Hildegard Marshall, owner and founder of FatApple’s, loves what she does. She began making pies and serving juicy burgers at her small restaurant in Jack London Square back in November 1969.
When it first opened, the restaurant was called Fat Albert’s and catered to the lunch trade, since that was the only time customers — mostly longshoremen — came around. The menu was simple: burgers made with freshly ground meat, a simple sirloin steak with two sides, and what would quickly become a beloved staple — apple pie.
“We were just open for two hours a day,” Marshall, a German native who goes by the nickname “Hildy,” said. She and her ex-husband opened the restaurant together.
Over five decades, the restaurant moved, expanded and changed names, and today Marshall’s son, business partner Sean Doherty, is mainly in charge. But some things have remained the same, even in the midst of a pandemic. We spoke to Doherty and Marshall, who still comes into her restaurants most days, about FatApple’s history and what continues to draw generations of customers back to this East Bay staple.
Finding community in Berkeley
After three years of trying to make do with a truncated schedule in Jack London Square, the couple took their carefully chosen but simple offerings to Berkeley.
The new space in Berkeley, at 1346 Grove St. (renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 1983), located next door to a hair salon and a shoe shop with family apartments on the second floor, had been a lunch joint called Johnnie’s. Since the business was already established as a lunch spot, Marshall kept the concept but expanded the lunch menu and later added breakfast and dinner items. Eventually, the restaurant took over the salon next door and converted it into a bakery. The other space, still known amongst FatApple’s staff as “The Shoe Shop,” is used for storage and extra equipment.
The Berkeley location opened around the same time as Chez Panisse, during a period when the explosion of young restaurant entrepreneurs in Berkeley was taking off. According to Doherty, no one really knew what they were doing, but the newly established restaurateurs formed a strong community.
The restaurant was a hangout for local food people and their friends. Jeremiah Tower baked a birthday cake for Doherty’s first birthday and Jacques Pépin, visiting from New York, used to “come and go.” Doherty remembers when the Chez Panisse crew came through after service, enjoying both the food and the half bottles of first-growth Bordeaux, sold at $1 over cost. These young, experimental chefs would one day become household names in the culinary world.
Referring to those years in Berkeley’s culinary history, Doherty said, “People took risks. They had to improvise.” He provided an example from the restaurant’s early days in Berkeley: when the oven quit working one night, the upstairs tenants were enlisted to bake the restaurant’s pecan pies in the apartment’s stove. All the pies were hustled up and down the stairs that night.
In 1972, Marshall had the phrase “No Smoking Please” burned onto a wooden plaque to hang on the wall. Customers who resented the no-smoking policy were upset, but Marshall stood her ground. She took plenty of flak for it at the time, but the sign abides. (California became the first state to ban smoking in the workplace, including public buildings, indoor workspaces, and restaurants— but not until 1995!) Marshall said she still feels good about putting up that sign.
A vintage menu from 1972 lists hamburgers for 80 cents, and cheeseburgers for a whopping 95 cents; top sirloin, garlic toast, choice of fries or salad for $1.95; “delicious Homemade Apple Pie” for 45 cents per slice, and a whole pie for $2.25. Changes have consequences: People were outraged when a slice of apple pie went from 90 cents to 95 cents many years later. Marshall has always made additions to the menu, getting her ideas from “wandering around and seeing what was going on” during her many trips abroad. For example, the Big Boy gingerbread man (a seasonal treat) is modeled after a cookie she saw during a trip to Harrod’s in London.
In the late ‘70s, after Marshall and her husband divorced, she took ownership of the restaurant and changed the name from Fat Albert’s to FatApple’s.
A tribute to Jack London in the Berkeley dining room
In case you’ve ever wondered about the vast collection of Jack London memorabilia found at the FatApple’s in Berkeley, there’s a perfectly good story behind it. Back in the Jack London Square days, Marshall became friends with a neighbor, Russ Kingman, who was a huge fan of London and later wrote a book about him. His enthusiasm was infectious, and Marshall started reading London’s works and came to appreciate the life of adventure he lived and wrote about.
