Nature’s Express closed; may re-open next week

Nature's Express on Solano Avenue is set to re-open Saturday. Photo: Nature's Express

Nature’s Express on Solano Avenue is set to re-open Saturday. Photo: Nature’s Express

Popular North Berkeley restaurant Nature’s Express closed this week unexpectedly, with promises to re-open soon, leaving many nearby residents wondering what had taken place.

According to management, the vegan and vegetarian eatery at 1823 Solano Ave. has faced “abysmal” financial struggles and had to make changes, including staff reductions, to survive.

But former employees — many of whom quit in solidarity after several other staffers were let go — have launched a campaign to raise money as they look for new jobs, and to raise alarm bells about what they say are the negative business practices of new management.

Sunday, Nature’s Express said on Twitter that “big things” were happening at the store, and that customers should prepare for an “exciting surprise.” Monday, a business rep wrote on Twitter that the shop was hiring two new staff members.

Wednesday, the company posted on Twitter that it would not open for business: “We are closed today, We’re sorry!” Later that day, they said they would also be closed Thursday, but planned to re-open Friday: “Same great food, and a better attitude coming soon! we are also dumping #sysco ! Food rules!”

Also Wednesday, the company posted a photograph on Twitter proclaiming that the store was under new management, promising “a fresh take on the best food ever, ever!

The next day, the store tweeted that it was hoping to re-open Saturday, and asked its fans to “stay tuned.”

In the meantime, former employees of the store began their own outreach effort, via a crowd-funding website set up Wednesday. According to that site, created by James Granatowski, employees had been shocked to find out, without notice, that the business had been sold to a new owner.

Granatowski wrote that the new management team immediately fired the “head chef, who built the restaurant up from day one, and was the primary individual responsible for developing our delicious food.” A meeting held with management days later did not go well, he wrote, noting that the team planned to reduce wages for some employees. (Update, 7 p.m.: New store management disputes this allegation.)

“In solidarity, the majority of the current employees quit on ethical grounds, as continuing to work for the company would have been a moral compromise,” Granatowski wrote.

It’s not the first time Nature’s Express has faced trouble. The business had announced plans to close in December, citing financial problems.

Carl Myers, who opened the business on Solano Avenue in 2010, wrote on Facebook at that time that, despite his hopes, Nature’s Express had been “a business failure.” He took responsibility for the problems, adding that “the failure has been mine,” and apologized to his employees and customers.

A week later, Myers thrilled fans when he announced that the business had found a way to stay open thanks to “the heartfelt support and overwhelming response from our customers as well as the personal commitment of the employees at Nature’s Express.”

But clearly, it continued to be a difficult road.

A representative from the new management team, Josh Levine, said Friday that new owners bought Nature’s Express last weekend, and had struggled to get employees on board with their plans. He said Myers had reached out to him “as a last-ditch attempt to save the business.”

“We came in to attempt to implement some new procedures and met resistance with existing staff, which has made it impossible to have continuity,” he said. “And we’re sad to say that, until we are able to hire a sufficient number of staff and train them, the restaurant won’t be able to be open.”

The business previously had 22 employees. Levine said many of those positions are now vacant, and that he’s hoping to fill them quickly and re-open next week.

Levine said Nature’s Express, under past ownership, had been losing $10,000 to $28,000 each month. He said tough choices had to be made to keep the business going.

His plans for the restaurant include an expansion of the vegan bakery line, a full line of organic baked goods made at the Donut Farm in Oakland, more organic and local ingredients, and the removal of GMO items that had previously been used in food preparation.

Levine said the existing menu would stay the same for now, but that the new chef plans to rework it over time, and wants to add large salads to the mix.

Levine said he has been in conversation with some former employees, and felt that, as of Friday, some progress had been made.

“We’re seeing a turn-around,” he said. “On behalf of the staff that remains, we want to thank the customers for being patient.”

He said those who would like to stay informed about plans for Nature’s Express should tune in to the company Twitter feed.

Berkeleyside will continue to follow the story.

Related:
Bites: Pieology, Pacific Cookie Co. land on Telegraph (01.10.14)
New to Solano: Nature’s Express (01.14.10)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Still Pining for Intermezzo

    Perhaps they could add some of the now closed Cafe Intermezzo style salads to their new menu…

  • Nick Taylor

    After the closing last winter, I don’t know how much more the community could have supported them. It was always crowded. We ate ther 3 to 4 times a week. What does it take?

