Berkeley Bites: Elmwood Cafe Feeds People and Funds Worthy Projects

by Sarah Henry on September 3, 2010 · 27 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,restaurants

A decade ago, and fresh out of North Carolina, Kara Hammond landed a gig at Cafe Fanny, a tiny slip of a place in North Berkeley opened 25 years ago by, oh, a certain famous local chef.

Hammond, who had run a homespun bakery in Greensboro, wanted to get some kitchen experience in the Bay Area. Someone she knew knew someone who had a contact at Cafe Fanny; she called up, and scored a job, just like that. Hammond had no idea just how lucky she was — or the pedigree of the person behind the cafe.

She’d eaten once or twice at Cafe Fanny, didn’t really get what all the buzz was about, but she needed a job. She went to an orientation at the popular nosh spot and came home to research who this Alice Waters person was.

I kid you not. Hammond’s California cuisine learning curve may have been steep, but she was an eager student. Four months after starting at Cafe Fanny she was promoted to general manager, a position she held for eight years. In 2008, around the same time she became pregnant, she began scouting around for a fresh challenge on the food front.

Hammond did consulting work with Michael Pearce, a former UC Berkeley student and East Bay native who wanted to launch a cafe in Berkeley. But not just any cafe. Pearce, who had done well for himself in the antique musical instrument business, dreamed up the idea of an eatery that devoted half of its profits to worthy causes in the community and beyond. And he wanted his customers to have a say in which charities to support. Hammond liked the idea so much she decided to help run the show. When local landmark Ozzie’s Soda Fountain was up for sale again, Pearce found his place.

In February, Elmwood Cafe opened in the space that for decades housed Ozzie’s, a beloved neighborhood institution, with Hammond as manager. The new cafe crew were careful to preserve what they could from the built environment of the once-thriving diner, while giving it a fresh, open, light-filled, modern spin. The upscale cafe is open late and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with an emphasis — no surprises here — on local, seasonal fare.

I spoke with Hammond, 39, (a neighbor, who knew?) at the South Berkeley home she shares with husband Chris and their 2-year-old daughter.

Ozzie’s is a hard act to follow; what’s the reaction to the new cafe been like?

Mostly positive. Some people, no matter what you do, just don’t like change. When we opened we had no idea what would happen, whether people would throw tomatoes at the windows. But people tell us they’re glad that this corner now has a thriving cafe where people can sit and chat (we don’t have wi-fi).

The biggest criticism we get is that we don’t sell milkshakes or ice creams like Ozzie’s did. But there is Ici down the street, although there’s usually a long line there.

Some people are critical of our prices, but we did our homework and we’re charging market rates for our food. We offer upscale diner food, you can have a grilled cheese sandwich, we serve it with Havarti or Gruyere cheese on Acme Bread. Our prices reflect the true cost of good, healthy food.

When we opened a group of old-timers who used to play games at Ozzie’s came in and decided we weren’t their cup of tea. But lots of Ozzie regulars frequent us too. Most people are happy to see this spot bringing life again to this end of Elmwood. A lot of people told us: “I loved Ozzie’s, but I never ate there.”  They eat with us.

The charitable contribution component of the cafe is a novel experience for many. How have customers responded to it?

Once we explain what we’re doing, that we want to give back, people are very supportive. There’s a small number of people — I think of it as the only-in-Berkeley backlash — who are suspicious of what we’re doing or don’t believe that we’ll ever make enough money to follow through on the idea. People know that the profit margins in restaurants are slim.

That’s why we choose only three projects at a time to focus on and we have very specific things we fund. We just celebrated our first success last week: We gave The Bread Project, which offers culinary training to low-income people, funds for 15 students to earn their safety and sanitation certificates, which gives them a leg up on getting a job in the food industry. We’re trying to make a difference in small but meaningful ways.

The projects we’re supporting right now: Waterside Workshops, a bike mechanics and boat building program for youth in West Berkeley, Siyaphambili Orphan Village, a program for South African children, some of whom have HIV, and Go Green Initiative, a global environmental education program in schools.

If people want to suggest a non-profit for us to support they can let us know at charity@elmwoodcafe.com

Where do you like to shop for food and wine in town?

I go to Berkeley Bowl and the Tuesday farmers’ market. I like the squash from Lucerno Organic Farms, broccoli and strawberries from Swanton Berry Farm, and I get the bulk of my produce from Full Belly Farm or Riverdog Farm. In the summer I make a point of going to the Woodleaf Farm vendor to buy a bag of “seconds” peaches — I shop on a budget — to make peach pie. They’re delicious.

Since I worked at Cafe Fanny, I’m a fan of Acme Bread, which we also sell at Elmwood Cafe. And I got to know the guys at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, so I like to go there and have them pick out a good drop. Currently I’m a fan of Bandol rose, an everyday drinking red named Pigeoulet, and a spritzy white called Grangia– it’s refreshing to drink when we have hot weather, like we do now.

