‘It’s the end of a generation. Fanny has grown up’

Alice Waters prepares to hang a funeral wreath at Café Fanny on its last day after 28 years of servings bowls of café au lait to Berkeley food connoisseurs. Sharon Jones (right), one of the original founders of the cafe, helped Waters. Photos: Tracey Taylor

Alice Waters came to Café Fanny Friday morning with a funeral wreath to commemorate the closing of the café she opened 28 years ago.

As a long line of people waited to get their last servings of poached eggs on toasted Acme levain bread, beignets, and steaming bowls of café au lait, an emotional Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse restaurant and edible schoolyard pioneer, expressed sadness that the café was closing. She said that the café was losing money, and, with the divorce of the other co-owners, Jim and Laura Maser, Café Fanny had ceased to be a happy place, which is a critical ingredient in the success of any restaurant endeavor.

…See a photo gallery of Café Fanny’s last day

“It seemed like the end of an era,” said Waters. “You want to have someone home at a café. You want at a restaurant to have people who love it. I can’t take care of it now the way it needs to be taken care of. I just didn’t want to disappoint people who expect a certain something when they come here, whether it is a café au lait, a poached egg or a beignet. It is very hard to change a place.”

Customers lined up at Café Fanny as they have done on many mornings for the past 28 years

Waters said that a new café will rise in Café Fanny’s place. Kermit Lynch, the wine merchant who owns the building at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar, along with Steve Sullivan, the owner of Acme Bread Company, which has a retail outlet in the complex, and she are determined to create another vibrant restaurant.

“It’s not going to be Café Fanny, but it is going to be something wonderful.”

Lloyd Lee-Lim and his son Benjamin came to pick up treats for his wife who was working

Patrons of the restaurant lined up in the morning to say goodbye and get a last chance to eat their favorite foods.

Lloyd Lee-Lim, who used to live in Berkeley but who now lives in El Cerrito, had come to the café with his two-year-old son, Benjamin. They were there at the request of Lee-Lim’s wife, Meg, who had to work today. She asked that they buy her some of her favorite menu items.

“She wanted the eggs with prosciutto, but if I get it now, she wouldn’t be able to eat it until dinner time when she got off work,” said Lee-Lim. “It wouldn’t be good then. It wouldn’t be fresh.”

So Lee-Lim planned to order a ham and cheese crèpe and a salmon platter to go.

Waters opened Café Fanny with her brother-in-law Jim Maser and friend Sharon Jones in 1984 and named it after the heroine in Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s movies, as well as Waters’ daughter. Maser, who also owns Picante, and his wife Laura eventually took over day-to-day operations of the café.

Jones, who helped Waters affix the funeral wreath to a beam at the café this morning, left the café when her second child was on the way. The father of her children, James Monday, was the architect for the building.

“Café Fanny is a touchstone for many people in Berkeley and this is a significant day,” she said.

After it opened, and with Kermit Lynch’s wine store and Sullivan’s breads right next door, the foodie complex quickly evolved into a symbol of Berkeley food pioneering.

“It was a beautiful place for me to come when Fanny was a child,” said Waters. “I came here every single day.”

The inscription on the funeral wreath roughly translates as “poor Fanny”

Waters learned about two weeks ago that the café was having financial difficulties and would be closing. It made her very sad, she said. But last Thursday, her friend Peter Sellars, the composer, came to lunch at Chez Panisse and helped her think of the closure not as a tragedy, but an opportunity to start something new that might be wonderful.

“He said, ‘Alice, you have to think about it differently. You can’t mourn in this way. Change is something good. It brings a kind of life. It’s a natural thing. You have to find the hope in it. You set a tone. Don’t go to the sad picture. Put something hopeful out there.’”

So Waters added bright flowers to the funeral wreath she hung at the entrance of Café Fanny and selected a cheerful still from a Pagnol film to put on the sign announcing the closure.

The owners only told the staff Thursday that the café’s last day would be Friday. But Waters said she and Maser “will take care of these employees.” They will get severance pay. The suppliers will be paid. “It’s a moral responsibility. Jim feels that, I feel that.”

“I’ve been grieving for a couple of weeks. I am very sad. But I have to believe something good will come. It’s the end of a generation. Fanny has grown up.”

Alice Waters’ Cafe Fanny in west Berkeley to close [03.08.12]

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  • cranky

    I’m w/you on this-i ate at CP for my 5th wedding anniv and while the food was lovely we had to put up with a snotty waiter who was just crushed by the fact that we wanted a bottle of champagne (to celebrate), which wasn’t, in his oh-so-important opinion, as good as match as what HE recommended. He was a real drag, and now we go to Liasion or Lalime’s which are both hands down more cheerful,  joyful and a lot less pretentious/expensive and JUST AS GOOD. As for Fanny’s, I can poach an egg on my own stove and have it be even better (i have my own chickens).                      

