Category Archives: Local business

How did Berkeley wine store accrue $70M in debt?

In December 2011, John Fox was all smiles as he held large scissors to cut the ribbon for the grand opening of Premier Cru's new retail store at 1011 University Ave. Photo: Premier Cru
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John E. Fox, the embattled owner of the bankrupt wine company Premier Cru, often liked to run his business close to the edge, according to interviews with former business colleagues.

To provide coveted wine to his international clientele, Fox was constantly on the prowl for wine bargains. This led him to strike deals with people selling wine on the “gray market,” outside the channels set up by many European wine houses.

And when Fox would order wines from legitimate distributors around the country, he would delay paying for his orders as long as possible, even though California law requires wine purchases to be settled within 30 days, according to one business associate. This delaying tactic angered so many people that many were gleeful when the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced in February it was investigating whether Fox ran a Ponzi scheme.

Read more about Premier Cru on Berkeleyside.

“There were a lot of smiles on faces when they heard that he was going down,” said Jim Elder, a vice-president of marketing and operations for The Sorting Table, a Napa-based wine importer and distributor. “There were a lot of smiles in the wine industry. He had screwed a lot of people, whether he didn’t pay them or always paid them late… To me, it’s karma.” … Continue reading »

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Magoosh: Proof that Berkeley startups can flourish without Silicon Valley

Co-founder of Magoosh. Photo, taken in June 2016: Kelly Sullivan
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To tour Magoosh’s Berkeley offices is to visit the unremarkable. Nestled inside an office building on Milvia Street, the company would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the homemade logo affixed across several windows. Unlike many of Silicon Valley’s hot startups which boast multi-million dollar valuations, lavish perks such as free booze, gyms and electric scooters, Magoosh’s offices are tame — open-plan layout, app-booked conference rooms and a handful of standing desks thrown in, it’s all relatively quiet.

That’s not to say Silicon Valley’s clichés are absent: Apple products abound, there is a game room complete with a ping-pong table and the majority of the employees are young. And Magoosh has taken the Valley’s money — though nowhere near as much of it as many of its peers. And its four founders were once part of the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley, designed to manufacture entrepreneurs, much like Stanford has done historically.

Read more about Berkeley startups on Berkeleyside.

Launched in 2009, Magoosh is in the education business: it creates digital tools that prospective students use to study for standardized tests such as the GRE, GMAT and LSAT. To help students prepare for those tests, the company has built a veritable arsenal of software products that span mobile and desktops. The company touts its relatively inexpensive offerings — for example GRE prep costs $129 for one month of access, or $149 for six months — and says they are about a quarter of the price of those of its competitors. Helped by a free trial to hook prospective customers, Magoosh CEO Bhavin Parikh says the company has captured about 10% of the students who take the GRE and GMAT every year.Continue reading »

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HBO documentary puts spotlight on Seva, a Berkeley nonprofit that restores sight to the blind

Manisara with the granddaughter she has never seen. Photo: HBO Films
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At a time when so much of the world’s news seems so dark, HBO is airing a documentary featuring a Berkeley nonprofit that is literally bringing more light into the world. Open Your Eyes focuses on the work of the Seva Foundation, which helps restore sight to blind and visually-impaired people by helping fund cataract surgeries, glasses, medicine and professional training in clinics around the world. The 25-minute documentary is being aired this month as part of HBO’s summer documentary series, and is also available on HBO Go.

“In the early days our tagline was ‘compassion in action,” said Seva Executive Director Jack Blanks. “Our current tagline is ‘a solution in sight’.”

The roots of the organization go back to the ideals of the 1960s, and its original co-founders include icons such as Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy and Dr. Larry Brilliant, who was part of the World Health Organization’s team working to eradicate smallpox. Steve Jobs, who studied for a time at the same India-based ashram as Brilliant, served on the advisory board for a few months just before Apple took off, and gave Seva its very first grant. Many Berkeleyans may be familiar with Seva through the groups’ benefit concerts featuring musicians such as the Grateful Dead, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt.

The documentary subtitled “A Journey from Darkness to Sight,” doesn’t focus on Seva or its colorful Berkeley roots. Instead, it focuses on the equally compelling story of two Nepali grandparents who have been blinded by cataracts and regain their sight after a surgery funded by Seva. It was filmed by the Portland-based Irene Taylor Brodsky, who had a long-time interest in both Nepal and Seva. She asked to accompany some Seva outreach workers on their rounds doing eyesight screenings in remote mountainous area, and the story we see unfolded during that three-day journey. … Continue reading »

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The Institute of Mosaic Art in Berkeley to close Aug. 30

Ilse Cordoni, the owner of the Institute for Mosaic Arts, teaching an andamento class at IMA.  Andamento is the art of laying tiles with a sense of flow and design, rather than just putting broken pieces of glass next to each other. Since this was a one-day class, she taught the class using paper (easier to cut) rather than glass. Photo: Daphne White
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By Daphne White

The Institute of Mosaic Art (IMA), an East Bay institution that is one of the oldest and largest mosaic centers in the U.S., will close its doors on Aug. 30 unless someone steps up to take it over. The school, which has offered classes to more than 1,000 students in the past three years, is a victim of its own success, according to owner, Ilse Cordoni.

