Ayal Amzel can point to the exact spot in Yali’s Café, near the south window, where one of his employees was standing when her water broke, about 18 years ago. That same former employee called him recently, asking whether he might have a summer job for that daughter who was in her belly at that moment.
“The real value of owning a small business like this is the relationships you make through it,” he said. “We’ve watched so many customers’ and employees’ kids grow up. It’s much more than just a place to get coffee or work.”
Ayal and his wife, Leah Amzel, just celebrated 20 years of owning Yali’s Café, which is on Oxford Street on the corner of Berkeley Way.
When they first opened in 1999, he was 32 and she was 26. Espresso, Americano and a house coffee were all a dollar, as was hot tea. There was a pay phone in the corner. Nearly everyone paid in cash. Beer and wine were available, as the couple first envisioned it as a European café (that is not the case now). They made all of their own breads and pastries in house. Not any longer.
“We got married two weeks before opening,” Ayal said. “I always joke that we didn’t go on a honeymoon, we opened this business instead. We were newly married and doing everything ourselves. We were here at midnight mopping, and here at 5 a.m. making the scones.”
One could say that Ayal had the food business in his blood. Raised on Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv in northern Israel, his father was the head cook in the kibbutz kitchen. Ayal took the same path; when he followed a girlfriend to Sweden as a young man, he spent six years working in restaurants there. When that relationship ended, he returned to Israel and continued doing the same there.
He met the Berkeley-raised Leah Keleman when she was traveling in Israel in 1996, though things didn’t get serious between them until Ayal moved to Los Angeles with his father to try and open a Jewish deli. The business immediately flopped, but as he was already in the U.S., Ayal decided to move to Berkeley after the deli closed.
He worked for a few long-running Berkeley food businesses, Saul’s Deli, Poulet and Trumpet Vine Catering among them.
Leah was young enough that she hadn’t started down any particular career path yet. They decided together that “he was either destined to work in another restaurant or open his own and be the boss,” she said. “That was a big leap.” And, they decided they’d run a mom-and-pop business together, the café being their first child (they would go on to have three human children.)
With a little seed money from Leah’s parents, they opened Yali’s Café. As for its name, Yali was a nickname that Ayal was given by a friend’s kid.
Given their personalities (he is the extrovert of the two), Ayal has always been the face of the café, while Leah is more behind-the-scenes, but she has been very involved from the beginning. She does all the bookkeeping, for example.
The building Yali’s is in was controversial for Berkeley in 1999, when mixed-used retail and residential spaces were less common. Yali’s was on the bottom and apartments were on top. “The developer, Patrick Kennedy, was clear that he wanted local, independent businesses in his buildings, not a Starbucks or Peet’s, and this was right as Starbucks was taking over,” said Ayal. “Now that doesn’t seem so unusual to have a local, independent shop, but then it was,” said Leah.
Given that climate, when Starbucks was ascendant and putting local businesses out of business, the fact that Yali’s succeeded is all the more noteworthy.
“Now that doesn’t seem so unusual to have a local, independent shop, but then it was.” — Leah Amzel
Highlights for Yali’s over the years include expanding into the space next door in 2004 and opening two smaller cafés on the Cal campus, with partner Isaac Lieber. It has a coffee kiosk on campus as well. Yali’s was also one of the first businesses in the Bay Area to start using fully compostable to-go ware; it’s a certified Bay Area Green Business.
But there was a real low-point as well. While visiting Israel in February 2016, Ayal was hit by a speeding vehicle. He suffered multiple life-threatening injuries and fractures that required two months in the hospital in Israel, followed by several more months of rehab at home. Leah flew to Israel to be with him after the accident, leaving the kids in the care of their family, friends and community in Berkeley, not to mention, the business, of course.
“I was unable to be at the café for about six months total. It was such a difficult time because I was so injured and so far away for so long, but the employees really rallied to keep the business going,” Ayal said. “Besides the amazing employees at Yali’s that totally stepped up in the most incredible way, my partner Isaac, at the campus café, took all the responsibilities on his shoulders as well. During that time, it was a real reminder of the wonderful café, campus and city community around me. I am so grateful to all of them.”
The Amzels say that Yali’s functions like an office for some, and they are proud of the numbers of dissertations and academic projects that have been discussed and brainstormed within its walls. Leah remarked that she’s often enjoyed hearing about the research of the regulars who are graduate students or faculty members.
No longer house-made, the bread Yali’s uses now comes from Acme Bakery, the pastries from Starter Bakery and the bagels from Baron Baking.
The hard-boiled egg sandwich with tomato, cheese, avocado and black olives remains the second most popular sandwich (after the chicken club) and is a riff on what Ayal grew up eating as his kibbutz breakfast. This is an elevated version, as the sandwich definitely wasn’t served on focaccia on the kibbutz. There are a few other nods to his heritage food-wise, but not having more Israeli food on the menu is deliberate.
“Yali’s is a neutral place,” he said. “If you’re friendly to the place, we’re friendly to you. Being affiliated with a university that has so many international students, and meeting people from everywhere, I don’t want the place to be identified with a certain group.”
Given that Yali’s opened before the arrival of the third-wave coffee and artisanal movement, the Amzels said while they use some organic ingredients, they are more motivated to keep prices as low as possible to serve students.
“We were on the cutting edge when we opened, but now we’re set in our ways,” Ayal said. “We’re more of a traditional place now, and it makes us feel our age.”
Looking back, Amzel said that while he fell into the food business because it was something he could do, he feels lucky to be coming to a place every morning where he’s happy to be.
“I came as an immigrant to Europe without language or skills and I worked my way up until I came here and was ready to open a business of my own. I could wash dishes. Now, we have immigrants working for us, and I understand where they’re coming from. To some extent, I’ve lived the American dream. With my wife’s help, we did it.”
He concluded, “I love this business. With all of its ups and downs, I cannot imagine doing anything else.”