Building code issues put Jodie’s Restaurant in peril

Jodie's Restaurant, Albany, CA. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Jodie Royston (right) and grandson Charles Garrison are hoping community support can help save Jodie’s Restaurant. Photo: Emilie Raguso

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.

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  • Tired of the craziness

    Our local governments are crazy if all their regulations put out an amazing person like Jodie. This restaurant is a jewel of our community and represents values we all care about…let’s rise up people…and tell the government who they work for.

  • bondolo

    I keep hoping that Jodie’s can stay open and remain in Albany. All of the challenges they have faced have led me to despair that they will eventually be forced to give up. Best of luck Jodie and Charles! I want to still be eating at Jodie’s in another 15 years.

  • bondolo

    This hand washing sink problem is the same issue that iScream up the street faced when their opening was greatly and expensively delayed. If prominent “employees must wash hands before returning to work” signs are required in the restrooms then why is a separate sink required? Seems somewhat redundant.

  • Lin Brand

    I’m wondering if Jodie could get a food truck (with a chicken fryer!) and be part of the Gilman Street project next to Westbrae Garden supply? I’d hate to see him leave Albany, but he’d do quite well in the Westbrae neighborhood as well and his regulars would likely follow. Probably be a more economical move than a new physical brick and mortar place.

  • Matt

    It’s a bit premature to call for insurrection. These are minor repairs (less than $50k of work), they’ve had since 2011 to address these issues, and they still have time to do the repairs. The government should require business owners to maintain safe and clean premises.

  • xoot

    Years back Jody carefully reviewed my son’s first-grade report card, then smiled and tacked his picture up on the kids’ bulletin board and cooked him breakfast. Wonderful place. I used to drive across town often for the fried chicken. I’ll buy a t-shirt and hope for the best. A new place where he can fry that chicken again would be terrific.

  • JW

    $50K for a sink?

  • emraguso

    I believe it’s the range hood that’s the most expensive item. If they have to move into a new space and outfit that there would be a lot of associated costs as well. (It’s my understanding that business owners often have to put in all the kitchen-related equipment themselves.)

  • guest

    $50k is a hell of a lot of money for a very small business like this. Have you ever actually been to Jodie’s? They are likely running on razor thin margins as it is.

  • Mbfarrel

    I think having a hand washing sink for food handlers that is easily accessible and not in the place where people poop is a very sound requirement.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    The hand washing sink is to wash hands after handling money before resuming handling food it’s not practical to return to restroom each time.
    BTW Jodie’s is a wonderful institution that needs to be saved.

  • Matt

    I’m sure Jodie’s is running on thin margins – with six seats at the countertop, it sounds like the guy has basically monetized his dinner table. That said, $50k is not a lot of money, especially when it’s split over 3 to 4 years. It’s certainly not an unreasonable price to pay for basic safety.

  • Daisy D

    Can you make a change.org petition? Should be grandfathered in.

  • Chris J

    No, in the grand scheme of things, $50k isn’t much, but then, do you think the banks will give this tiny operation money? So few folks can rely on banks for business loans–so they sell tee-shirts. Or try Kickstarter campaigns?

    Ah, well–there are people who toe the lines in black and white and color inside the lines…and then there are those who don’t.

  • anon

    I’m pretty sure that the beer garden on Gilman Street will never open. The for rent sign has been up since before the project was floated and the permit notices were recently removed. Absolutely nothing has happened over there.

  • Lin Brand

    Is there some reason a sanitizing dispenser cannot be used in lieu? Or premoistened sterilizing wipes? Or an electric hand sanitizer? C’mon, there has to be other options…

  • Mbfarrel

    Perhaps they can lease space at a shared commercial kitchen facility.

  • Mbfarrel

    Both the CDC and the Mayo Clinic recommend hand washing with soap and water. Sanitizers are suggested when water is not available.
    Installation of a hand washing sink could likely be accomplished with volunteer labor and donations.
    Hand wringing over the unfairness of it all achieves nothing.

    http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/
    http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hand-washing/HQ00407

  • Dylan

    I ran into a similar problem opening a business in Berkeley, and I found the most practical solution was a portable hand-washing sink. They require no permits, no plumbing, and I got one delivered in less than a week for around $1000. The health department in Berkeley initially told me that it had to be a standard plumbed sink, but when I pressed them on it, they said it would be ok as long as it is NSF and it produces hot water (and it has since passed inspection without any issues).

    http://www.theportablesink.com/products/premier/AD-AB-AB1.php

  • Melynda

    I’m sorry you had that experience. I’m not a regular. I only ate there a few times, over three years ago, and I still remember it three years later. I would say it’s probably my favorite restaurant in the world, and I currently live in the United Kingdom and have traveled all over. It’s not about personal friendships, it’s about community, creating a space where everyone feels at home and is equal and is welcome as they are. It’s the type of business that most of the world should learn from, and it’s a gift.