Don’t call it the Gourmet Ghetto says owner of new Berkeley café

A large mural by Korean artist Chris Chanyang Shim graces the wall upstairs at Wrecking Ball in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

If it were up to Nick Cho, there wouldn’t be a place called the Gourmet Ghetto.

Cho, the co-owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, which will open a new café Friday in the famed culinary district of North Berkeley, says once his business has settled in, he plans to lobby the city to get rid of the designation because of the racially charged connotation of the word “ghetto,” a word that has evolved over the years to be a pejorative way to describe aspects of black culture.

This will be a hard sell for some. Berkeley has a certain pride about the name of the neighborhood, evidenced by the illustrated banners that are currently strung along a stretch of Shattuck Avenue, between Hearst and Rose streets, advertising the name. But Cho sees it as antithetical to what the area should stand for, an outdated moniker embraced by the old-guard that hasn’t been challenged to keep up with the times.

“We should be prioritizing diversity in the Bay Area,” Cho said about his beef with the name “Gourmet G,” as he calls it. “It’s surprising that it’s gone on so long without pushback. People who live here forget about it, but when I bring younger people here they say, ‘Does that really say Gourmet Ghetto on that banner?’ — it’s not OK.”

Cho’s stance against the neighborhood name is part of a complicated, but ambitious next stage for Wrecking Ball, the five-year-old coffee company he started with his wife, Trish Rothgeb, in San Francisco. Both are longtime coffee professionals. Rothgeb has been in the business for more than 30 years and is credited with coining the phrase “third-wave coffee.” She is Wrecking Ball’s chief roaster and green coffee buyer. Cho opened Murky Coffee in Washington, D.C., what many believe to be the first third-wave café on the East Coast. Their first Wrecking Ball café — on Union Street in the Cow Hollow neighborhood — quickly gained a following for its well-crafted drinks. With an Instagram-ready pineapple-print wallpapered interior and a menu of pricey pour-over coffee and espresso drinks, it seemed on par with many other San Francisco craft coffee hotspots. But when Wrecking Ball decided to open a second outpost in the Mission District, the founders started thinking about their business as a vehicle for more than just selling coffee.

As a way to avoid being just another high-end café in an area where low-income Latinx residents were getting pushed out by gentrification, Cho and Rothgeb worked with neighborhood group United to Save the Mission to create a place that would prioritize and welcome, not displace, that community. Part of the plan was to provide bilingual signage and menus, offer less expensive drinks and a more diverse beverage menu that might speak to a Latinx audience. But Cho and Rothgeb never had a chance to try out the idealistic plan; the Mission Wrecking Ball café fell through after the landlord backed out of the deal and sold the building, Cho said.

In taking over the two-story café on Shattuck Avenue last occupied by Philz Coffee, Cho and Rothgeb hope to pick up in Berkeley where they left off in San Francisco with their concept of “fourth-wave coffee” — selling well-crafted drinks in a well-designed space hand-in-hand with working to represent and serve minority communities, who have been mostly excluded in the white-centered specialty coffee industry. The goal of Wrecking Ball 2.0, Cho said, is to “recalibrate the world-class café experience to not just be a thing for fancy people.”

Ironically, that means Wrecking Ball will de-emphasize the thing that made them famous — their meticulously prepared coffee. While the café will still offer sustainably sourced single-origin coffee and espresso — roasted at its own Folsom Street roastery to create a full-bodied, slightly sweet and deep coffee — it will also offer a less expensive house blend. Unlike its Union Street café, the Berkeley location will offer drip coffee, eschewing pour-over, a method which Cho himself championed by helping to found the World Brewers Cup coffee brewing competition, not to mention by creating a fancy stainless steel pour-over drip cone. Still, Cho said pour-over is “inherently problematic” for the café because to do it properly, a barista has to dedicate five minutes of their undivided attention to prepare one person’s coffee. According to Cho, Wrecking Ball would have to charge $6-$7 per cup in order to pay for the labor. Although Cho had not finalized the menu prices at the time of publication, he said Wrecking Ball would likely charge $2.50 for a small cup of brewed house blend.

Coffee will share the spotlight with two other beverages, lemonade and hot chocolate. Cho said they wanted to expand the drink offerings to avoid “unintentional discrimination” against cultural groups that aren’t drawn to coffee. Wrecking Ball landed on lemonade because it’s an accessible, yet customizable drink that can be offered in different styles and price points, “prepared with just as much care and intention” as a coffee drink. There’ll be a sparkling version and one made freshly squeezed to order, with strengths and sweetness levels adjusted for the drinker’s taste. The most affordable version will be a ready-made version for $2.50 a cup.

A view from the upstairs looking down at the ordering counter at Wrecking Ball Coffee in Berkeley.
A view from the upstairs looking down at the ordering counter at Wrecking Ball Coffee in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

Another reason to diversify Wrecking Ball’s drink menu, Cho said, is to offer different price points without participating in exploitative industries. When asked about coffee sourcing, Cho is intentionally vague.

“We have been quiet about sourcing; we don’t like the white savior American narrative,” he said, referring to criticism against craft coffee companies that fetishize their relationships with POC coffee farmers in other parts of the world as a way of whitewashing social justice issues. “By promoting it, it undermines our core values.”

What Cho would say is that Wrecking Ball has always worked with trusted importers and exporters to garner its beans on an “ethical basis,” working in “the most low-footprint way.” For its hot chocolate, priced at $3 a cup, Wrecking Ball uses chocolate from a small-batch maker in Sacramento called Cru Chocolate, but it supplements its supply from Berkeley-based TCHO, a company long known for its ethical sourcing, but which is no longer an independent maker. (Since 2018, TCHO has been owned by Ezaki Glico Co. Ltd., the large Japanese candy company that makes Pocky, Pejoy and Pretz.) As for where Wrecking Ball sources its lemons, Cho said they are “still working on sourcing.”

