In 2009, Rana Lehmer-Chang started House Kombucha with a recipe from her mom and an idealistic vision. She wanted to sell her fizzy, fermented beverage without creating waste from packaging. Lehmer-Chang’s goal was to avoid bottling by offering her fermented beverage by the refillable glass growler, for everyday customers, and by the keg, for cafés, restaurants and bars. In addition, she had a dream to open her own café, where she’d serve her kombuchas on tap, and where people could gather and socialize without alcohol.
As the business grew from a scrappy farmers market stand in San Francisco to a larger wholesale brand based in Oakland, Lehmer-Chang had to make concessions to her original plan. Today, House Kombucha — now based in San Leandro — is available on draft in eateries throughout the Bay, but most local kombucha fans know the brand by its squat 16 oz. glass bottles, sold at local grocery stores and in Northern California Whole Foods Markets. Still, Lehmer-Chang continues to hold on to her original ethos of being as sustainable as possible — and recently, her decade-long dream for a House Kombucha taproom has finally come true thanks to a partnership with People’s Café in downtown Berkeley. The House Kombucha taproom soft-launched Oct. 18, with its grand opening this past Saturday.
“It’s a longtime dream come true,” Lehmer-Chang said. Although the House Kombucha taproom isn’t its own brick-and-mortar space, Lehmer-Chang said partnering with the Shattuck Square coffee shop is actually the best scenario she could ask for. About a year ago, she toyed with the idea of opening a café next to her manufacturing facility, but the numbers didn’t add up. “I didn’t have the money or bandwidth to do it myself,” she said. Lehmer-Chang started to wonder if her days hawking kombucha were coming to a close. She attempted to sell House Kombucha, but in the process, met Anson Abdulla, a like-minded small business owner who would become an investor and partner to help her business evolve and grow.
Abdulla took over People’s Café in 2016, ten years after the coffee shop first opened. In the café, he found a business that could be run by his family (Abdulla also runs Golden Egg Company, an Oakland-based egg distribution company). But as with Lehmer-Chang and many other local owners who attempt the precarious balancing act of running a small food business, he realized “everything is going up besides the pay” and so, he too started to consider his options. Adbulla put the café on the market, but in the meantime, made changes and improved his business.
Abdulla went to food trade shows and started paying attention to food trends. Noticing a growing interest in sustainability, health-focused and vegan foods, he transformed People’s Café to a zero-waste business and introduced more healthy options and a largely vegan-focused menu. Abdulla said since implementing the changes, he’s noticed a positive response from customers. More people are bringing in their own mugs and the vegan fare has been outselling other menu items. In addition, People’s Café started serving weekend specials inspired by Abdulla’s Yemeni background, which have also been well received. “We have a diverse crowd that comes in looking for the specials,” Abdulla said.
In March, while attending Natural Products Expo West, a consumer food trade show in Southern California, Abdulla bumped into Lehmer-Chang. They started talking and realized they had a lot in common as small East Bay-based business owners. Within two months, Abdulla became an investor in House Kombucha. They began brainstorming ways they could join forces to improve both their businesses. The House Kombucha Taproom at People’s Café was an obvious mutually beneficial solution.
The taproom is more of a self-service kombucha bar. The eight taps rotate weekly, and customers are invited to pour their own glasses or growlers full of flavors like Lavender Lemonade, Sun Blossom, Peach Hemp and Vanilla Sassaparilla.
Along with kombucha, the partnership has brought new food menu offerings and extended kitchen hours to People’s Café. From 2-8 p.m., the café will serve bowls of vegan ramen (priced at $8.95 a bowl) and boba tea ($4.75 a glass, plus 75-cents for add-ons).
“I love noodles, and all the students love it,” Lehmer-Chang said about their choice to serve a vegan version of the Japanese soup noodles. People’s Café used to close its kitchen after 2 p.m., but with ramen, it will be able to serve food in the late afternoon into the evening, and without adding more staff. Abdulla said the café will likely continue to add items to the evening menu over time.
As for bubble tea, Lehmer-Chang wanted to bring a zero-waste alternative to all the boba shops in Berkeley. “Plastic is the worst part, but nobody’s doing zero-waste boba tea,” she said. “They’re bringing in paper straws, but that’s not zero waste.” The boba tea at People’s is served in glass containers with metal straws.
The partnership between Lehmer-Chang and Abdulla has also spawned two new joint businesses: a zero-waste catering business and a zero-waste grocery store to come.
Eternal Catering specializes in organic and mostly vegan fare brought to customers in reusable wares, including metal pans instead of aluminum tins and metal plates and bowls, instead of plastic of paper. Because nothing is disposable, their services are more expensive than standard catering, but Lehmer-Chang said their prices are closer to mid-level rather than high end. Eternal Catering’s target audience are environmentally conscious diners who see the value in eliminating waste. Abdulla said they’ve already catered a few events, and so far response has been good.
When it launches, Eternal Foods will offer grab-and-go grocery staples — including products that aren’t so readily available in this format, like milk, yogurt and orange juice — in reusable containers.
“Bulk stores have dry goods, things like spices and beans, but I wanted to start where people really need zero-waste options,” Lehmer-Chang said. The owners hope to launch Eternal Foods in 2020, starting with a self-service retail area at People’s Café, where people will find barrels of honey, maple syrup, high-end olive oil and more to take home in glass bottles.
For now Eternal Foods is still a concept and with changing market forces you can never be too sure what will actually happen. But, at least at this moment, the partnership has made it possible for two small business owners to dream big and continue fighting the good fight to live another day.
People’s Café is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Learn more about Eternal Catering on the People’s Cafe website. The company is currently booking holiday events and office parties.