Marielle Amrhein has a theory about why a business like The Well Café hasn’t come along sooner, despite the large numbers of practicing herbalists and plant medicine makers who call the East Bay home.
“I’ve worked with five or six people who wanted to do something like this, but through the process, they realized that running a café doesn’t equate to spending their time making medicine,” she said.
The Well Café, which opened at the end of June, is in Oakland’s Temescal district. It’s part of the East Bay Community Space (more on that later).
Amrhein, its owner and visionary, has a varied background. Before she came up with the idea for The Well, she worked in the nonprofit sector, in youth, community and leadership development. She has also been a dancer and wilderness-training leader. And, for 15 years, she informally learned about herbal medicine before studying more formally at Berkeley’s Ohlone Herbal Center.
For Amrhein, studying at Ohlone “felt like this beautiful way of connecting with my own ability to work with plants as medicine and be more connected to the earth.” This dovetailed with her becoming a mother; she wanted those things for her son, as well.
Meanwhile, she had side gigs in catering, and had crafted rituals around food and menu-planning for friend’s lifecycle events.
So bridging her many interests and areas of expertise was natural for Amrhein. And when many of her friends heard about her idea for an herbal food and drink café, they weren’t at all surprised.
Alive and well
The seed for The Well was planted one night while Amrhein was in herb school. The class was making oxymels, which consist of herbal-infused vinegar and honey, mixed into sparkling water to make a festive, non-alcoholic beverage. She wondered why there wasn’t a café around that offered herbal-infused food and drinks.
“That got me excited and I started brainstorming about creating an offering that would take some of these forms of medicine-making that I was learning and make them accessible to folks,” she said.
When word got out among her friends, several of them began telling her that the East Bay Community Space were looking for a like-minded partner for its café space on Telegraph Avenue. Occupying the building that once housed the short-lived Leo’s live music venue, and a high-end stereo equipment store before that, the East Bay Community Space offers a gathering place at below market rates for use by the local community. Given that Amrhein’s husband, Karim Bishay, is an entrepreneur, they wrote up a business plan together and submitted it to be considered by the EBCS. In June of last year, the East Bay Community Space announced that it had chosen the Well Café as its new tenant.
The Well offers a large beverage offering. Their proprietary tea blends have their own menu, in fact, offering such house-made herbals as “Heal Your Gut,” “Heart Mend Tea,” “Moontime Tea,” and “Materni-Tea.” The staff can also blend something special for you on the spot.
If tea isn’t for you, The Well has many other drinks, including Oakland-based SloJoy coffee, drinking chocolate made from pure cacao (from Windsor-based Firefly Chocolates), kombucha, oxymels and “healthy shots” from Taproot Medicine, an herbalist friend of Amrhein’s in Sebastopol. There are also house-made herbal tonic lattes and elixirs, like the popular golden milk with turmeric and spices or a classic chai. Given that Amrhein spent time living in India, she recognizes how important a good chai is to a café.
Food for thought
The food offerings are fewer but still substantive. The menu was carefully planned— Amrhein outsourced that part, relying on the expertise of two chefs she knows, Roger Feely and Jocelyn Jackson —so there is something for every kind of eater, whether they be omnivore, Paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian or raw.
“While I want to be healthy, I don’t want to be super-dogmatic,” said Amrhein. “We have gluten-free bread, made by Mariposa Baking (the gluten-free bakery is right next door) “but we also have delicious, Acme ‘gluten-ful’ bread that’s made locally with love and good ingredients.”
The food will change with the seasons, and given that the kitchen at The Well is so small, much of what it serves comes from local vendors. Riverdog Farm in Capay Valley and Oya Organics in Hollister are supplying most of the produce and eggs. The bone broth comes from San Francisco-based Broth Baby. Some desserts come from two new East Bay businesses, Living Vision Kitchen in Berkeley (offering a hazelnut anise seed cookie and an espresso chip cookie, one is Paleo and one is vegan), and a pie-making duo from Oakland called Appelgren + Smith (right now they are alternating between Salty Lavender Honey and Apple Rose Hipster pie with rye crumble crust, which recently took a first prize at the Alameda County Fair; The Well is the only place offering their pies at the moment). The Well’s sausage and meatballs come from Temescal butcher shop Clove and Hoof, made with a proprietary blend of wild foraged herbs from its neighbor Five Flavor Herbs. Its sauerkraut comes from Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth.
It was important to Amrhein to offer menu items at a range of price points, including some items for $3 in order to be accessible to as many people as possible.
“Some of our items are priced higher to accommodate the lower priced ones,” Amrhein said. “That way, we can have our handful of substantial offerings that are healthy, nutritious and healing at affordable prices.”
In the breakfast category, one can get a simple sweet porridge for $3, while the works sweet porridge is $6 and has the additions of fresh fruit, brown butter, and edible flowers (both versions consist of a choice of oats or amaranth, infused honey and sprouted nuts and seeds). A savory porridge for $9 has blanched spinach and a poached egg, among other toppings. There’s also a chia seed pudding which comes from Living Vision for $4.
Lunch offers a $3 salad, seasonal soup for $3.25, a pressed sandwich for $10.25 or a seasonal grain bowl for $14.75. The pesto on the sandwich or in the grain bowl will always be made from foraged herbs (a recent one was lemon balm and nettles) and there will always be house-pickled vegetables on the menu (when I visited, it was burdock pickled in cider vinegar and tamari).
The Well’s Spreads and Breads ($9.50) comes with one large spread or a sampling of three. I tried the trio of dips (Muhammara, a roasted red pepper, walnut and pomegranate spread; Beet Hummus and Yogurt Tahini), served with raw carrot and celery sticks, Acme bread and gluten-free crackers.
A welcome place
The Well Café will no doubt find its customers among alternative healing enthusiasts, but most noteworthy is its mission to be accessible to a wider range of people who might not be its natural audience.
The café’s vibe is cozy, friendly and inclusive. Amrhein wanted to provide a welcome space for children at The Well, since she hopes to be back at work, baby in tow, soon after her second child is born later this month. In the back, there is a couch and Moroccan poufs, perfect for young kids and nursing moms. A later addition will be a bookshelf with children’s books and toys. This space will also be used for wellness classes and events.
In the future, The Well intends to implement a “pay it forward bowl,” in which customers can overpay to help subsidize a more substantive meal for a future customer who may not be able to afford it, and will give customers the ability to round up their tab, for the same purpose.