The future of Rick & Ann’s in Berkeley became decisively grim at the end of September. Although the business had been gradually steadying, real fear for its viability set in when smoke rolled in from the August Complex inferno in Mendocino and surrounding areas and cleared out its returning customer base.
Owner Ann Lauer had avoided calling attention to her struggling business out of respect for the scale of suffering in the world and a genuine hope she would figure out how to run food service during a pandemic. But the fate of her employees and the prospect of forlorn loyal customers convinced her to at least give fair warning. On Sept. 21, she sent a mass email to Rick & Ann’s mailing list.
“I want people to know because I don’t want to have to deal with the aftermath,” she said of the prospect of closing Rick & Ann’s. “Once you close, you close,” she added. “It’s hard to revamp.”
Before the pandemic, people flocked to Rick & Ann’s to enjoy comfort food staples like red flannel hash, French toast and chicken pot pie in its homey dining room on Domingo Avenue, a quiet street in Berkeley at the base of the Claremont Hotel. The wait for a table for brunch could stretch on for hours on a sunny weekend. Golden State Warriors star player Steph Curry and his wife, actor-chef Ayesha Curry, were regulars before they moved from the area. In 2010, the restaurant was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Lauer opened Rick & Ann’s in 1989 with her then-husband Rick Lauer, as well as John and Lois Solomon, a husband-and-wife team who owned now-closed Berkeley restaurants Caffe Venezia and Ay Caramba, where Lauer once worked as a manager. Her business partners eventually left: the Solomons 15 years ago, then Rick Lauer about five years ago.
The staff is like family
Today, Lauer is the sole owner of the restaurant and recently combined it with her catering venture, Ann’s Catering. (A consequent notice for a liquor license that was posted at the restaurant under the name Ann’s Catering and Incorporated had some eaters concerned that Lauer had sold the restaurant – she did not.)
Facing the prospect of closure, Lauer called a meeting with her employees to share with them news of the restaurant’s precarious future, as well as a pay cut for the following payroll.
“She started out the meeting being like ‘I was trying not to do this,’” said Shari Nihei Fredrickson, senior dessert baker at Rick & Ann’s. “And our hearts dropped.”
Fredrickson has worked at the restaurant for 22 years, through two pregnancies and her son’s leukemia and daughter’s neurological problems, all of which required significant time away from work.
“We lived [at Children’s Hospital in Oakland] for months at a time,” Fredrickson said of the time she took off work for her children. “I didn’t know how long it was going to take. It looked pretty dire for a while there. I told [Lauer], you should replace me. And she said no!”
Far from looking for a replacement, Lauer took it upon herself to do the baking at Rick & Ann’s while Fredrickson was caring for her children. She and her employees also delivered meals to Fredrickson and her family at the hospital and held bone-marrow drives for her son, complete with custom t-shirts.
“I mean we’re one big family for sure,” Fredrickson said.
Following the employee meeting, Lauer sent the email to her customers. Although the letter did not strike a tone of panic or desperation (Lauer only mentions the restaurant is “on precarious financial ground” in its seventh and final paragraph), it struck an emotional chord.
Hundreds responded by calling the restaurant, stopping by, emailing and ordering food. Some offered to start a GoFundMe campaign for her or even send cash. Others said they were glad to know about all the new ways they could buy her food or that her restaurant exists in the first place.
Fredrickson wrote her own post about the restaurant on her Facebook page too, using the hashtag #pandemiclifesucks. It was shared 133 times and over 20 people commented that they would buy food at the restaurant.
“It’s been really positive and I probably should’ve done it sooner,” Lauer said of her plea for help and the subsequent response.
Lauer isn’t interested in accepting donations, though. She wants real commerce. “There are so many people that need help that I’d prefer us to have people come in the door and offer them something they like and that they want to come back for,” she said.
She also plans to continue trying different business models, hoping to find one that can work during a pandemic because she can’t bear the thought of firing her remaining employees. When Rick & Ann’s and her catering business were in full swing, she oversaw around 70 employees. Now, she is down to 14, some of whom work part-time.
“I’m pretty old now, so if I had to close… I’d be fine,” Lauer said. But, “if we have a GoFundMe and then that money is gone, then what do you do?” And if Rick & Ann’s were to shutter, she continued, “where are [employees] going to get jobs right now?”
There is no normal
Since the pandemic ended dine-in service at Bay Area restaurants in March, Lauer has been preoccupied with doing something she wasn’t really able to do in the three decades since her restaurant opened: innovate. The loyal fan base Lauer built over 31 years came to savor her dishes so much that she could be sure that anytime she changed the menu, she would hear about it.
“When you want to change [the menu] and take something off, several people will get really upset,” she said. “So you want to try new things and do new things, but it’s really difficult.”
Once the pandemic hit, however, normal operations went out the window and, in a steadfast and emotional fight to survive, Lauer leaned into her creativity. Now, Rick & Ann’s operates seven days a week selling take-out breakfast, lunch and dinner. A new mini market sprung up in the parlor where locals normally wait for a table. The restaurant offers new weekly specials too, like Taco Tuesday and Pizza and Burger Night. A Wine and Cheese Night is coming soon.
“We thought we’d do that as well,” Lauer said of the upcoming wine and cheese pairing experience with a lively laugh.
“There are so many people that need help that I’d prefer us to have people come in the door and offer them something they like and that they want to come back for.” — Ann Lauer, Rick & Ann’s owner
She acknowledges that she and her crew have a lot of different irons in the fire. Outdoor dining isn’t a viable option for them because the patio is small and doesn’t satisfy ADA accessibility requirements.
Lauer does recognize some silver linings in her new mode of business, however precarious it may be. She likes being in the kitchen again, which she couldn’t do when she was overseeing a rotating cast of 70 people.
Most of all, though, being busy helps her keep her chin up during the pandemic.
“I’m so busy it doesn’t affect me as much as some of my friends I know who are at home all the time,” she said.
While, Lauer is hopeful that she can keep Rick & Ann’s staffed and feeding people as business creeps back, when margins are so thin, every day counts. She expects to have to operate under some form of COVID-19 restrictions for at least a year and worries the welcome bump in business she recently received could eventually peter out.
“It’s so day-to-day. You have to be very fluid,” Lauer said of the near future. She is nevertheless resolute.
Closing? “That just really isn’t an option for me,” she said.
Rick & Ann’s offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a selection of boxed meals, frozen food and pantry goods, for curbside pickup. Call 510-649-8538 from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., daily for breakfast and lunch orders; and by 10 a.m. to place dinner orders for pickup from 3-6 p.m. Check website for special weekly menus, such as the Oct. 6 Taco Tuesday menu.