“When mosaic artist Laurel True opened IMA in 2005, there were only two mosaic schools in the U.S.: IMA, and the nonprofit Chicago Mosaic School,” said Cordoni, who purchased IMA in 2013. These two schools helped spearhead a mosaic renaissance across the country. “Now that mosaic has become very popular, there are half a dozen mosaic schools in California alone, and many more nationwide. Students no longer need to travel from all over the U.S. to take introductory mosaics in Berkeley.”

Unless a buyer can be found, the school and its associated mosaics store and gallery on Allston Way will close its doors as of Aug. 30, Cordoni said. This announcement has left the East Bay mosaic community reeling.

“IMA has been an enormous part of the mosaic renaissance in Oakland and beyond,” said professional mosaicist Rachel Rodi, whose mosaic career began at IMA when the school first opened. “IMA and its students and teachers have created community murals and public art throughout the Bay Area in places such as the Martin Luther King Middle School, Jefferson Elementary School and Mission Creek in San Francisco.” … Continue reading »

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Berkeley may soon have 6 cannabis dispensaries

Cannabis
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Two months later, the council is on the verge of approving another two new dispensaries, which means Berkeley may soon have six places to buy medical cannabis.

The rapid turnaround came in part because city council members were so impressed by the presentations made by the six finalists vying for the fourth spot, said City Councilman Kriss Worthington. He said the presentations were “compelling,” and the applications were very different from one another.

 “The council was reluctant until they saw the depth and breadth of the applications,” said Worthington.

Read complete Berkeleyside coverage of medical cannabis.

Adding another two dispensaries will also add to the city’s coffers. In 2014, the existing three dispensaries contributed $638,938 in taxes, according to a staff report. Another three dispensaries would almost certainly generate several hundred thousand dollars in taxes annually. … Continue reading »

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Shop Talk: Belli Osteria, Collector Art Shop, more

The interior of the now-shuttered Belli Osteria. A new Italian restaurant with a pizza oven will soon open in the space. Photo: Belli Osteria
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BELLI OSTERIA SHUTS DOWN After four years of serving exquisite pasta such as homemade black ravioli, pasta with clams and other Northern Italian fare, Belli Osteria, at 2016 Shattuck Ave., has shut its doors. Paul Oprescu, a Cal alum who majored in American history, opened the gem of the restaurant in Oct. 2012, right next door to the extremely popular Comal. “I had decided, some time ago, to go back to teaching and focus on my personal life, Oprescu told Berkeleyside in an email. He tacked a sign up on the front windows sending his regards to loyal customers. “Thank you for four wonderful years.” Oprescu sold the business to Steven A. Dumain, an Italian-American from New York, and Alessandro Uccelli, an Italian from the northern part of Italy. The pair will open reopen as an Italian restaurant soon with a wood-fired pizza oven, wrote Oprescu. … Continue reading »

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How Quirky is Berkeley? Lanesplitter’s action figures

Lanesplitter action figures, 2033 San Pablo. Photo: John Storey
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San Pablo Avenue has long been the funky boulevard of Berkeley — folk music clubs, punk clubs, the now-gone Twin Castle, hip breakfast spots, bars, sex-toy shop, ethnic grocery stores, liquor stores, Ohmega Salvage, automobile repair shops, rib joints, and so on. But, like all of Berkeley, San Pablo Avenue is changing. The Quirky Berkeley jury is out on what is happening on San Pablo, but it is in on Lanesplitter Pizza just south of University Avenue, and, in particular, its collection of dozens of action figures depicting past and present staff . … Continue reading »

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Local business

Berkeley women use thrift shopping as a form of activism

Merav Walklet (left) and Cherry Bogue (right) run Pussy Parlor, a popup thrift store. The women believe that buying and wearing used clothing can be a positive medium for social change. Photo: Kossisko Konan
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In a time when many millennials pride themselves on being social activists, two women with Berkeley ties are hoping to make thrift shopping part of a social movement.

Cherry Bogue and Merav Walklet, the founders of Pussy Parlor, have a passion for fashion and they believe clothes can be a medium for positive change. Pussy Parlor hosted its first popup sale in South Berkeley at UFO Art Gallery on July 5, and the pair hopes it will be the starting point for a larger, ongoing fashion and culture initiative. The next popup will be July 19 at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market. … Continue reading »

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Potter Sarah Kersten: Ceramic pieces tell stories

Sarah Kersten. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
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When Sarah Kersten decided the academic life wasn’t for her, she promised herself she would pursue something equally educational. What she didn’t expect was that inspiration and guidance would come in the form of a fermentation jar. Well, the idea of one. She had yet to create it: the jar became her manifesto.

