On the tree-lined block of Euclid Avenue, just across from UC Berkeley’s North Gate Hall, Stuffed Inn has been feeding students for nearly 50 years. Its fresh-made, piled-high sandwiches, hearty salads and savory soups appeal to Cal faculty and staff, too, and during normal times, the line usually wraps out the door and down the sidewalk.
In early March, Stuffed Inn owner Devin Lloyd started to overhear students say the campus was closing. By mid-March, university departments were canceling catering orders. When the campus closed shortly after, foot traffic on Euclid Avenue disappeared and by the end of the month, the shop’s 250 customers a day shrank to 10 in a week. Two months later, Lloyd told Nosh he’s serving about 20 customers a day.
Lloyd bought the business in February and was still in a self-described “training” period when the COVID-19 health crisis hit. Although he had to let go all but one employee, he’s determined to keep the sandwich shop going. He applied for and was awarded a $1,500 Berkeley Relief Fund grant. With the money, Lloyd will bring back its two other employees — one full time, one part-time, fill-in — for a few days a week. “I couldn’t have done it without them. They are the backbone of this place,” said Lloyd.
Business is way down, but Lloyd maintains regular hours and serves the full menu for takeout. But he has made some changes in response to the current situation. He’s in the process of setting up deliveries through Uber Eats, created a GoFundMe donation page, and added pantry items for the community.
“I’ve decided to start selling fresh produce — tomatoes, lettuce, avocados and flour,” Lloyd said. Seven Palms Food Center, just down the block, is the sole grocery store within walking distance, but its fresh offerings are limited. As Lloyd buys in bulk for Stuffed Inn, he said he wanted to offer the surrounding neighborhood more food options during the lockdown. So far, Lloyd said produce sales have been “really here and there, nothing consistent.”
An Alameda native, Lloyd grew up in the restaurant business. As a teenager, he spent four months out of the year in New Jersey with his father, a chef for 40 years. “From about the age of 12, I was in a kitchen with him,” Lloyd said. Though his father consulted on projects and restaurants, he never got the opportunity to make a mark through his own business. When he passed away in 2013, his son wanted to honor his memory.
In the fall of last year, Lloyd was driving around Berkeley and by chance, stopped for lunch at Stuffed Inn. “It was a family atmosphere, the employees were smiling, and the sandwich was superb,” said Lloyd.
Lloyd wasn’t sure if the café was for sale, but through a broker got in touch with the owner, Jon Lee.
Lee operated Stuffed Inn since 1989, when he took it over from his father, Jock Lee, who bought the business six years after its original owners opened the shop in 1971.
Lee, a UC Berkeley Industrial Engineering and Operations Research graduate, was living in Seattle and working for Boeing, when his father mentioned retiring and asked if he would be interested in buying the business. “I didn’t foresee myself working for a big company for the rest of my life,” said Lee, “I thought, I’ll give it a shot.”
The sandwich shop is known for its menu of cheekily named sandwiches, many referring to pop culture icons, like Farrah Fawcett, Muhammed Ali and Richard Nixon. During his ownership, the younger Lee didn’t make drastic changes. “I got rid of the bologna sandwich, also known as the Ronald (Reagan) and added a third soup,” he joked. Lee owns the property but decided to sell the sandwich shop. Not surprisingly when he put Stuffed Inn on the market, he hoped the new owner would continue its legacy.
Offers came in from people with renovation plans, new concepts, and new employees. But to Lee, the staff was like family. “We’ve had no turnover,” he said with pride in his voice. “Chito [Romancito Sanchez] has been here for 34 years, longer than my 31 years, Leticia [Llave] for almost 24 years, and her son Christopher, for 10 years.” Lee wanted the right person to buy the business. Lloyd was that person.
In February, Lloyd worked side-by-side with Lee. “He showed me all the different science buildings and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute because we do a lot of catering for them. I was so intrigued how plugged in he was and how much he meant to the community,” said Lloyd. He realized that the person-to-person approach was key to Stuffed Inn’s longevity.
“To be able to come into something [like this] was a dream come true for me, paying homage to my father, and my roots as well.”
Lloyd kept all the employees and hardly changed the menu. He introduced a few specials such as the Kerr meatloaf sandwich named after his stepfather, and a cream of mushroom soup, that is his personal recipe. He was planning to expand the catering side of the business, when, what felt like overnight, everything changed. “A lot of people are struggling and it’s really sad to see. These mom-and-pop shops that give Berkeley its vibe are very much in jeopardy,” said Lloyd.
Longtime Stuffed Inn customers continue to come by, including a few graduate students working from home. Another customer, who’s been coming for 30 years, orders twice a week.
“We have a long road to recovery,” said Lloyd. “I just want people to know they can come out, they can rely on us to be here. The stronger we are as a community, the better we’ll be.”
Stuffed Inn, 1829 Euclid Ave. (at Ridge Road), Berkeley. Hours are 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday.