Bette Kroening, the smiling, ever-present co-founder of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley, food pioneer and cookbook author, died on Thursday Feb. 16, 2017 from cancer. She was 71.
A native of New York City, Bette Louise Caminez was born at the French Hospital in New York City on Oct. 15, 1945. Her parents, Louise (née Schlosberg) Caminez, a special education teacher, and David Caminez, an accountant at General Motors, later moved the family to Teaneck, New Jersey, where she and her brother Jon grew up.
Food — especially of the European Jewish variety — was a cornerstone of the Caminez family, and, from an early age, Bette loved to cook and eat. She had fond memories of her uncle Dick’s roast chicken, which she would devour during her summers at Queen Lake Camp, an all-girls sleep-away camp run by her family in central Massachusetts. Before she was old enough to be a camper, her parents would keep her busy by setting her on the kitchen counter and letting her watch Mario and Albert, the cooks, at work.
After completing a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, she married her college sweetheart, David Klein, and moved with him to southern California. She earned a masters degree in social work from the University of Southern California in 1969, and, in 1971, relocated to the Bay Area where she found work in the Contra Costa County Department of Social Services. She later worked at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where she helped develop the first NIMH training program to identify and treat child abuse and neglect.
In the mid-1970s, while between jobs, she began taking classes at Joyce Goldstein’s California Street Cooking School, San Francisco’s first international culinary training center.
It was a pivotal moment in American food. Shops and restaurants in Berkeley’s so-called Gourmet Ghetto, like Peet’s Coffee, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, The Cheese Board and Cocolat were sowing the seeds of an American food revolution, and Bette felt a powerful attraction to their ethos of integrity in cooking and business.
At a party on New Year’s Eve 1976, newly divorced, she met Manfred Kroening, a tool-and-die maker from Hamburg, Germany. Bette loved the way he told stories, enthusiastically and mostly with his hands to make up for his beginner’s English. They became inseparable almost immediately, and moved to Hamburg in 1977, where Bette studied German and was introduced to Schinkenwurst.
Upon returning to California, with encouragement from Manfred, Bette decided to pursue her interest in cooking. She found work in the catering kitchen of Narsai David, where she met Paul Bertolli. They would soon reconnect at Mark Miller’s landmark Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley. Under Bertolli (who later opened Oliveto in Oakland and founded Fra’ Mani Salumi), Bette became Fourth Street Grill’s lunchtime kitchen manager. It was there that she hired another fledgling food pioneer, Sue Conley, founder of Cowgirl Creamery.
Fourth Street, located in the industrial district of Berkeley, was taking off as a commercial destination, and its developer, Denny Abrams, who happened to be the Kroenings’ next-door neighbor in Oakland, was planning a second building across the street from the Fourth Street Grill. In a fateful conversation he told Bette that he was reserving a long, narrow space in the new building for a more affordable, everyday eatery.
Bette had happy childhood memories of meals and malts at diners up and down the East Coast, and the new space gave her an idea: what Berkeley needed was a warm, welcoming neighborhood diner with all the classic trimmings— a linoleum counter, leatherette stools, plush, chrome-trimmed booths and a jukebox. But this would be a diner with a difference. Its menu of mainstays — like pancakes, eggs, scrapple, sandwiches, pies and milkshakes — would all be crafted from scratch from fresh, local ingredients in the spirit of the new style of California cooking.
The Kroenings invited Conley to join them as a business partner, and, on April 5, 1982, they opened Bette’s Oceanview Diner, with Bette and Sue running the kitchen and Manfred as host and barista. The words, “Good Food. Fast, Friendly Service.” were painted across the front window. But Bette’s insistence on careful technique without shortcuts — eggs gently soft-scrambled for several minutes, custardy omelets made in French cast-iron pans — was at odds with the pace of short-order cooking. This was slow food decades before its time, and in the early days, customers would often experience long waits for their food. Rather than compromise her culinary standards, Bette simply had the word “fast” scraped off of the window. “Good Food, Friendly Service” remains the diner’s slogan to this day, and 35 years later, the line that forms out front is proof that its loyal customers are willing to wait — sometimes up to two hours on weekends — for a good, honest meal.
That idea resonated all over America, and Bette’s is now recognized as one of the first entries in an American diner renaissance that would blend retro design with updated, thoughtfully prepared food.
In 1986, the partners added Bette’s To Go, selling homemade pastries, pizza, sandwiches and salads to take away. They also launched a line of pancake and scone mixes, which led to a recipe book. Kroening, Conley and one of the diner’s original cooks, Steve Siegelman, wrote The Pancake Handbook, which they self-published in 1991. In 1993, Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press acquired the title. Now in its second edition, the book has remained in print for nearly 25 years.
In 1997, Bette’s was featured in a detergent commercial, which earned substantial residuals for many of the staff. A longtime cook and a waiter made enough money to put down-payments on their first houses. This was the kind of success that gave Bette joy. She often said social work prepared her well for running a restaurant because she cared as much about community as cooking and was passionately committed to social justice in business.
Bette was an outspoken advocate for a $15 minimum wage, profit-sharing, paid vacations and health benefits, and that generosity is reflected in the loyalty of the diner’s staff, a number of whom have worked at the restaurant for upwards of 20 and even 30 years. Bette was proud to have made the diner a place where people could envision having a career. At least five couples met and married while working there, and a dozen staff members became homeowners and raised their families in the neighborhood. As Bette said at a 2015 Berkeley City Council meeting on the city’s minimum wage ordinance, “We are nothing without the people who are our staff.”
Bette will be remembered for her kindness and empathy, her ability to listen and connect, and her endless appetite for reading, learning, languages and lively conversation. When it came to food, she was unapologetically opinionated — and generally correct. That integrity inspired a generation of cooks, staff, and friends. And it will continue to nourish countless happy customers at Bette’s Diner with good, simple food done right.
Bette Kroening is survived by her husband, Manfred Kroening; her daughter, Lucie Kroening; a nephew Steven Caminez, his wife Yanyan Caminez, and their son Jonathan of Fremont; a niece, April Bentley, her husband Jim, and their children Emma and Christian of Tallahassee, Florida.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Bette Kroening’s honor may be made to the ACLU.
An open house memorial will take place at the Hillside Club in Berkeley on July 1, 2017 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. All are welcome to stop by. Information can also be found at BettesDiner.com and on the diner’s Facebook page.
This piece was written and shared with Berkeleyside by Bette Kroening’s family.