    Too bad that some shabby divorce behavior is ending  a nice tradition that some people really dig, and more important, depriving some local people of their jobs. I hope these employees are taken care of.

  • eeky

    A funeral wreath??? Some people have a lot of nerve! Sorry but I do not have any sympathy for Alice and her corportation. Feeling sorry for themselves first! What about the employees? They couldn’t eek out another couple weeks in order to give their employees a proper notice??? Shame on you Alice….

  • Heather_W_62

    Let’s see a collaboration between Kermit Lynch and Acme Bread that offers affordable sandwiches, bread and cheese plates? Mezze perhaps? Coffee, teas, maybe a wine bar…. Alice Waters doesn’t need to be involved. 

  • Heather_W_62

    I wish I’d tried the beignets. Sadly, everytime I went it was too expensive to eat there, and I didn’t know they had $2.00 beignets.

  • monkeyisland

    Their food style is good but not with the times. People want something healthier and lighter these days. I just remember the overwhelming flavor of butter in everything.

  • Heather_W_62

    Yelp review from February, 2012:
    As a followup — Cafe Fanny never responded to our calls — I even went to the Chez Panisse cafe to ask them about it (since Cafe Fanny was named after the daughter of Alice Waters from what I know), and they said that they no longer had any connection with Cafe Fanny (some divorce or something dissolved the last remaining connection) but they were quite dismayed and recommended some indirect means to get in touch with Cafe Fanny.Anyway, I went to my bank and had the charges temporarily reversed until they could resolve it.Then, on February 21, Cafe Fanny went back to it again — starting to credit and charge for the same transactions back in late December and early January.  When will they stop?  The BBB is definitely going to get a call from me about this. 

    Yelp review from 1/29/12:
    This used to be a five star review (and out of my 61 reviews, it’s now my FIRST 1 star review). I’d come here several times a week, easily spending hundreds a month with friends.They charged my credit card a total of 6 times over 3 weeks for one transaction:2 debits, on separate days, in the first week 3 refunds, on the same day, the next weekThen 4 DEBITS, SAME DAY, 1 WEEK LATER.6 debits, 3 refunds, for 1 transaction — all before I even noticed and attempted to contact them.Apparently they believe my checking account is just a piggy bank to balance their books.I have left no less than 4 messages for the ‘cafe manager’ and even talked with Helen in the ‘accounting’ department, who was unsympathetic, blamed it on a ‘hardware glitch’ and said ‘i’ll pass along the message.’ I HAVE RECEIVED NO CALL BACK. 

    Heather_W-62 replies: Maybe these are the same people, maybe they were on a date. The message is the same: apparently they had a little problem with charging people’s credit cards. 

  • Anita

    Did the wreath and “cheerful still” from the movie make the people losing their jobs feel better?

  • Berkeley Resident

    What is this supposed to mean?!

  • Berkeley Resident

    I’m not sure how this relates to people eating at Cheese Board.  The fact is, there are many people in Berkeley who can afford to eat there.  Check out the lines daily from opening until closing.  Not EVERYONE, but many, many people choose to eat there and find the food delicious and affordable.  With all the options around town people choose the Cheese Board.  It is not an issue if you don’t like the place, but that doesn’t mean it is not affordable for many, many people.

  • Educator

    I can’t help but wonder had this article been written from the perspective of the employees, who were only given 24 hours notice of their impending unemployment, would we think of AW in a different light?  Why does Alice come off as angelic here?

  • loves extra calories


  • Edward Scherer

    Picante workers are mistreated and do not get a living wage. Jim Maser does not care about their workers just profits. For instance, he just increased prices at Picante while workers do not have a living wage.

  • Edward Scherer

     I agree, we need more cooperative business. Restaurant owners are greedy and hypocrite.

  • Edward Scherer

     I bet Jim Maser is not going to give severance pay to any of the workers. He is just a hypocrite. Ask any Picante workers if they have had a wage raise in the last 10 years. I know for a fact, that they used to receive bonus, and a Christmas Card at the end of the year. Now, Maser just tries to squeeze their labor more and more. Employees do not have benefits, and they are exploited. It is a shame to see all those hard-working people being mistreated.

  • Edward Scherer

     I will follow up on this, that is a good call.

  • RunnerMom

    I actually had the same problem happen to me when I was at Cafe Fanny a few weeks (maybe a month?) ago.  It was definitely odd that I had so many credits happening and then so many debits to correct it… it all netted to the amount that I should have been charged, but now I am curious to see what happens with my charges today :/.

  • Monkeyboygood

    Really Mr. Portfolio manager.  Hopefully you will get the same amount of notice in a similar situation along with a cement parachute of a “severance”.

  • Rachel A.

    Desperate but not knowing the answer to that pressing question, I went to Andronico’s yesterday and stocked up. Currently on “sale” at $6.79 a box. Cheaper than I’ve found anywhere else but Cafe Fanny.  Make sure to check the expiration date on the bottom if you’re hoarding. . A grocer noted to me that it can be frozen.

