A decade ago, and fresh out of North Carolina, Kara Hammond landed a gig at Café 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 Café Fanny; she called up and scored a job, just like that. Hammond had no idea how lucky she was — or the pedigree of the person behind the café.
She’d eaten once or twice at Café 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 Café 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 café in Berkeley. But not just any café.
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 and beloved neighborhood institution Ozzie’s Soda Fountain was up for sale again, Pearce found his place.
In February, Elmwood Café opened 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, 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 café 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 café 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 Ici is 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 café is a novel experience for many. How have customers responded?
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 in Berkeley, 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 are: 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 email@example.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 Café Fanny, I’m a fan of Acme Bread, which we also sell at Elmwood Café. 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 rosé, 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.
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing. Henry muses about food matters on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
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[Elmwood Café photos: Jeff Campitelli]