Last December, Eric Fenster addressed a crowd of investors and friends at Gather, the downtown Berkeley restaurant he co-founded. He shared some of the milestones the 10-year-old eatery had accomplished thus far: over one million meals served, over $100,000 donated through its Cocktails for Change program, and tons of landfill waste diverted through its composting program.
He then asked those assembled to envision a greenhouse-like structure built on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, where films could be screened and events with farmers and other speakers could take place. The greenhouse spoke to Gather’s locavore ethos, which it has always worn on its sleeve. The restaurant famously has a binder, available for anyone who asks, containing information about the ingredients that Gather uses, tracing each back to who grew it and where.
Looking back now, nearly a year later, “it felt like we were on this iceberg of Gather, where we can only see what we can see,” Fenster said. “Who knew what this next decade and beyond was going to be, that three months later, we’d literally be shut down by a pandemic?”
When the shutdown first happened, Fenster felt without a doubt he had no choice but to close Gather. He called each staff member, some who had spent the entirety of their careers for the past 10 years at the restaurant, telling them the bad news. It was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, he said.
“Our concept doesn’t meet this time,” Fenster recalled telling his staff, adding, “We are a place called Gather… That says everything. We are forced to not gather right now and we want to be responsible and honor that.”
“We are a place called Gather… That says everything. We are forced to not gather right now and we want to be responsible and honor that.”
When the restaurant closed, no one knew whether it would be for weeks or months. Fenster took the time to speak with his investors and frequent customers. He felt Gather had had a great run (“Ten years in restaurant years is many more in human years,” he noted), but he had long had an inkling — even before the pandemic hit — that Gather needed to evolve to stay relevant.
Evolved it has. What Fenster is now calling Gather 2.0 opened for takeout and outdoor seating in September, but the full-service restaurant that it was is no longer, nor does it intend to be once things go back to whatever the new normal is.
Part of Fenster’s research made him realize several of Gather’s shortcomings. For one, patrons considered it a special occasion restaurant. While on one hand, Gather made vegan charcuterie a thing a full decade before it was trendy, it also had prices to reflect that. Fenster said he’s long felt troubled that the residents of the affordable housing complex next door couldn’t afford to eat at his business. And space-wise, while the restaurant has a sizable patio, it often is too cold to seat diners outside.
With all the talk about essential workers and essential services that came with COVID-19, Fenster realized the solution to some of his problems would be in reframing Gather as an essential service rather than a special occasion restaurant.
Part of Gather’s evolution is tied to the patio greenhouse that Fenster spoke of last year. But the new version won’t have walls. (On a side note, this may be the one case that Berkeley’s infamously slow permitting process worked out to a restaurateur’s advantage — Fenster was able to change his pre-pandemic design completely to get rid of the walls.)
“Now it will be an open-air canopy with radiant heating for winter, and have an indoor-outdoor feel,” he said. “We’ll be able to have COVID-friendly outdoor movie nights in the middle of winter, workshops and talks, and probably some ticketed events.”
On nights when there aren’t ticketed events, the space can be used year-round to seat more diners, and with plenty of space between tables.
Gather relaunched in September with a new grab-and-go marketplace, offering produce and products from local farmers and purveyors. Right now it’s a “ghost” marketplace, but eventually, a material one will be built inside, so that when diners come to dine at Gather, they can also add grocery items to their order, such as eggs, milk, produce or a treat, like cookie dough. There will also be the opportunity for individuals to donate a box of organically grown produce to community members in need. Every purchase of a $65 box of produce will buy one for the customer and one for someone else.
The greenhouse design was approved in August; Fenster hopes to start construction this month and to be operational by December.
When the restaurant was first getting started, it ran a successful crowdsourcing campaign, being among the first restaurants to raise funds that way. Now, Gather is going back to the community to do it again. Last week, it launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the greenhouse.
In the meantime, Gather has already moved forward with some changes. The new iteration of the restaurant has adopted more of a fast-casual style. There’s more well-spaced outdoor seating (for up to 75 guests). Diners no longer have to make reservations and can now order from their tables using their smartphones rather than with a server. And Gather recently hired a new chef, Jessica Whiteman, who has come, most recently, from Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco.
So what’s on the menu at Gather 2.0?
As pizzas and burgers were among its more popular dishes, it’s added more options in those categories. Now, there’s a gluten-free pizza crust, as well as falafel and Portobello burgers that can be served in a lettuce wrap or on gluten-free buns. The menu also offers several salads, small plates and bowls. And, diners will notice, the prices have gone down.
“The number one thing is that we’ve reduced our prices by around 25% on numerous items,” said Fenster. Small plates range from $7-$11; burgers, salads and bowls from $13-$15; and pizzas from $16-$19. “The idea is accessible, healthy comfort food.”
“Gather as a concept was never truly intended to be a special occasion restaurant,” Fenster said. “In the name and intention, it was meant to be a place to get together, break bread and share stories.”
In Gather 2.0, he hopes to bring it closer to that original vision.
Gather Kitchen, Bar & Market is open noon to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday for takeout and outdoor dining.