  • Diane

    Man, we in Berkeley are world class complainers!  What a lot of sniping about nothing in the comments here.  Restaurants go under all the time.  It’s a volatile business.  Often there’s aren’t severance packages or any warning.  That’s the way it is.

    As for Cafe Fanny, it wasn’t my favorite place, but their coffee and benigets were tasty. I’d be sadder if Acme closed, for sure!  That place rocks.  

  • “…beignets and cafe au laits”, you mean donuts and coffee.

  • “…they can afford that because the government subsidizes so many junk-food ingredients”The government subsidizes the Cheese Board or large oil companies in the same fashion–with tax law geared to address unique situations.  But that isn’t how most people think when they throw around the word ‘subsidize’.  They think of handouts.

  • The cost of living in a high tax, high regulation state.  Now you’re going to tell me you want a minimum wage law too?

  • y_p_w

    I heard that used to be a description of dessert at the French Laundry.  Beignets and a single espresso were described as “coffee and donuts” on the fixed price menu.

    I asked about the beignets at Cafe Fanny, and an employee said it was a pretty simple donut recipe made from scratch.  Or at least the way that donuts used to be made before corporate premixed donut mix was common.

    I used to bring one in for my manager every once in a while, and he’d joke that “This is a bribe you know” as he was dusting off the powdered sugar from his face.

  • y_p_w
  • y_p_w

    They killed the metal tables in favor of the traditional wood slat tables and folding chairs.

    At least half the crowd was dressed up in North Face jackets or something similar. It was very much a typical mix of Berkeley casual.

    I’ve mentioned before that I saw Alice waters there in line wearing a hoodie, sweatpants, and Nike running shoes.  She looked like any other person in the neighborhood going out for a jog.

  • neighbor

    I’m not sad at all – I’m excited to see what will take its place!  I was there with friends again last weekend (I live down the street) and vowed -again- not to patronize Fanny anymore because of the Attitude we receive when we go there.  Sure, the poached eggs on levain are delicious and I was a big fan of the cafe au lait, but I consistently had a negative experience when going there.  Waters is right, it ceased to be a happy place.  And I agree with Sellers, change is good and something wonderful and new might grow from this space.

  • How do you know?  Have you ever run a restaurant?

  • Is the fact that a business offers something that is unaffordable to some people a mark against that business?   By that logic, there would be no organic food, no sports cars, no airlines, and no restaurants other than McDonald’s.  Is that what you’re suggesting?   Wouldn’t it be better to create a society where people have more upward mobility (or less upward resistance) than to make everything least common denominator?

  • Meliflaw

     Really? All of them? I know some very honorable restaurant owners.

  • Not that I approve of $200/person prices, but having worked in restaurants, as the quality of the food and ingredients goes up, the amount of labor skyrockets.   If you have the money, go take a look at Atelier Joel Robuchon in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which lets you sit in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant and see how much labor goes into preparing the food as well as providing unquestioningly superior service.  When you add in overhead, this pushes prices up into the stratosphere.   My experience says that trying to get this kind of experience at a lower price would be like squeezing blood from a turnip.   And the places that get you close at reasonable prices are probably cutting corners somewhere – most likely on staff salaries.

  • pointcounterpoint

     Alice deserves a Foodie (Oscar of the food world) for her creative damage-control.  It came from the heart and she was able to show her vulnerabilities.  Although it might seem like an act to some, it is not.  This is truly Alice, who she is. Not an angel.  Just a creative genius who is also human.

  • Beseme culo

    There are too many restaurants so many of them can close and I don’t care. I am a good cook and baker and pride myself on meals at home every evening and often have one way diner friends over. Everybody is eating out these days and talking about it. who cares? I sure don’t.  and I am sick of stories about alice Walters. My god am I supposed to fall down if that woman makes an appearance near me. Good riddance to cheese penis also.

  • Walt French

    Maybe I will and maybe I won’t. I also work at an “at will” company. But when I had to close my own co, I gave my sole employee a new job description: “find a new job.” He & I have managed to stay friends, even vacationing together.

    You seem to think that people who have been successful necessarily do so on the backs of those who don’t own the businesses. Without a shred of evidence, you cast aspersions against somebody (Ms. Waters) who has both managed to (a) become famous for her restaurant; (b) gain international recognition for her mission about healthy food; and (c) run a restaurant that aspiring chefs and others want to work for. (We have one friend who went back after a 10-year+ stint on her own.)

    Simply uninformed badmouthing on your part. Why post such negativity on an article that will draw people who know the ethos and ethics that you blindly rail against?

  • Berkeley Resident

    Why so hostile?!  You don’t like eating out.  Fine.  Don’t do it.  There is no reason for this hostility!!