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Archive for the ‘Berkeley’ Category

Struggling with mini-chain stores

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on June 18, 2015

Here’s an article in Berkeleyside about mini-chains, covering among other stores my personal fave, Top Dog.


By Jessica Kwong

August 11, 2010 7:10 am

Bongo Burger and Brazil Cafe are two of Berkeley’s family-owned mini-chains.

When Berkeley folk think food — even in the order of grab-and-go — their palates usually paint a picture of small, family-owned places unique to the city’s borders.

Favoring independent, locally owned businesses has been characteristic of the city since its inception and through its evolution, according to the city’s economic development project coordinator Dave Fogarty.

“Some of the chains that have attempted to come into Berkeley have really not been successful and they decided they didn’t want to be here because people weren’t [spending] there,” he said.

While chain restaurants have generally been resisted, at least half a dozen mom-and-pops have entered into a gray zone by expanding into “mini-chains” within the city.

Perhaps the eatery that started the chain reaction among some family-owned businesses is Top Dog.

Rewind to fall 1966: the original Top Dog on Durant Avenue began in true mom-and-pop fashion. Dick Riemann, 76, still the owner today, opened Top Dog with a business partner on Saturday morning when “the paint on the floor was still a might tacky.”

Within 10 minutes, there was standing room only. However, it wasn’t the appeal of the business but the fact that a hot dog seemed like the most logical food to eat en route to the UC Berkeley football game.

“The place was absolutely mobbed,” Riemann said. “It was a very fearful moment but we learned from it and many people got to know us.”

Three years later, Riemann and his wife opened a second Top Dog on the other side of the university on Hearst Avenue. About eight years ago, a third store appeared near downtown Berkeley on Center Street. “It was a matter of having a presence on the other sides of campus,” he said. “The east side had nothing by the way of foot traffic so there was no business opportunity there but the other three sides seemed naturally fitting for the university trade.”

Another family-owned business that shares a similar story is Bongo Burger. The first one also opened on the southside of UC Berkeley on Dwight Way in 1968. Because “it was successful,” owner Alireza Hamid, 63, opened two more stores, one on Euclid Avenue in 1982 and another on Center Street in 1992.

Apart from having a great presence, Hamid expanded in the places he did as a matter of convenience. Food is made daily at a Berkeley-based store and distributing to three stores within the city makes sense. “We are preparing fresh food everyday. It’s not like a fast food chain store,” he said.

Other ethnic family-owned eateries have also grown to be Berkeley mini chains.

The founder of the first La Burrita that opened on Euclid Avenue in 1986 helped the owner of the second store, Sal Naser, 49, start up next to the flagship Top Dog on Durant Avenue a couple of years later.

Although the stores are still managed by different families, the owners are good friends and agreed to maintain the same menu and even advertise and accept the same coupons.

“In general they are almost the same, so when people have a good experience at one La Burrita they combine both together,” Naser said.

A family-owned eatery that was named one of the top 10 cafes in the United States by National Geographic in 2005 has chosen to remain humble and local. The first Brazil Cafe — a “barraca,” or a small shack — appeared on University Avenue 10 years ago.

Lease complications led owner Pedro Rodin, a 42-year-old Berkeley resident, to open a larger, restaurant-style Brazil Cafe on Shattuck Avenue. “I have a good reputation, good name, good food, and wanted to stay in the business,” he said. “In case they closed my [first] place, I would be one block away and people would follow me.”

Both locations are still operating, and Berkeley residents including Wesley Hamel, 30, aren’t complaining. “There are two and it’s different from a big chain, it looks authentic,” he said. “This is a nice place and I would enjoy hanging out at another one.”

The opposite direction of expansion occurred for Thai Noodle. The first restaurant opened on Shattuck Avenue in 2000 and Thai Noodle II appeared on Telegraph Avenue a year and a half ago. Both are doing “really, really well” and experienced only about a 5 percent decrease in business since the economic downturn, according to manager Piyanuch Phettun, 26. “We’re looking to open number three next year,” he said.

While the recipe for success for some family-owned businesses has been expanding around UC Berkeley, operating on the campus itself is another option that has been tapped. Brazil Cafe is exploring the possibility.

Nine years after establishing his first business on Oxford Street, the owner of Yali’s Cafe, Ayal Amzel, 43, won two separate bids and opened locations on campus in 2008.

In the midst of negotiating for a fourth location in the Downtown, Amzel said he does not feel threatened by the few corporate chains that do exist in Berkeley.

“When new mom-and-pop’s open up they usually have new ideas because they care, so the competition is more fierce,” he said. “It’s easier for me to compete with Starbucks because I can move faster and use my creativity and put it in place faster than a corporation that is limited by its own size.”

