She said she did not "storm the Capitol," but rather marched onto the "oval" at the West Lawn and left when rioters began storming the building.
On Jan. 6, 2021, more than 2,000 people attending a pro-Trump rally began marching towards the U.S. Capitol building and breaking through police barricades. Some rioters breached the building itself, ransacking offices and posing for pictures. Ultimately, five people died during the riot, and hundreds of people have been charged for their involvement, according to a recent report from the New York Times.
She told NBC Bay Area at the time that she joined the crowd marching onto the Capitol grounds and was pepper sprayed when police began to push back. She filed a subsequent lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed, against Twitter for removing several tweets by former President Donald Trump and suspending his account.
But, Rutenburg sees her cafe as a sort of antidote to this political division. Her goal, she says, is not to promote one idea over another, but to foster friendly, rigorous conversation for everyone’s sake.
“I don’t care what party you are—I want people to connect,” she said, adding that she meets regularly with a group of “left-leaning friends” to talk politics. “The more the information we have as voters the better.”
Since COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, Rutenburg said business improved significantly. She said she’s getting regular customers and has continued to host a variety of events, including a political forum with San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, another forum for State Attorney General candidate Eric Early and a party for the local Bethlehem AD.
“Personally I met a lot of people I wouldn't have had a chance to meet before—school teachers, PTAs, moms, police officers, firefighters,” she said.
“I am over my target in terms of my goals: I have created a comfy, safe and cultured space where everyone and every idea is welcome.”
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Rutenburg's involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. She joined protestors in marching to the oval on the West Lawn. To request a correction, contact email@example.com.