For food, Wrecking Ball is also still working on finding the right vendors to provide its pastries. Cho said it’s been a challenge because they want to work with smaller local businesses, but that means being flexible when it comes to consistency. For instance, the café has decided to work with baker Joyce Tang, who makes Asian-influenced pastries under the name La Chinoiserie, but Tang, who is a one-woman business based out of Berkeley, is only available to provide her treats to Wrecking Ball on weekends. When Wrecking Ball opens Friday, the café may have to get creative, perhaps even bringing in the Marla Bakery pastries that it sells at its San Francisco location. “We’ll open with what we can get,” Cho said.

A latte from Wrecking Ball Coffee in Berkeley.
Wrecking Ball’s Berkeley location will offer espresso and coffee drinks — as well as lemonade and hot chocolate — at various price points. Photo: Sarah Han

Wrecking Ball will have wi-fi, but it will not be free. Cho said the café will donate 100% proceeds raised from the fee to Texas-based immigrant and refugee advocacy charity, RAICES.

“We want to show hospitality, but also be intentional that this is our space that they’re welcome in,” he said about the café.

Another example of Wrecking Ball’s intentionality is the large, striking mural of a black woman in traditional Korean garb, painted by Los Angeles-based Korean graffiti artist Chris Chanyang Shim. It takes up the main wall in the café’s upstairs space and is so big and unexpected in its intertwining of race and culture, that you can’t help but stare at it. Cho, who is Korean-American, wants it to provoke reactions. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, “This is one of those images that just sparks conversations. It wouldn’t do that if it was a white person in those clothes or just a Korean person. But a black woman, now that’s something that will make a person pause and want to have a conversation about it. It’s one of those images that could make someone who doesn’t usually feel welcome in this kind of space, feel welcome.”

Cho himself provokes conversation, and depending on who you ask, you’ll hear a variety of thoughts about the man. One thing everyone can agree on is the guy isn’t shy. Growing up, Cho said, he was a “hopeless extrovert with an ADD type of personality.” When he was 19, he thought he’d become a church pastor because he always felt the need to take care of people and bring them together. But those who know Cho now may be surprised to hear his past inklings to join the church, not only because he’s an atheist these days, but he has a less than angelic reputation. These days, Cho is best known for his outspoken Twitter feed, but back in 2008, especially in D.C., he became infamous for tax fraud charges brought against him. He pled guilty in 2010 for failure to pay monthly sales tax returns at Murky Coffee and was able to avoid jail time. According to San Francisco Magazine, Cho fully paid the $190,000 of unpaid sales tax by 2016.

“Murky Coffee was more than 10 years ago and it was a tough lesson in what can happen when you lose a grip on financial management. I hate how those past mistakes can occasionally be a dark cloud over the good work we’re trying to do now and in the future, but a big part of my lesson learned is that when you make mistakes, you don’t get to decide or control what the consequences are. That said, financial management has been a priority ever since. Still, I’m proud of the legacy of Murky Coffee, especially the dozens [of] folks that came out of our barista crew to become amazing coffee professionals today, as well as the place that it had in the establishment of third-wave coffee on the East Coast,” Cho said in a follow-up email with Nosh.

In some ways, Cho has seemingly found a new congregation in the church of coffee, especially over the last 10 years. Not only has he seemingly found forgiveness for his past, but he embraces and fully evangelizes the community around coffee, most notably the culture’s gravitation towards working for racial and gender inclusivity and diversity. Members in today’s coffee culture, especially millennials and members of Generation Z, he said, have a “baseline alignment that social justice issues are not optional,” he said. He credits the East Bay — home to other socially driven coffee companies, like Red Bay and 1951 Coffee Company — for being welcoming, friendly and community-driven, which is part of the reason he and Rothgeb pursued a location in Berkeley and have made diversity of its staff a priority.

Wrecking Ball co-founder Nick Cho asks employees about their thoughts on the name "Gourmet Ghetto."
Wrecking Ball co-founder Nick Cho asks employees about their thoughts on the name “Gourmet Ghetto.” Photo: Sarah Han

Whatever you want to call it, most can agree that the neighborhood in North Berkeley where Wrecking Ball has landed is not particularly diverse. According to Niche, the population of North Berkeley is 60% white, 28% Asian, 6% Hispanic and 0% African American. A long history of racially discriminatory housing practices, dating back to the early 20th century, limited most of Berkeley’s black population to live in South and West Berkeley. The rising cost of housing across the Bay Area in recent years has led to further displacement of low-income people of color. So when asked how Wrecking Ball is hoping the Berkeley café will disrupt and decenter what he considers “white prioritization in coffee culture,” Cho admits it’s not going to happen with one or two cafés, but many. Which means expansion is on the horizon. Cho said in the next year, the company will pursue seed funding from investors to open locations across the Bay Area and in Los Angeles. But for Wrecking Ball’s vision “to enter the pop culture milieu,” the dream is to expand beyond California.

Despite being critical of many aspects of popular culture, Cho holds the surprisingly optimistic view that we’re in a new era where capitalism and social justice can align and create change. He points to the newly “woke” entertainment industry, where we’re starting to see more representation of POC cultures, with movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians.

“As a Korean American, non-white person of color, I’ve been thinking about how do we bring that from the screen to real life?” Cho said about harnessing this moment of diversity in the film industry and applying it to other aspects of culture. “I’m realizing that it’s by doing everything I’ve done in my career. The writing is on the wall.”

Wrecking Ball’s hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.