Expansion of small businesses into family chains drew mixed reactions among community members. A frequent customer at mini chains including Top Dog, UC Berkeley senior John Lee, was “torn between the idea of convenience and monopolizing around campus.”

“I think Berkeley is unique because there are so many different mom-and-pop shops but if they keep expanding it kind of loses its flair for being a place for mom-and-pop shops,” the 22-year-old sociology major said.

While waiting for his usual burrito, Berkeley resident Richard Banegas, 25, said he didn’t think La Burrita should open any more locations. “That is when it starts losing its respect to customers,” Banegas said. “People don’t see it the same way, they [would be seen as] in it for the money.”

Still, the city’s economic development manager Michael Caplan saw expansion in a positive light, noting a difference between a locally owned chain and a national chain that sometimes doesn’t always have a longstanding connection to its customers.

“When one small business expands to a new location it’s a testament that there’s a lot of demand for the product,” he said. “Sometimes businesses outgrow their existing location and they can’t expand where they are but one way to grow and serve more people is to find another location.”

While some family chain business owners have their sights set on having a greater presence in the city, many of them are proceeding with the city’s Buy Local philosophy — certainly a mindset that puts them more in line with mom-and-pops than with corporate chains.

“I have a great interest in this city being successful and economically viable and have enough commerce in it to keep it alive, so it was natural and important for me to stay close to home,” Amzel said of his expansion plans.

Jessica Kwong is a trilingual freelance journalist whose work has been published in Spanish- and English-language publications in the Bay Area, Southern California and Latin America. She served as city news editor, investigative reporting instructor and business beat reporter for The Daily Californian while at UC Berkeley. A 2010 Hearst Fellowship recipient, she will begin working as a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle in the fall.

Photos by Jessica Kwong

Posted in Berkeley, capitalism, life, San Francisco Bay Area | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

It was a burger joint for the ages

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on June 2, 2015

I started patronizing Oscar’s in 1991 when I first moved to Oakland. Below is Jon Carroll’s column in the SF Chronicle; part eulogy for what we are losing and part paean to simpler times. Sad, indeed.


It was a burger joint for the ages
By Jon Carroll
June 1, 2015 Updated: June 1, 2015 1:48pm

Oscar’s on Shattuck Avenue is closing down. I always assumed it was eternal, a lodestar to guide all the other restaurants in the area — a lodestar now largely ignored by entrepreneurs who have found other means of navigation. But for those really in the know, for those who were Berkeley before Berkeley was a thing, it was Oscar’s.

Oscar’s has an aquamarine logo and an off-pink sign. It has Formica tables and a large counter at one end for your hamburger needs or hot dog needs or milk shake needs or french fry needs. Even your chicken sandwich needs — although anyone having a chicken sandwich at Oscar’s is sort of missing the point.

I started going to Oscar’s when my daughter was young. Sometimes harried parents don’t have the energy to shop and cook, but they don’t have many options, because of budgetary restrictions. There was always Oscar’s, though, three minutes away by car, with a very fine auto takeout window.

The takeout window had no speakers or microphones. You yelled at the guy in the window, and he yelled back, and your order was ready, well, in good time. Because, really, what’s your hurry? There’s one guy with a grill, and he works as fast as he works. Maybe there’s something on the radio.

Berkeleyside broke the story of Oscar’s imminent closure, and tried to get the current owner, Scott (no last name given), to comment. He declined. “I’m not a warm and fuzzy guy,” he said.

That was the attitude at Oscar’s. They weren’t going to bother you with “Have a nice day” napkins or smiley-face logos. The menu board was going to contain no useful information besides the name of the item and the price. It did not care whether anything was sourced. There were no Italian-made products.

Oscar’s is going to be replaced by Sweetgreen, a “seasonal fast-food chain,” which means: “lots of salad.” It currently has 30 locations on the East Coast and one in L.A., and is coming to Berkeley to promote the kind of menu that Berkeley basically invented — as if North Berkeley needed any more vegetarian restaurants. Heck, there are restaurants on University (four blocks from Oscar’s) that are purer even than vegan.

Asparagus that’s been sung to.

I have to say, traitor to my bioregion as I am, that life certainly was easier when we didn’t have to think about what we ate. Get a burger, scarf it down, then it’s time to dance. Have some ice cream, because why not?

At Oscar’s, you could get a big sloppy burger, a burger where the ketchup was always in danger of dropping onto your pants, a burger that would squeeze out the other side when you bit into it, a burger that left your hands greasy and your fingers prone to stick together.

I understand that we should have had a higher consciousness all along, and we should be aware of animal cruelty and pesticides and sustainable land use and gray water irrigation systems. And we need to fight for transparent information. Really, we’re better for it. I’m just saying, subjecting the waiter to a cross-examination is not the Oscar’s way.

