‘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.”

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

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  • Bryan Garcia

    “Waters learned about two weeks ago that the café was having some financial difficulties and would be closing.”

    Hey, that would have been perfect timing to let the staff know. Instead Waters et al chose to wait until the day before. Classy.

  • Bryan Garcia

    “Waters learned about two weeks ago that the café was having some financial difficulties and would be closing.”

    Hey, that would have been perfect timing to let the staff know. Instead Waters et al chose to wait until the day before. Classy.

  • Worker

    The author of this article should have interviewed the staff of Cafe Fanny—-how did they feel working hard every day to feed Berkeley folks beignets and cafe au laits only to know that their workplace was going to shut down in 24 hours! We need more worker collectives where people are treated fair. 

  • berkeleyhigh1999

    cheesboard!!!! world class model of a cooperative business.

  • Meliflaw

     I agree. I stopped going to Fanny several years ago: too expensive and a tad clique-ish. The Cheese Board Collective is not without its clique-y moments, but the prices and quality are close to unbeatable.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I agree. This article practically reads like a propaganda or puff-piece for Waters and the other owners.

  • Erik Schmitt

    The posters here are so self righteous! Waters said she and Maser, “will take care of these employees.” Can’t you at least wait and see if they make good on their promise?

  • Guest

     $20 plus tax for a pizza is unbeatable?

  • Meliflaw

    Oops. Sorry–didn’t intend to like your comment, although you raise a good point. I was thinking more of their wolverines and cookies and coffee. But $20.00 for a large, delicious, healthy pizza? Reasonably priced high-quality beer and organic salads? Yeah, I’ll take that over cheap junk.

  • Berkeley Resident

    I hope to see an article here on Berkeleyside about the employees and how they feel and how they were taken care of.  That should clear up any misunderstanding and misconception.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Talk is cheap. We’ll see if/how they follow up on that talk. But not giving your employees two weeks notice when you clearly could have certainly isn’t taking care of them.

    It’s expected that employees give their employers two weeks notice before terminating their professional relationship. Why shouldn’t that be a two-way street???

  • Berkeley Resident

    Maybe they will give them 2 weeks severance pay.  Let’s just see….

  • Guest

    If you can afford it I am sure it is great. But that price is unaffordable for many bay area residents.

  • Berkeley Resident

    Looking at the daily long lines it seems like many Berkeley residents can afford to eat there at least once in a while if not regularly.

  • Meliflaw

    I hear that argument a lot, and I don’t doubt that there are many people who can’t afford anything but fast food when they eat out (and they can afford that because the government subsidizes so many junk-food ingredients). But there are people who complain about the price of high-quality food who wouldn’t dream of living without cable and a cell phone contract and new clothes. Personal economy is also a matter of the choices you make.

  • chrisjuricich

    I wonder if its possible to have a restaurant with really good, quality food with a certain ‘panache’ of fine dining that doesn’t cost the restaurant goer an arm and a leg. I’ve eaten at Chez Panisse and yeah, it’s good–but I’ve been once only and it was $200+ for my wife and I. As fine dining goes, it’s a great experience, but still–would love to see Miss Waters explore a restaurant where there’s a similar experience but without the hefty price points. Loved the notion of Cafe Fanny but rarely went there due to the price points.

    I’m a firm believer that one can experience fine dining without breaking the bank–Slow is trying but is still kinda pricey. No restaurant experience, but plainly Waters’ restaurant caters to the 1% (so to speak) and not to the daily crowd. Well, it works for her, I’m sure–but alas…places like Bistro Liaison are almost as nice for a lot less money and invite my return time and again due to that price point.

    I wish her luck in her new venture on that corner–let’s see an affordable restaurant!
     

  • Meliflaw

     “But not giving your employees two weeks notice when you clearly could have certainly isn’t taking care of them.” 

    And not just from an economic point of view, either (although I’m pretty sure Ms. Waters will take decent care of her former employees). Work is an important part of our identity; my job and my co-workers help structure my whole life. I’d feel terrible if they were suddenly pulled out from under me, severance pay or no.