Since childhood, Kersten has enjoyed having her hands in clay. She had a knack for it, but it was never a core focus in her life. After leaving college and moving to the San Juan islands to work on a lavender farm, she struck up the practice again, finding a renewed satisfaction in the cups she would spin in her free time. Then her friends challenged her to make a fermentation jar — a culinary venture they were all becoming quite fascinated with — and she decided this complex undertaking could be an opportunity for her to make a living.

“I saw that if I could figure out how to make one I would have a lot more skills at the end than I would at the beginning,” Kersten says as we lounge in her spacious West Berkeley studio. It feels a bit like a sanctuary — dried flowers collected on recent hikes dangle from the walls, and leafy indoor plants happily sip up the diffused light that eases lazily into the space. It’s a warm June day and we can hear the kids across the street singing and hollering on the playground.

“I think the most important thing is to keep on going and get through the ‘not great’ phase to reach the end. And you definitely don’t know what that’s going to be when you’re at the beginning. Otherwise you would just start there, right?” … Continue reading »

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Bites: Eatsa, Grand Fare, Rhetoric Coffee, more

Photo: Eatsa/Facebook
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Openings, closings

EATSA TO TAKE OVER FORMER CREPES-A-GO-GO IN BERKELEY The robots are coming. Sort of. The high-tech automated quinoa bowl restaurant Eatsa is planning to open its third Bay Area location on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, in the recently vacated Crêpes A-Go-Go. According to Eater SF, Eatsa hopes to open by the time students show back up at Cal’s campus in the fall. Eatsa serves a mostly-healthy menu of grain bowls and salads like the Spice Market Bowl (corn curry, roasted yams, saag paneer, cucumber raita, tandoori tofu, warm lemon-herb toasted quinoa, pita bread and fried chickpeas) and the Bento Bowl (stir-fried quinoa with egg, edamame, crispy wonton strips, teriyaki sauce, miso portobello mushrooms and apple-cabbage slaw). Select locations also offer breakfast. What makes Eatsa stand out amongst the other bowl-and-salad spots now popping up in the area is that the restaurant does not employ any front-of-house staff; instead, customers place orders on iPads or smart phones and then pick up their food in a glass cubicle. (Actual human prep cooks prepare the bowls behind the scenes.) Another difference? The price. Each lunch Eatsa bowl is a mere $6.95 and breakfast items are all under $4  — good news for college students and budget conscious diners alike. Eatsa will be at 2334 Telegraph Ave. (at Durant Avenue), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.Continue reading »

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Mandy Aftel: A world master of artisan perfume

Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
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Mandy Aftel’s love of perfume is all-encompassing.

This verve is apparent in her immaculate collection of 19th-century books on perfumery that fill the nooks of her workspace in North Berkeley. Or, in the way she tends to her rose garden — plants carefully chosen and imported from Turkey — the petals smelling of winter tangerines, or the most delicate tea. Still, even, in how she slowly, gently uncorks a 100-year-old bottle of vanilla for me to inhale, its notes hauntingly deep, smoky, and complex. There is not a bone in her body that isn’t absolutely enthralled with what she does. This is what makes her so special.

Aftel — now edging into her late 60s — wasn’t always a perfumer. In fact, this career sort of happened by accident. After spending thirty years as a psychotherapist and a writer, Aftel decided she wanted to write a novel about a perfumer, of all things, and signed up for an aromatherapy class to understand a little about the art. What she thought would be a brief educational foray soon became her new favorite thing to do.

“I tend to follow in an artistic way what is deeply meaningful and attractive to me. I fell down a rabbit hole and I haven’t been able to leave,” she says, giving her voluminous ruby-colored hair a tousle. We sit in her perfumery, watching as peachy light seeps in through the windows and dances off her collection of antique perfume bottles that line the sill. “It all seemed familiar to me, like I just could find my way with the materials. It just made sense.” … Continue reading »

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Shop Talk: Mad Monk, Neeko, Serena & Lily, more

The Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
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MAD MONK CENTER FOR ANACHRONISTIC MEDIA Ken Sarachan’s Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media threw open its doors in April after years of construction. The spacious space at 2454 Telegraph Ave. that formerly housed Cody’s Books now holds thousands of used books and LPs (brought from the basement of Rasputin’s down the street). There are no CDs or DVDs, only “analog” media. Thus the name. Sarachan has said he has plans to install a café and music venue in the space, but those elements have not arrived yet. Bookmarks, T-shirts, and book bags are also on the way. … Continue reading »

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Teance owner branches out into cold-brew drinks

Pouring Fogdog cold-brew tea at Teance in Berkeley. Photo: Courtesy Fogdog
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It’s summer once more, and here in the Bay Area that means longer days, warmer afternoons, and thick spells of fog that send a chill through the evening. Though it may be the naysayer of summer, the iconic San Francisco fog is also the namesake of Fogdog, a cold-brew coffee and tea company with a hydrodynamic patent-pending process that is set to change the way you sip this summer.

First conceived of by Winnie Yu, a long-time Berkeley resident and the owner of Teance on Fourth Street, the Fogdog process takes cold-brew to a whole new level by efficiently extracting aromatic oils and rich natural flavors that aren’t brought out in traditional brewing methods for iced teas and coffees. … Continue reading »

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