On September 11 Elmwood Cafe will feature sweet treats from Farmers’ Market Desserts by Jennie Schacht at a reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s, the bookstore next door.

(Cafe photos: Jeff Campitelli)

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

You might also like:

Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food

Berkeley Farmers’ Market Man Ben Feldman

Slow Food Folks Serve Fast Food With Style

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

MarthaAndMe September 3, 2010 at 7:26 am

Wow. Good food and good causes all in one. I would love to go there!

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Sarah Henry September 3, 2010 at 3:54 pm

It’s your kind of place, M&Me.

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Alexandra September 3, 2010 at 8:55 am

I hope the combination (good food, good causes) will spread across the country. Love stories like this one!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Who Will Be Cape Cod’s Next State Senator

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Sarah Henry September 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I’m hoping to learn about similar biz models in other locations.
Readers: lemme know.

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Sheryl September 3, 2010 at 10:28 am

This is a great story. And I don’t mind paying a little extra for really special, healthy food prepared with love…as well as to a place that gives back!

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Sarah Henry September 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Exactly, Sheryl.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 3, 2010 at 11:31 am

More people need to be aware of what GOOD food costs. If more people ate it, then it would become cheaper through demand.

BTW, your Ozzie roots are showing! “She fell pregnant.” That phrase always makes me giggle, like someone slipped and well…
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Growing Rubbish Bin Taters

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Sarah Henry September 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Oops! Should I change it? “Got” is such an icky word. Since my editors at Berkeleyside are British they probably didn’t catch it either.

In more important matters: Totally agree re the cost of good food. Fast food has painted a false picture of what it costs to produce real, healthy food.

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Sarah Henry September 4, 2010 at 7:17 am

I stand corrected: Editors at Berkeleyside DID catch this, and given the cultural disconnect (and I do see the funniness in “falling” pregnant) I’ve changed to “become” in the text. Thanks for the cross-cultural catch.

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Ruth Pennebaker September 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I was wondering about falling pregnant, myself. Thanks for clearing it up, Melanie. As usual, I’m wildly envious of the Berkeley food scene.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Emptying Our Shelves

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Sarah Henry September 3, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Okay, so the falling pregnant think is catching up all the Americans. Since this is a crowd of copy editors: What say you as an alternate expression?

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Kerry September 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I’ve run across several places in other parts of the world — Veggie Planet in Cambridge is one — which also have the good food/good cause connection. It seems a natural one. thanks for letting me know about this one’s good ideas.
Kerry´s last [type] ..late summer- early autumn- music- Ireland

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Sarah Henry September 3, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Thanks for the tip from Cambridge, Kerry.

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Kerry September 4, 2010 at 6:15 am

Sarah,
I’d leave fell pregnant as is. it’s a common enough expression in other parts of the world, and you’re speaking in your own voice — the context is clear enough. also, you’ve these explanations here in the comments…
Kerry´s last [type] ..late summer- early autumn- music- Ireland

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Sarah Henry September 4, 2010 at 7:19 am

Ha! Read this after I made the change. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kerry, but I decided if enough people stumbled over this expression then it probably didn’t belong as I didn’t want a word distracting from the story I was trying to tell.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm

What a great cafe! I like that they’re focusing on small, doable projects to support. And her thoughts on old-timers reactions to Elmwood are fascinating: Her line that they loved Ozzie’s but never ate there…Sounds like they’re gaining a loyal following. Good.

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Sarah Henry September 7, 2010 at 7:53 am

I liked that line too, MKES. And, yes, small doable projects seem the way to go.

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Susan September 5, 2010 at 6:15 am

Love this idea!! Wish there were something like this in my area so I could eat there and support the causes they support.

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Sarah Henry September 7, 2010 at 7:54 am

Perhaps you could plant the seed with some food folk in the area, Susan.

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Stephanie - Wasabimon September 11, 2010 at 12:05 am

I was just in this place the other day, and I was impressed by the setup. There wasn’t a ton for gluten free people to eat (and what they did have on the menu was sold out) but I liked the feeling of the place and will probably go back the next time I work at the Elmwood Vintage Berkeley.
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..My Chicken Soup Recipe Is Better Than My Grandma’s

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Sarah Henry September 11, 2010 at 5:18 am

Did you put in a request for some more gluten-free goods, Stephanie?

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Meredith September 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm

It seems like a venture that really includes the fun of craft and the meaningfulness of intention.
Meredith´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Literary Agent Interview- Jenny Bent

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Sarah Henry September 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm

That’s a nice way of putting it, Meredith.

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Melanie Haiken September 13, 2010 at 9:08 am

I wish I lived closer, as this place sounds great, especially the fact that it’s open late. It’s so hard to find something simple and healthy to eat after 9 p.m. and a bowl of that soup pictured would be perfect!

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Sarah Henry September 14, 2010 at 6:05 am

Good point, Melanie. There aren’t many late-night spots in my neighborhood either.

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