After seven years of hawking Texas-style BBQ out of a small shack on San Pablo Avenue, Smoke Berkeley will close its doors today, following its final service from noon to 6 p.m. (or until food sells out).
Smoke’s closure is not a complete surprise, as owner Tina Ferguson-Riffe had been notified last April she would have to close or relocate because the restaurant’s building was to be demolished for a new drive-through car wash on the property. Still, Ferguson-Riffe had hoped to remain in the space until the end of July, a month after Smoke’s lease expired, or at least through the busy Independence Day holiday week. But that was not to be. In a phone conversation with Nosh this morning, Ferguson-Riffe said the restaurant’s electrical meter had stopped working during the recent heat wave, and because it would cost “thousands of dollars to fix it,” it made the most sense to close today.
“This escalated us leaving,” Ferguson-Riffe said. “We have not been able to find another place. We have until the end of this month to get out.”
Ferguson-Riffe said the restaurant has been operating with a generator for the last week, but it’s been too difficult to sustain business under those conditions. While Smoke Berkeley will close the restaurant this evening, it will use its last days in the space to fulfill catering orders.
Smoke Berkeley opened at 2434 San Pablo Ave. on Nov. 15, 2011. Ferguson-Riffe, a Texas native with culinary training from California Culinary Academy and the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School in Paris, became known by locals for her Texas-style hickory-smoked brisket, spare ribs, links and chicken, as well as an unconventional BBQ offering — tea-smoked salmon. But she’s also built a reputation for her dedication to giving back to the community. Over the years, Smoke Berkeley has made a point to hire local individuals who’ve fallen on hard times, including formerly incarcerated people who may have difficulty finding employment elsewhere. Smoke currently has four employees, and when asked about them, Ferguson-Riffe said through tears, “It’s really hard on them. I’ve offered to give them a really good reference. I’m trying to help everyone find a job.”
Ferguson-Riffe said she’s currently on the hunt for a new location and a new commissary kitchen so she can continue catering, but for now, relocation isn’t on horizon.
“We’re going to continue looking. The city of Berkeley has a business retention department that has been working with us. Even with their help — they have been trying so hard to help us find a place — it just… it just doesn’t look very good,” Ferguson-Riffe said. “We’ve been looking outside of Berkeley too, but the rents have gone up tremendously over the last few years. There might be one or two places, but they were too small and wouldn’t work.”
Ferguson-Riffe said there was a space she had considered recently, but it fell through. One of the reasons against it was its location — about a block and a half away from KC’s BBQ, a Berkeley barbecue restaurant that has been involved in a longstanding dispute with its residential neighbors over smoke and odor. In addition, it would require the new owners to make costly updates to be ADA compliant. Ferguson-Riffe said the cost of running a BBQ restaurant is an expensive endeavor, and any large-scale improvements would be a financial hardship. “I’m afraid,” she said. “We’re just a very small business. BBQ is very expensive.”
Ferguson-Riffe spoke with Nosh a couple of hours before she was heading out to open the restaurant at noon. She said she didn’t quite know how her last day would go.
“I’m just trying to sell my food out. I want to try to have as much of everything available to get everyone’s favorites,” she said, adding, “I’ll probably have a few margaritas tonight when I get home.”