“He lived,” she says, “he didn’t just survive.” In those early years, encouraged by Kingman, Marshall acquired photographs of London, in addition to books by and about him. This led to the unusual decor in the dining room, which includes a colorful mural depicting a shelf full of books and related artifacts, along with a large portrait of London and his wife in front of a Hawaiian backdrop. Another wall sports pairs of paddles and spears, relics from London’s adventures at sea. Most importantly, there is a framed quote by London, which reads in part: “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of a man is to live, not to exist.” One gets the feeling when speaking to Marshall that she strongly agrees with these sentiments.
FatApple’s favorites: Olallieberry pie and cheese puffs
Early on, Marshall established a connection to the Linn’s Farm in Cambria, which is how she learned to love the olallieberry, a berry developed in 1949 by crossing a Loganberry with a Youngberry, and became the first baker in the Bay Area to enclose it in a flaky pie crust. Marshall’s trademark olallieberry pie now outsells her ever-popular apple. (If you look closely at the wall inside the Berkeley restaurant, you can see her original apple pie recipe painted on the wall.)
Another signature creation at FatApple’s is the Cheese Puff, a puff pastry filled with a sweet cream cheese mixture. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the restaurant, FatApple’s posed a trivia question: How many trademark Cheese Puffs had been sold since the very beginning? The answer: 2 1/2 million! The correct guesser turned out to be a four-decades long FatApple’s regular. Marshall learned how to make the Cheese Puffs at cooking school, and although she met with some objections early on (“they are labor-intensive,” she was told), she persisted. They are, hands-down, the bestsellers at FatApple’s today.
The family-run business expands to El Cerrito
In 1984, FatApple’s expanded into a vacant market on an obscure corner at the top of Fairmont Avenue in El Cerrito. Marshall recalls it was the empty store’s attractive high-beamed ceiling that caught her eye and inspired her to open another restaurant in the space — along with its capacity for a bigger bakery and more office space to accommodate the needs of both locations. The El Cerrito site produces all the restaurant’s baked goods.
Three generations now take part in running the restaurants, including Doherty’s seven-year-old daughter. She hangs out and helps out, just as her father had done at around the same age.
Some FatApple’s employees have been with the restaurant and bakery for almost 40 years, including manager Caryn Carson, who has been on staff since 1985. On average, employees have been serving up the house favorites to satisfied customers for a decade. And the customer base goes back generations as well. Both Marshall and Doherty remarked at how customers coming by for curbside pickup or to-go orders will mention that they’ve been FatApple’s customers for 30 or 40 years or more. It’s a family tradition on the other side as well; multiple family members are part of the staff today.
FatApple’s familiar comfort foods are perfect pandemic fare
One thing that seems to be especially true as the pandemic drags on is the yearning for comfort food and the familiar. FatApple’s fills the bill and then some. You may not have known how much you wanted a lemon meringue or chocolate cream pie when you walked in, but once you see them in the case… you may realize that some choices are easy to make. Everything is made from scratch on today’s limited menu, established for the duration of the pandemic.
A new addition is the Detroit “Steel Tool Pan” pizza, which is sold by the square, not by the slice. But generations of customers continue to come in for old standards, like the chicken pot pie, the hearty soup of the day and all the tempting baked goods in the display cases. Milkshakes (available in classic flavors, or try one made with olallieberries), crisp salads, quiches and a breakfast menu, in addition to other items, are all available at this time.
Looking at the Berkeley restaurant, one can appreciate the old-style neighborhood feel of the place. Doherty says it developed organically, with young 20-something owners taking risks and creating models for feeding their clientele and growing along with them. Today, he acknowledges, the models have shifted out of necessity to curbside delivery and takeout. He bemoans the fact that newer places won’t have the classic architectural touches you’ll find in the Berkeley location.
Seeing The Chute, the name of the holding area for customers awaiting table space, brought back memories for this writer of visits during college days: Scanning tables for likely looking check-payers, and eagerly preparing to claim the soon-to-be vacant seats to order our burgers and pie. They don’t build ‘em like that anymore; funkiness isn’t practical and doesn’t work for everyone.
Doherty and Marshall know what works, and for the most part, they stick with the tried and true. “We’re not scientists,” Doherty said, “we just make soup.”
Both mother and son are adamant that FatApple’s is here to stay, pandemic or no pandemic. Even after all these years, Marshall said, “If you like the job, you don’t mind coming to work.”