Almost a month after the Elmwood Café at 2900 College Ave. shuttered abruptly, the location reopens this morning under new owners and with a new name.
Kara Hammond, who had managed the Elmwood Café since its inception in 2010, and Eric Wright, who has managed numerous restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland, are the new owners of the what will be known as Baker & Commons. The doors to the new café will open at 7 a.m.
On the menu will be the former café’s beloved biscuits, scones and pastries, homemade soup, and the very popular curried chicken salad/sandwich, as well as an extended coffee menu, said Hammond.
The name is a paean to the fact that the former Elmwood Café was well regarded for its pastries, which were baked right there at the café, said Hammond. The same pastry chef, Dale McCoy, will be baking again.
Commons refers to the fact that the old café — as well as its new iteration — will be a community gathering spot, said Hammond.
“It’s a space for everyone in the community,” she said.
The question of how welcoming the old Elmwood Café was to the community may have played a part in its closure on April 20. In 2015, W. Kamau Bell, an African-American comedian, was standing by an outdoor table talking to his wife, who is white, and some of her friends when a trainee indicated from inside that Bell should leave. She apparently thought he was trying to sell something to the restaurant’s patrons and mouthed something like “no selling.” Bell thought she was telling him to “scram,” and interpreted her actions as a racist since she just assumed that a black man talking to white women was doing something untoward. The employee would not have had the same reaction if he was white, he said.
Bell wrote about his experiences three days later, and the post went viral. The owner of the Elmwood Café, Michael Pearce, fired the employee, visited Bell and his wife at home to apologize, and pledged publicly in a community forum to not only retrain his employees about implicit bias but to do some community work around racism.
After two black men were kicked out of a Starbucks in April in Philadelphia for no reason — they were waiting to meet a friend — Bell commented on a CNN blog (he has a show on CNN) that “I know what it’s like to get kicked out for being black.” Bell wrote that the café’s owner never followed through with promises he had made to launch an ambitious implicit bias initiative for local businesses. The blog prompted people to flood the Elmwood Café’s Yelp page with negative reviews. Within days, Pearce had closed the café. He told Berkeleyside that he intended to give it to his former employees for a worker-owned cooperative. He also said that he had tried to rectify the 2015 racist incident but “ultimately failed,” and for that, he was “deeply sorry.”
Hammond declined to describe how she and Wright acquired the business and whether money exchanged hands. She said there are some silent investors as well.
After serving as manager for eight years, Hammond said she is excited to be the restaurant’s co-owner. She said she will be onsite most of the time.
“I am working for myself,” she said. “It feels good to have a lot more say in all the decisions, to have input. I live in Berkeley and it’s nice to be rooted and have a business in the town where I live.”
Hammond said she and Wright, who formerly managed Fonda Solano and Bar César in Oakland have re-employed “a lot” of the staff from the old café “so there will be a lot of familiar faces.”
Hammond, who was at the formerCafé Fanny before the Elmwood Café, said she is committed to training her employees about implicit bias. She spent Wednesday training everyone. She said Bell is welcome at the café as “it’s a space for everyone in the community and he is part of the community.”
Although Baker & Commons will serve much of the same food as its predecessor, Hammond has some ambitious plans. She wants to sell some of McCoy’s baked goods to other restaurants, she said.
The café will be open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. initially, but will extend its hours as Hammond sees what the community wants.
On Wednesday night as the sun set, the windows of the café were still covered in brown butcher paper. The door was still covered with Post It notes left by people reflecting on the former café’s closure and racism in the community.
Hammond said she has read almost every single note that people have left. To her regret, a notebook hanging on the door filled with peoples’ thoughts has disappeared. Hammond hopes someone will return it. The letters were thoughtful and mostly expressed appreciation for the café, she said.
“The kindness was overwhelming,” she said.