  • concerned citizen

    “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.’”  (Quote from article)

    And it came about, that after a time, a beautiful new venue opened. There was wine from Kermit and bread from Steve and other very tasty and affordable treats. From time to time there was music.  The sadness had transmuted into new beginnings. And former staff from Cafe Fanny were offered work, if they wanted it. And all gave thanks for what was and what was to come.

  • Chris

    Read the article! She says she’s gonna give em severance pay. If not, then you can start yer b*tchin…

    The fact is California – like many states – is an at-will state. You can quit or be fired at-will. If you don’t like that, then change the laws or start your own business and run it how you see fit.

  • Dmulsh

    High prices for small portions. I’ve gone to Fanny off and on since it opened. the quality of the  ingredients was excellent. But their portions were way too small for the prices they charged. for the past few years I’ve only gone there if someone else wanted to try it.
     feel for the employees since they obviously put their heart & souls into making it a success.

  • y_p_w

    A couple of beignets were only $2.

  • y_p_w

    $2.50 for a slice is unbeatable for ingredients of that quality.  Arinell or Gioia are at least $3 once you’ve got toppings.

  • y_p_w

    I think of it as $2.50 a slice, as I almost never order a whole pie.

  • daniloni

    Peter Sellars is a theater and opera director, not a composer.  At least composing isn’t what he is famous for.

  • David D.

    I have lived walking distance from Cafe Fanny for 4 years and never felt the urge to go. The Yelp reviews didn’t make it any more appealing. Oh well, hopefully its replacement is good! I wonder if Cafe Fanny suffered the same fate as nearby Fellini… Good food, but decreasing quality coupled with increasing prices spelled doom.

  • Guestarooney

     LaVal’s, which is much less chi-chi, charges more for the same size pie, with the same number of toppings.

  • Guestarooney

     You’ve never seen Europeans chowing down on their 10″ personal sized pizzas (making those odd, ragged incursions into the pie instead of cutting them into neat, regular wedges)?  That’s a lot more than one or two Cheese Board slices.

  • y_p_w

    I remember going to Phoenix Next Door with my European coworkers.  Man I miss the place.

    They loved the place, but they described the amount of food served as “American portions”.

  • y_p_w

    I hope Oyster Bliss is still on.

  • Berkneolib

    The Quality at Fanny’s was always first rate.      However, the crowd was often chi chi.   Dressing up to eat outside at a metal table was a bit much.

  • Guestarooney

    They would.  I promise you, though, they eat portions the same size back home when they don’t think any Americans are looking.

  • Guest

     The median household income in the United States was $44,389 as of 2004.[6] The median
    income divides households in the US evenly in the middle with half of
    all household earning more than the median income and half of all
    households earning less than the median household income. According to
    the US Census Bureau, the median is “considerably lower than the average, and provides a more accurate representation.”[57]

  • deirdre

     If you visited Fellini, I hope you’ll give Divino a try!  spiffed-up surroundings, outstanding food, great chefs.  And of course — on-site free parking.

  • Lhasa7

    How appropriate that the risible Peter Sellars, who has made a career out of vapid, sensationalistic travesties of opera, should be there to offer Moral Counsel to the High Priestess of Moneyed Berkeley Narcissism.

  • Felix Hunziker

    “Worker”, didn’t you read the article? The employees get severance pay.

  • Bruce Love

    It might work but it depends on the wine pairing.

    non sibi,
    -t

  • D2B2

    Two weeks severance pay? 
    They likely make minimum wage + tips

  • David D.

     I’ll probably give it a try sometime since it’s so close to home. I miss the red globe lights in the parking light, though. They really helped with the ambiance.

  • panofsky

     You can’t have it both ways; stop pretending you care about good food and the employees at Fanny while you complain about “their portions were way too small for the prices they charged”.  No wonder why is closing!  Think about why the owners couldn’t making it.  And the reason it’s simple as one-two-three! “Markets” are taking over your life and mine! Think about it and please stop complain for the obvious.  Unless you just want to complain for the shake of complaining ! 

