Café Yesterday: Cocoa Puffs and Verve coffee for all

Café Yesterday's breakfast bar has proved popular with local residents. Photos: Chad Bercea

When Midwest transplant Ryan Brinson recently set up shop in Berkeley, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Well, that might not be how Brinson, an ordained minister, would characterize it. But the rock and roller with religious roots definitely felt like he had come home.

Brinson, a keyboard-playing long-time preacher in San Diego, decided to switch gears and locations to open Café Yesterday, a nonprofit java joint with a charitable and compassionate community approach — as one might expect from a man of the church.

His partner on the project: best friend David Schultz, an actor-director-screenwriter who grew up in the food world; Schultz’s father had an acclaimed career in the restaurant biz. (But Schultz serves more as a silent partner now, says Brinson, the siren song of Hollywood called him back to L.A.) Long-time songwriting band buddy Damon Earlewine has stepped up to help Brinson run the café day-to-day.

The West Berkeley spot serves award-winning Verve Coffee from Santa Cruz (organic, hand-selected and roasted beans from fair-trade farms), sandwiches on local favorite Acme Bread, and baked good from Ultimate Cookie in San Francisco.

But its point of difference from other coffee shops around town is its vast array of big-brand box commercial cereals — we’re talking Cap ‘n Crunch, Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, and Lucky Charms — that people can customize with toppings like chocolate chips, gummi bears, Oreo pieces, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce.

This is the kind of comfort food that some Berkeley dwellers who frequent farmers’ markets and make their own cheese, pasta, and jam might flinch at finding here.

Or not. Who among us doesn’t crave the occasional guilty pleasure?

Ryan Brinson on barista duty at Café Yesterday

The friendly neighborhood place is finding its groove in the community; opened in January, it’s steadily drawing a loyal, local crowd.

In keeping with the concept that the café could serve as a home away from home (or even, for some local denizens, the only place they call home) breakfast is served all day.

The café is in a new development — a ground level retail space in the recently constructed Campanile Court on University Avenue near San Pablo Avenue, which houses some 200 students in five floors of apartments. It exudes a retro groove: the place spins vinyl records, features comfy couches, and includes a large performance space that has become the new home for the outlawed Birdland Jazz.

Brinson, 33, who lives with his wife and two young sons (budding rock stars both, he says) in Point Richmond, took a break from barista duties earlier this week for a confab at the café.

Can you tell us a little about your clientele?

We’re near the corner of University and San Pablo, so it runs the gamut — some of the richest people I’ve ever met and some of the most down-and-out people I’ve ever met have come to this counter in the last year, everything from brilliant scholars working up on the hill to people who have been continually on hard times and dealt some of life’s most challenging hands. And we love each person, regardless of their background or socio-economic status. We cater to the whole city.

We have Bill, a homeless man, when it rains hard he’s here because the abandoned garage that he lives in is flooded. There are also young entrepreneurs like April from Bija Collars, the designer dog collar place down the street; they feel at home here. And Noah Alper who founded Noah’s Bagels can be found in here doing some business consulting from time to time. If someone he’s meeting is late, he’ll even give me a few minutes of consulting.  He’s a cool guy.

Café Yesterday mixes granola and gummi bears

Which customers come specifically for the breakfast cereal bar and what do they order?

Cereal is good for kids, college students, and the closeted professionals alike, they may not advertize it but the business types come in and order Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. Cereal is fun, a little bit kitschy or niche and has a throwback vibe.

It’s not a huge percentage of our business — about 20% — but for some people cereal is the only thing they get when they come here. We have regulars who only get their special creations. We have someone who always gets  Cocoa Puffs, Cap ‘n’ Crunch, blueberries and strawberries. Yesterday I made a Shredded Wheat with Cinnamon Toast Crunch, banana, Nutella, honey, and pineapple.

Our most popular creation is one we made. It’s called “The Happy Hippie”: granola, flax seed, honey, strawberries and banana. It is Berkeley.

Gives us a sense of your vision for the café?

This is a new season for West Berkeley, a time of revitalization in the neighborhood, and we’re stoked to be in on it.

We’re passionate about finding new revenue streams for effective, existing charities in the community. I have a background in the nonprofit sector, and what I’ve seen since 2008 with the economy is a lot of groups chomping at the bit, dying on the vine, trying to get funding for their work. It’s as tight as it’s ever been because for people with expendable income it’s as tight as it has ever been.

But nonprofit missions still have to be accomplished. We still need art and music in our schools. So I started thinking: What if we had a capitalistic venture that reinvested its profits for a purpose? Any margins we have, after we meet our costs, will go to support charities who work in education, arts, and the homeless. This month we move into the black and we’ll soon have the problem of deciding where to put the money. We’re talking with a number of charities in the area. That’s the heartbeat of this thing: Figuring out new ways to fund nonprofits.

Most importantly I want to create a place where people connect in this city. Our #1 rule for employees is “love everybody.” And if you can get down with that, then you can get down with us.

As a non-profit with a community focus, how have you worked with local groups?

We get to run the café as a music venue, with Birdland coming in on Fridays, doing jazz and blues. That’s given us a great deal of exposure in the community. A lot of people have met us for the first time through Birdland. And now we have John Clarke doing classical guitar on Thursdays, and open mic on the first Thursday of the month. It’s tough sometimes but I want to give everybody their three songs. In 2012, we’ll have more singer-songwriter, folk-rock in the mix. We want the café to be a hub for local artists who want to share their music with local residents.

The Bay Area Urban Project has hosted events here. We do offer the space to community groups, we’re not possessive about it. Local religious groups like Church Without Walls meet here too.

Where do you like to eat out around town?

I love the Brazil Café for its tri-tip steak sandwich. The blend of spices and sauces makes it so unique and give it a great flavor. And how can you go wrong with the creative geniuses who come up with Cheese Board Pizza every day? I’ll let them choose for me any day; I like every kind on the menu. Our friends next door at Kabana do a lovely chicken tikka masala, rice, and naan. It looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Related:
Birdland Jazz finds a new home at Café Yesterday [08.26.11]
Bagel man Noah Alper on why doing good is good business [08.02.11]
From psych ward to bagel mensch [02.25.11]
Cheese Board Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto [07.08.11]
From mom-and-pops to mini-chains [08.11.10]

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  • Anon

    No mention of the sandwiches?  They are to die for!!!!

  • Anonymous

    I love this place!  It’s comfortable and relaxed and you got study/work or talk with friends.  Staff is really friendly.  

  • Lisa

    Great place, and Thursday nights with John Clarke are amazing.