Alchemy: Co-op café brightens Berkeley strip in transition

Alchemy Collective Café: a welcome addition to the ‘hood. Photo: Joel Ramirez

Six baristas, who want to be their own bosses and hire no employees, have set up a slip of a shop at the intersection of Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in south Berkeley, adding some much needed quality coffee — along with a warm, groovy vibe — to a neighborhood in transition.

Welcome to the Alchemy Collective Café, which opened its doors in February. The co-operative is located in a small storefront next to the Firehouse Art Collaborative in the Lorin District, home to the new Tuesday farmers’ market, the Black Repertory Theater, Sweet Adeline Bakeshop, and other artisan and artsy haunts.

The owner-workers have already attracted a stream of regulars: serious caffeine aficionados who stop by for a rotating menu of single-origin drip offerings and espresso drinks via Verve Coffee Roasters, and signature house blends courtesy of an in-house roaster. The co-op is manned by Chris Myers, Payam Imani, Eric Thoreson, James Parrish, and Rob Wertheimer; the sixth member, Caleb Wolfson-Seeley, mainly handles the finances.

Eric Thoreson is Alchemy’s chief barista trainer and coffee roaster. Photo: Nick Rahaim

Brews are blended by Thoreson, who also runs OneNinetySeven coffee roasters, and who may be more familiar to Berkeleyside readers as the mastermind behind Rogue Café, which relocated back to Oakland following a story on the unpermitted pop-up on this site.


These 20- and 30-somethings are as earnest about small-batch, locally roasted brews as they are about connecting with their community. During a recent visit by this reporter, a customer dropped off a coveted Revere kettle for one of the alchemists in the house. “Individually we are competent and ambitious; together we are unstoppable,” they boast on Facebook. “We aim to compete good-naturedly with the highest quality coffee slingers in the East Bay (we’ve made friends with most of ’em). We support green business values and un-support cliquish coffee condescension.”

Despite these fighting words, there’s a chilled-out demeanor in the house; this isn’t some cut-throat coffee shop busting to open cookie-cutter franchises on every corner. These fellows just want to run their own java joint with its own personal style. They offer specialty coffee and loose-leaf teas at unpretentious prices. A cup of house joe, dubbed a Hessian Crucible in a customer-naming contest, served in a compostable cup, costs just $2. Oh, and there are buttery sweet treats from Starter Bakery in the mix too.

Payam Imani curates the café’s art offerings and designed its logo. Photo: Joel Ramirez

Like the Cheese Board, Juice Bar, Nabolom, and other Berkeley-based cooperatives, the six owner-workers of, they claim, the first such co-op café in California, are carving out their own way of running a business. Each member owns one share in the co-op, has equal voting rights, and gets a share of profits according to hours worked.  These guys don’t see themselves as anarchists or pushing a particular political agenda; they think that their group dynamic can create a stronger, healthier, and more ethical business. “We are all invested in the success of the café, we all own it, and we all agree as a team on how we operate and how we grow,” said Imani.

Inside the tiny store there’s a handcrafted bench made with reclaimed materials built by Myers, a UC Berkeley alum. In true collective fashion, the baristas double as cleaners, carpenters, account clerks, and handle all the other myriad tasks that come with fronting a new coffee shop.

The store proved a perfect fit for the group’s handmade coffee cart, which did a brief stint at BioFuel Oasis, before the team found a permanent spot to call home. The café space — not much larger than 100 square feet — houses a spiffy La Marzocco espresso maker, a rotating body of local artwork curated by Imani, an Academy of Art graduate, and enough room for a couple of customers at a time.


And you won’t hear the usual complaints about bureaucratic challenges typically expressed by other nascent food and beverage businesses dealing with the city. Officials have allowed the start-up to operate as a permitted mobile facility, which has made getting up and running easier — and less costly, the café crew said. Currently, there’s no running water on site; the water for coffee drinks is stored in large jugs and dishes are washed off-site, which is all city sanctioned, according to the owners. City officials, added Myers and Imani, have made it clear they’re happy to have the newcomers in the neighborhood.

Alchemy aims to serve quality coffees and teas with care. Photo: Joel Ramirez

The group raised $10,000 on Kickstarter and held a fundraising event to launch their new business, with a modest investment of around $20,000. Where others might see limitations — in capital, infrastructure, or square footage, say — Myers sees an opportunity to make decisions with thought and care.  “A collective truly allows us the flexibility to constantly make changes and evolve,” added Imani, “which is what our name — Alchemy — is all about too, transformation through evolution.”

Having evolved from a cart to a café, the caffeine collective sees these stepping stones as getting them closer to their next goal: running a larger venue in this border community between Berkeley and Oakland that they comfortably inhabit. They’re dreaming up plans for a place that serves seasonal eats and craft beer and wine, along with live music and local art. Alchemy 2.0, perhaps.

The details: Alchemy Collective Café is at 3140 Martin Luther King Way (at Adeline). The café is open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9:30 am to 3 p.m. on the weekends.

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


Related:
Pop-up spot Rogue Café goes private to comply with law
[07.25.12]
Rogue Café: Weekend pop-up serves a mellow brunch [07.23.12]
The farmers’ market moves to Lorin District [07.11.12]
Berkeley Tuesday farmers’ market moving to Lorin District [06.12.12]
Cheese Board Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto [07.08.11]

Berkeleyside covers all of Berkeley’s neighborhoods. If you know of something interesting happening in your neighborhood, let us know by emailing tips@berkeleyside.com