Devotees of Jodie’s Restaurant in Albany are rallying together to try to save the tiny, long-standing eating house after a recent decision by the county health department to require the business to make major infrastructure improvements, or else.
The family-owned business, in operation since 1989, operates out of a diminutive storefront at 902 Masonic Ave., just south of Solano Avenue west of the BART tracks. (One customer said he measured it at just 200 square feet.)
The improvements aren’t about food safety; Jodie’s recently received high marks from Alameda County during its health permit inspection. But the infrastructure around the business is an aging building that needs updates in everything from floor and ceiling finishes to the ventilation system. And then there’s the sink: Though Jodie’s has a mop sink, a dishwashing sink in the kitchen and a sink in the bathroom, county rules require an additional sink that’s dedicated solely to hand washing.
In October, the county’s Health Care Services agency gave Jodie’s a Nov. 10 deadline for submitting written plans for getting up to code. According to a letter from the health department, Jodie’s had been alerted in 2011 that changes needed to be made. Part of the delay, said business owners, is that the landlord had promised to make repairs including a hand wash sink, approved shelves, floors, windows and bathroom improvements.
Landlord Curtis Evans said Thursday that he fully intends to make those improvements, and is in the process of trying to coordinate with Jodie’s to get the work done.
In the meantime, Jodie’s has organized its own fundraising effort, selling T-shirts, to try to raise money for either repairs or to find a new location that doesn’t need so much work. The “Renovate, Relocate or They Shut Our Doors!” campaign is selling $20 shirts “for 21 days only” and hopes to reach 1,000 via its website.
“We’re trying to get drawings done and things prepared to be able to keep the doors open,” said Sherrylyn Larkins, daughter of the restaurant’s namesake and primary owner, Jodie Royston. “If we don’t get the work done, or if we don’t find a new place, our doors will be closed.”
Royston said he’s been looking for an alternative space, due to all the challenges of the current location, and has made offers on numerous spots, but the deals have fallen through.
The restaurant has won acclaim from many publications and organizations for its food, and has garnered 4.5 stars on Yelp, but some of its most devoted customers say that what’s most special about Jodie’s goes beyond what’s offered on the extensive menu.
“It’s a family to me,” said Claudia Johnson, who said the restaurant “saved my life” after the death of her husband several years ago. “It’s not the food, necessarily. It’s Jodie and the diverse, smart, big hearted people that frequent there.”
Royston tells everyone who crosses the threshold that they’re now a part of his family. It doesn’t matter whether customers come just once or every day, as some of the most committed do.
“He’s just such a loving person,” said Johnson. “And he’s so funny. He’s always joking and stuff. And ordering people around, too.”
Johnson described the clientele as “a really diverse group of people”: “There are PhDs who go in there practically every day. There are people who are on the economic edge who go in there. Black people, white people, Asians, Spanish people. And they’re always made to feel welcome.”
Royston, who is 74, makes his presence known by advising customers, unabashedly, of his rules: Don’t put anything on the food until you taste it. Don’t say “goodbye” when you leave. (“See you next time” will do.)
Said Dave Phillips, who’s been eating at Jodie’s since the 90s: “My dad always called it ‘Cheers without the liquor.'”
Phillips, too, noted Jodie’s strong personality and giving spirit, which make the restaurant such a unique space: “He’ll do anything for anybody. He’ll just take the shirt off his back to give it to you if you need something. He’s an easy person to love.”
It was, in fact, a customer who reached out to Berkeleyside to put out the alert about the business’ struggles to survive.
Jodie’s is known for its donations to a wide range of community organizations — no one who asks for help is turned away, said Royston — and a special program for grade school children where Royston offers free meals to local youth who come in showing A’s and B’s on their assignments.
Jodie’s menu includes more than 100 selections, many of which are named after regular customers or special events, such as “Obama Special” and “Michelle’s Delight. There’s the “Skiparoo,” a dish with two eggs and italian sausage (or vegetarian), reduced fat cheese and a grilled English muffin. Seemingly infinite combinations of egg dishes, meat dishes and vegetarian options for breakfast and lunch are available. Many include special sauces and seasonings created by Jodie and his family members, including his other daughter, Michelle Royston-Kamel.
In the kitchen, Jodie’s grandson, Charles Garrison — son of Larkins — is often behind the stove. Garrison, 25, has been helping out in the business since he was 7 or 8 years old, he said. The last few months, as pressure to make the necessary repairs mounted, have been a challenge, he said.
“We’ve learned a lot about teamwork. Teamwork and depending on each other, family. At the end of the day that’s all we have,” he said. “To lose this would be like losing a part of our family. Losing this would be a tremendous death.”
He continued: “I feel like we’re in the ICU. I don’t know. You think you work for yourself, but you still have people telling you what you can and cannot do. Even if we put out great food, it’s the laws. It’s their codes.”
Jodie’s is hoping to raise somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000, to either make repairs or move. Though the landlord has promised to make many of the needed repairs, Royston’s family members said they’ve been waiting a long time and aren’t sure whether they can rely on him.
Moving into a new space could cost upwards of $100,000 to handle construction and outfit it with key — often costly — equipment, such as a range hood over the stove.
The business was dealt a heavy financial blow in 2011 when the county said it could no longer serve its famous fried chicken because it was prepared off-site, under what Royston described as a tightly-regulated five-day process that put a premium on cleanliness and quality, but in a non-commercial space. Despite the multitude of other offerings on the menu, losing the chicken cut their income by a third or more, said Larkins.
“People still come looking for the fried chicken,” she said. “They want the fried chicken and, since we don’t have it, they leave.”
Larkins said Jodie’s is looking for help in a range of ways, from financial donations and T-shirt sales, to suggestions about new locations, or possible contractors who could help with repairs. Even urging friends to come in to eat at the restaurant could make a difference, added Garrison.
He said his family has been doing everything it can to ensure the viability of Jodie’s, from looking for new spaces to calling contractors and consulting customers with building expertise about how to comply with the county’s requirements. But community support is still very much needed to keep the doors open, he said.
“It’s our responsibility, don’t get us wrong,” he said. “We just need help. There’s only so much we can do.”
Added Larkins: “God is going to help us through this challenge that we’ve been facing. He always gives us the strength to get us through and come out victorious. That’s how I’m trying to look at it: We will come out on top.”
Jodie’s, at 902 Masonic Ave. in Albany, is open Wednesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Learn more on the Jodie’s website. Information about the T-shirt campaign is online at https://www.booster.com/jodiesfuture. General donations can be made at http://www.jodiesfuture.com.