The owners of one of Telegraph Avenue’s most popular ice cream spots have asked Berkeley officials to revoke the permit for a new ice cream take-out window set to open right across the street, at Rasputin Music.
Tuesday night, Berkeley City Council members heard the appeal, by Cream ice cream parlor, 2399 Telegraph, against Rasputin’s Dream Ice Cream, which won approval in September from the city’s zoning board.
Problem was, a city staff member said the city failed to notify nearby businesses about the proposal. If Rasputin’s permit is ultimately approved, the two businesses would essentially stare each other down across Channing Way.
Rasputin owner Ken Sarachan said he wants to convert 205 square feet of his existing retail space at Rasputin into a take-out operation that would serve natural, organic ice cream developed by Atomic Ice Cream owner Ray Lai. (Lai already sells his ice cream at another Sarachan business, Blondie’s Pizza.) Sarachan also plans to offer low-sugar pastries and drinks. Flagging retail sales at Rasputin have pushed him to experiment, he said, and find a creative way to make up lost revenue.
Sarachan said some of the inspiration for flavors will come from produce from his own organic farm. Tuesday night, Lai — who described himself as an “ice cream man” trained at Bi-Rite Creamery and Fenton’s, with a “farm to scoop” vision — gave out strawberry ice cream samples to interested parties outside the City Council chambers, noting “Nothing says ‘summer’ better than strawberries.”
As part of the appeal, filed in February, Cream co-owner Gus Shamieh argued that the long red curb along the block in front of the proposed Dream location would lead to access issues; that the take-out window would result in a sidewalk clogged with pedestrians; that a second nearby business selling ice cream and cookies would mean market saturation and be detrimental to Cream; and that the proposed signage is out of character with the existing Rasputin building and neighborhood.
Cream, which features among its offerings an array of ice cream sandwiches, customizable by fresh cookie selections and ice cream flavors, has developed a regional cult following, and a huge fan base, including more than 12,000 fans on its Facebook page, and more than 1,000 reviews on Yelp. The Berkeley storefront often has lines stretching east down Channing; there’s also a location in Palo Alto and a planned outpost in Walnut Creek.
About 10 members of the public, many of whom were past or present Cream employees, asked the City Council to support the business’ appeal. They spoke about Cream’s supportive, family-like approach toward employees and the shop’s extensive community partnerships and contributions.
Alex Popov, manager of Pappy’s and founder of the recently-created Telegraph Restaurant Assocation, said adding the take-out window would create pressure on existing businesses, and questioned a count by city staff that he said underestimated the number of existing food-service spots already on the avenue. (Popov has advocated to keep quotas in the neighborhood following a city proposal to relax them for the next three years.)
Several Rasputin supporters urged the city to uphold the Dream permit, noting that Berkeley should not be in the business of encouraging monopolies or limiting consumer choice.
Council members were divided on the issue, with Jesse Arreguín and Max Anderson indicating that they supported Cream’s position, and others — permit aside — saying they were uncomfortable with Dream’s nearby location and similar-sounding name. One said the name choice was “very provocative,” and that Sarachan’s motivation for selecting it was “questionable.”
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Councilman Gordon Wozniak, noting that Sarachan might consider locating the business “somewhere else,” at one of the other properties he owns on Telegraph.
Councilman Kriss Worthington noted the apparent failure of city staff to notify neighbors about Sarachan’s plans. (A list posted on the city website as part of the application includes addresses for 180 notices, but a city staffer said Tuesday night that he could find no record that notification had been made.)
The council voted 8-1 to bring back the item for a public hearing later this year.
Mayor Tom Bates, the lone dissenting vote, said none of the appeal points struck him as valid, though he too took issue with Sarachan’s use of “Dream” as the brand name: “That’s like poking your finger in someone’s eye,” Bates said.
The mayor also noted, however, the importance of finding ways to continue to bring in customers for the survival of large local record shops, and added that Cream doesn’t “have anything to worry about” in terms of losing community support or revenue, even if Dream opens.
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, from the dais, shared her own advice with Cream owners: “I don’t think you should be afraid of competition. I think, if you have a product that you really are proud of and stand by, that your clients will be loyal to you.”
[Editor’s Note: City staff said Tuesday night that the zoning board had approved this permit on consent, without discussion. But a zoning board member said Wednesday that board members actually did discuss the item. See the comments below for additional information.]
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