Currently, Park Burger in Oakland serves a real good burger, and it is grass-fed and every other kind of good thing. It’s a nostalgic experience and a contemporary one, too. But the meat is less gray than the ideal, and the burger is not slathered with some kind of secret sauce.

The secret at Oscar’s was: Don’t ask about the secret.

Oscar’s was open late, and students would gradually take over the place, replacing the couples with toddlers and the solitary workers. The kids were powered mostly by fries and colas, and they seemed to find endless amount of gossip in mundane events.

The closure of Oscar’s leaves very few hamburger joints open, at least not in my geosphere. There are funky chain places, but a homegrown, home-owned, one-location-only place — not so many.

The Smokehouse on Telegraph remains standing. It, too, remains a great hangout for almost everybody, unemployed dads and PG&E workers and people who need a hangover cure and people who are in a pre-hangover condition.

The Smokehouse is an outdoor place with picnic tables. It has heat lamps, and customers have been known to huddle when the fog blows through. The people who run it — an Afghan family, last time I checked — know every variety of burger on the large menu — triple with cheese, hold the pickles — and produce it efficiently, unless there’s a line. But hey, sit on a bench and meet your neighbors. Talk about burgers you have known.

Or talk about how many years you’ve been coming to the Smokehouse. Some people who are only 35 will say, “Twenty-nine years.” And yet: no special favors for regulars. So it has that Oscar’s vibe, but it ain’t Oscar’s. Goodbye, old friend.

“How do you like the Queen?” said the Cat in a low voice. “Not at all,” said Alice, “she’s so extremely

Posted in Berkeley, life, San Francisco Bay Area, San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Vic Chesnutt, Cowboy Junkies, and the cure for depression

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on June 23, 2014

Cowboy Junkies. Photo by Chris Lay

Cowboy Junkies. Photo by Chris Lay

Cowboy Junkies performed two sets on Saturday, June 21 at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. The second set was devoted to playing the entire Trinity Session album in full, with the first set featuring songs from CJ’s Nomad series of four albums. Two songs–“Wrong Piano” and “Square Room”–were Vic Chesnutt covers from their “Demons” album.

Vic Chesnutt at the Bowery Ballroom in New York in 1999. Photo by Rahav Segev

Vic Chesnutt at the Bowery Ballroom in New York in 1999. Photo by Rahav Segev

I went into a depression when I stopped drinking. One of the things that helped me combat my depression was listening to Vic Chesnutt. Terry Gross did an interview with Chesnutt on December 1, 2009 in which Vic talked about his various suicide attempts in his life and how he felt about his just released song “Flirted With You All My Life:” “This song is a joyous song, though. I mean, it’s a heavy song, but it is a joyous song. This is a breakup song with death, you know what I mean?” Here’s a version of that song recorded December 14, 2009:

Vic was left a partial quadriplegic after a drunken automobile accident at 18 in 1983. Vic was in frequent pain, struggling with alcohol abuse, and depressed for much of the rest of his life. Despite feeling better at the time of the above “Fresh Air” interview, Vic Chesnutt committed suicide on December 25, 2009 from a conscious overdose of muscle relaxant pills. He had racked up some $50,000 in debt due to medical bills by then. “And, I mean, I could die only because I cannot afford to go in there again.” Vic said to Terry Gross of his choices. “I don’t want to die, especially just because of I don’t have enough money to go in the hospital.”

Singer/song writer Vic Chesnutt

Singer/song writer Vic Chesnutt

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive to listen to dark, morose music in order to alleviate one’s depression. There’s a whole subculture, called Goth, centered around depressed adolescents listening to depressing music. The Cowboy Junkies have been described not just as alt country, but as “Gothic country,” and Vic Chesnutt’s musical style has been called “Southern Gothic.” However, in The Way of the Samurai, Yukio Mishima commented that: “Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning.”

Rest In Peace, Vic Chesnutt.

Posted in art, Berkeley, life, music | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Give me liberty!

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on June 14, 2014

And give me hot dogs!

Renie Riemann closes her trunk as she packs up Top Dog where she has worked for more than 24 years in Oakland, Calif. on Friday, June 13, 2014. The CVS, which was previously a Payless, was a place where you could buy a hot dog, repair your shoes and buy household items in one stop. Photo: James Tensuan, The Chronicle

Renie Riemann closes her trunk as she packs up Top Dog where she has worked for more than 24 years in Oakland, Calif. on Friday, June 13, 2014. The CVS, which was previously a Payless, was a place where you could buy a hot dog, repair your shoes and buy household items in one stop.
Photo: James Tensuan, The Chronicle

My wife pointed out this article in the daily SF Chronicle about the closing of the CVS drug store in the Safeway shopping center at 51st Street/Pleasant Valley and Broadway in Oakland. When I was living in Oakland, the location was a Longs Drugs, and it went through several transformations before ending up a CVS. But at every stage this pharmacy/variety store was always a commercial hub for this part of Oakland, with a mom-and-pop feel to its ownership and a super friendly staff to help customers find what they were looking for.