  • panofsky

     You can’t have it both ways; stop pretending you care about good food and the employees at Fanny while you complain about “their portions were way too small for the prices they charged”.  No wonder why is closing!  Think about why the owners couldn’t making it.  And the reason it’s simple as one-two-three! “Markets” are taking over your life and mine! Think about it and please stop complain for the obvious.  Unless you just want to complain for the shake of complaining ! 

  • Richard

    Mr Sellars is in fact a professional wanker.
    Please issue a correction.

  • Rachel A.

    It’s true that if one lives in a place long enough there are places that become part of personal memory and lore.  Cafe Fanny’s will always be one of those places for me — and I imagine given the length of the line all day today it is for others as well.  In the early 1990s it was the place I treated my-graduate-student-self to a special extra hot au lait and a seat in the outside patio to people watch.  In the late 90s it was the place my then-girlfriend and I would stop for caffeine and bread on our way to mountain bike or hike in Marin.  In the 2000s Cafe Fanny’s was the spot for the now-wife and I to visit in early hours, bleary-eyed, carting small infants and seeking caffeine and sightings of carefree youngsters heading over to Marin.  

    I am sorry that Cafe Fanny’s ending was so abrupt with little opportunity to draw out the good-bye and make plans. Life is complex and there are always parts of the story we will never know.  

    So thank you to all who made Cafe Fanny what it was and for being a part of my twenty-year-so-far Berkeley story.  I am left with gratitude.

  • Guest

    What would you do if you worked at a restaurant about to close in 2 weeks if you knew, especially if you have access to the books or the inventory?  KER-DUH!

  • Sharon Christal

    I have been a patron of Cafe Fanny since it opened and have enjoyed so many memorable meals. I will miss the delicious food and the simple elegance of Cafe Fanny that I have grown to enjoy so much over the years. Thanks.

  • Walt French

    Yes, really too bad that somebody with such obviously refined sensibilities and management experience as yourself wasn’t in charge. Please tell us all which café you manage so we can experience your exquisite notions first hand?

  • Walt French

    Last I checked, buying takeout or on-site food is still voluntary— take it or leave it.

    Myself, I didn’t get to Fanny ALL that often, but their cappuccinos were just miles ahead of any others and the egg salad sandwiches, poached eggs just simply have no competition. Small extravagances.

  • Lisa

    A severance package is nice, and it’s good to read in today’s story that one is being offered.  That said, Waters has made much about the importance of having *relationships* with their vendors, with the community, and with their patrons.  One does not work in a service industry if one does not enjoy people, and I am sure there were many, many regulars with whom the staff had relationships – limited though they may have been.  Giving such short notice to both their staff and their customers shows very little respect or appreciation for those relationships, and the very humanity and goodwill such relationships engender. 

    I am not a frequent patron of Chez Panisse – maybe 2-3 times a year, but I have spent considerably more money and time at both Cafe Fanny (hands down the best Au Lait in the bay area) and Picante. The handling of the closure of Fanny smacks of corporate interest at the expense of human interest, leaving me feeling very disinclined to support any of their restaurants.  They owe their staff, and arguably their customers, an apology for bungling it. 

  • Guest

    One of the best ever “literate” comments on Berkeleyside…  Thanks for the laugh.

  • Sue Tomasello

    Just curious where do you like to eat where you find it is affordable for yourself and other bay area residents?

  • Heather_W_62

    When my husband and I closed our business, we gave our employees a month’s notice. It was a hard decision, but we wanted to give them ample time to look for other jobs. They had the option of continuing to work until whenever. We gave ourselves — and them — plenty of time to digest the news, and also with that much notice (even two weeks is better than none), we were available to give on-the-phone references while we were still there answering the phones. Most everyone bailed as soon as they got new jobs — and nearly all of them did get jobs. We had two guys who stuck it out to the bitter end, because they “had our back” so to speak. In the end, we paid them cash out of our own savings to pay their accrued vacation and personal days and gave as much severance as we could. The point is, that is how I would want to be treated, and I don’t play a double standard. Alice could have done the same; so she might have lost a few as they dropped out during the last two weeks – maybe they would have closed the doors earlier as a result, as we did. That’s way it goes. Respect and loyalty go a long way….