  • batardo

    Some bacon on the menu could fix their bottom line …

  • Like the bacon idea

    While there are two sides to every story, I feel like this
    article could have been a bit more researched. If anyone is actually
    interviewed, I don’t see the sources, only some quotes from various sites. I
    happen to know one of the employees and while it’s easy to assume I may be
    biased, I think if a little more research into the situation was done it would
    be apparent for most people that the situation is a pretty raw deal for them.

    For starters, just look at the yellow sign in the window
    (added during the drama) which says “let it go”. Perhaps not exactly
    clear until the new manager explains further on his Facebook page: “How do
    people who’ve quit give me grief for trying to make it thrive? If you love
    something, let it go.” Apparently it’s this guy’s uber chill way of
    referring to all of the fired people. From what I hear he or his boss (the
    owner, an undisclosed mystery investor behind the curtain) summarily fired at
    least 5 people, with no notice and didn’t even bother to inform some of them
    until they showed up for their shifts. I’ve heard a lot of other interesting
    things that would seriously question the new ownership’s dedication and respect
    towards their human resources. For example, there was an initial idea (apparently
    later changed) to cut everyone’s pay because they wanted to switch to an ipad
    for checkout (you know that new technique to guilt the customers to tip more,
    so he can pay less) and a list of other small touches showing a severe lack of
    empathy. Can you imagine the feeling of having a bunch of your coworkers
    getting fired, and this guy coming in announcing your pay was going to be
    slashed?

    Obviously you must give some serious thought, and probably make
    some serious changes to a business that loses money. But to come in and treat
    everyone as a mere commodity is an insult to the employees and the friendly
    Solano Ave. community they helped serve in some cases for several years.

  • NaturesExpressFan

    Natures Express was a very good place to eat with extremely tasty food. It was a regular choice for us. Yes, the prices were a bit higher than what some might expect, but I always felt like I got what I paid for — like at Cafe Gratitude.

    It’s sad to see the turmoil and it makes me think that there has to be a better process by which things could’ve been handled. Losing cash every week is not sustainable. I had suggested to them that they try implementing slightly discounted subscription plans — where folks pay every month and get credits for that month — so they could count on a steady cash flow and make better predictions. A business can offer to pay employees in equity to make up for dropped wages, for example. It is hard to imagine that the problem couldn’t have been solved by having a meeting where the finances were opened up, discussed honestly, and then a “we’re all in this together” approach followed to see how to move the business to a sustainable position.

    Losing the chef who had crafted these excellent dishes is a serious blow.

  • Chris J

    Never ate there. I can see how a vegetarian place could have troubles. No bacon, for one thing as another suggested.

    Its clear that nothing is clear in the eternal struggle between staff and management.

  • emraguso

    We spoke with Mr. Levine, which I believe is pretty clearly stated in the story. And we quoted from and linked to the primary page that outlines the employee grievances to give people an understanding of that side as well.

  • Guest

    Such drama. Liked it, went a few times, won’t go again. How about a burger joint?

  • guest

    I Really enjoyed the food there. Some creative individuals are really pushing the envelope creating delicious food without animal products. I think the folks who worked there should be proud of what they did, and I hope they will get to keep going in the vegan food world. Maybe a vegan food truck coop could be profitable, and would be a much lower capital commitment, with no landlord bill to pay?

  • Danbert

    Even though I now eat mostly vegetarian I found the food a bit too weird – kale wrap “burger”? Keep it simple.

  • batardo

    The market has spoken, “Vegan food? meh..”

    Restaurant failure rates are sky high already, without the added handicap of an up-hill business plan.

  • mtaysic

    i think you mean vegan food… yum!

  • Marco Aurelio

    The problem with the food at Nature’s Express is that it is nearly tasteless and is prepared without regard to any kind of art du cuisine. For example, parboiling the kale, even just briefly, brings out the flavors substantially and makes it easier to digest. Much of the food there is just poorly prepared. I welcome it’s closing and hope that something more innovative and advanced moves in.

  • Suzanne

    I think the drama in housewives of Miami is more legitimate.

  • Heather_W_62

    not really

  • Micah Franks

    Yeah, this was my thought. Businesses usually don’t fail when they get
    this many customers. This seems like a management issue. Were they
    selling their products at a loss? Because they were selling them…

    Sad, since they were well appreciated. Their fakin’ bacon was super good.

  • guest

    For a financially healthy cafe, what percentage of their budget should be going to the big 3, rent, food ingredients, and wages?

  • love

    I went here after reading good Yelp reviews and was thoroughly disappointed. The staff was inattentive and they tried to serve me fries that seem to be more than 4 hours old they were very dry. The whole experience was horrible. I’m not surprised that they are unable to survive in the marketplace.