One aspect to the CVS that was enjoyable for me was the Top Dog hot dog stand inside the entryway to the store. Top Dog is a locally owned mini-chain of four hot dog stands in Berkeley and Oakland. Three, now that this Top Dog location has closed. Established in 1966, and open daily, Top Dog tried to make incursions into San Francisco over the past several years, only to have various retail attempts in the City ultimately fail. The menu continues to offer a delicious variety of sausages grilled to order and served up with a variety of side dishes and condiments.

reflectdogOne notable feature of Top Dog is the extreme libertarian propaganda freely displayed around each Top Dog stand. When the flagship eatery was established just off Telegraph Avenue a few blocks from UC Berkeley, it was the heyday of Berkeley radicalism, so I’m sure that the shop and its philosophy were often a center for lively political discussion and debate. After all, the RCP’s Revolution Books was just down the street. grillI’ve made my utter disdain for libertarianism known on my other blog. But the bockwurst, well, that was something to be taken seriously. I suppose the famous quote (attributed either to Otto von Bismarck or John Godfrey Saxe) that “[l]aws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made” can be taken a number of ways. Personally, I don’t have a lot of regard for most laws. The sausages grilled up by Top Dog, however, are both top quality and worthy of my respect. Below is an image of the mural that hangs in the flagship Top Dog stand in Berkeley. Apparently, it includes a depiction of the owner’s daughter as she appeared when the first mural was painted in 1987.


Posted in Berkeley, libertarians, life, Oakland, Oaktown, San Francisco Chronicle | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

You know you’re in the Twilight Zone if…

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on October 28, 2013

…You post about the Haight on your blog, and the SFGate blog (Internet Portal for the SF Chronicle) posts about the Haight the very next day. Spooky, huh? Or maybe its just the proximity to Halloween.

Anyway, You know you’re a real Haight resident if you… appeared today (10-28-13), a sometimes amusing take on life in the Haight-Ashbury in pictures and text. Previously, they did the Mission neighborhood You know you live in the Mission if… as well as the entirety of San Francisco in You know you’re a real San Franciscan if you…

Other whole communities covered: Marin, the Peninsula, Berkeley, and Oakland. Sometimes interesting, sometimes goofy, generally entertaining tidbits of trivia can be found in these respective blog posts. I hope they continue to do the San Francisco neighborhoods.

Posted in Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, life, Marin, Oakland, San Francisco, San Francisco Bay, San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate, The Haight, The Mission, the Peninsula | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

New Deal in the East Bay

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on July 8, 2007

I’m often stunned by the turn to the right that politics in this country has taken in the last twenty-five years. And I lived through Nixon’s presidency. It’s been said that Richard Nixon was our last great liberal president, in that he still had a fundamental commitment to the policies and principles of the New Deal. The turn to the right I’m talking about is the one that began with Ronald Reagan, a turn away from the New Deal and all it represented in government planning and intervention, towards the fool’s paradise of free markets. The social infrastructure of the country has been deliberately underfunded and allowed to crumble, providing the justification for increased privatization of social services and government functions. So successful has this conservative counterrevolution been, there are proposals to replace Franklin Roosevelt’s portrait on the dime with that of Ronald Reagan.

Which brings me to this story in the Berkeley Daily Planet, about the not-so-hidden New Deal legacy to be found in the East Bay.


A recent wedding party at the Berkeley Rose Garden, one of the many local New Deal projects. Photograph by Gray Brechin.

Posted in Bay Area, Berkeley, Berkeley Daily Planet, East Bay, Franklin D. Roosevelt, life, New Deal, Oakland, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, San Francisco Bay Area | Leave a Comment »

Comfortable communalism

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on June 13, 2007

Berkeley Peoples Architecture presented a community plan, in the late 1960s/early 1970s, to transform the city of Berkeley into a groovy communal place to live. The plan involved making most of the streets car-free, people tearing down the fences between their properties to create block-long common spaces, incorporating private property into inalienable publicly-regulated land trusts, and so on.

A well-to-do Berkeley neighborhood has managed to take down the fences separating their backyards to create just such a communal residential space for themselves. A comfortable middle-class commons. It’s a far cry from the city-wide communalism proposed by Berkeley Peoples Architecture, yet an interesting read nevertheless. (here)


Posted in Berkeley, Berkeley Peoples Architecture, comfortable communalism, communalism, fences, life, neighborhoods | Leave a Comment »