Friday, December 11, 2009

It's been another action-packed week at the Cafe. Lots to report, less left to do.

We're fully staffed for the moment. We got (and continue to get) lots of great applicants, and I think we've got a really great team coming together. In addition to Katie, Sarah (who's now going by Curly), and Donna, we've got Sara, Daniel and Julian. We've all been working in the Cafe all week, and we've made a ton of progress.

Our kitchen is now pretty much completely outfitted, and we've even got some food that we've been cooking, testing recipes. The place is now almost completely painted (next time, I'm hiring a painter), and mostly clean. Yesterday, we got our stools and outdoor tables. We've got dishes, glassware, silverware, and even some decor.

Some fun things:

Sparkle Motion has arrived at the Cafe! Our bicycle-powered video jukebox is ready to blow your mind! Pics coming.

We're starting a book and magazine exchange. I seeded it with a bunch of stuff from my personal collection, but we can use more books - if you've got some you want to contribute to the cause, bring 'em by (only decent condition things that people might actually read, please!). We'll give you some coffee and snacks as thanks. Also, if you've got a magazine or newspaper subscription that you'd like to donate to the Cafe, let's chat.

Our community bulletin board is a big 'ol piece of sheet metal, and we need some awesome fridge magnets to make it feel lived in. Again, if you have some and want to chip in, bring 'em on down.

Under our bike parking, there's another big piece of sheet metal that needs some cool stickers. Got any? know what to do.

We've been testing our menu since yesterday, and it's really coming together in a pretty awesome way, I think. We've got a delicious breakfast sandwich with spinach, egg and cheese, and a little french toast plate that we'll do on weekends. We made some pickled veggies for salads and sides, and although they still need some tweaking, I think they'll be really good. Today, we'll be testing lunch sandwiches, and making lots of hot and cold drinks. If you're in the neighborhood between 11:00ish and 2:00ish, stop by. We'll probably have something for you to taste.

My flu symptoms are now almost entirely gone, and I feel like I might actually be able to ride a bike again, if I didn't have to spend all day picking up car loads of dishes, furniture, food and equipment. I brought my town bike to the Cafe to test our bike parking several weeks ago, and it's got a flat tire, which I haven't found the time or energy to fix, since I've been too sick to ride anyway. Maybe I'll fix it today. Definitely no later than tomorrow. Also, the Radish is coming out of the garage for normal Cafe operations.

I am so excited. You have no idea. I have been working on this project for about a year now, and the transition from making to doing is just days away now. I don't sleep much.

Really, really soon now. I mean it. You'll see.


Thursday, December 3, 2009's almost time!

Firstly: I'm lame for not posting since about forever ago. So much has happened in the Actual world in the past few weeks, and I'm sure I missed lots of golden opportunities to amuse, titillate, engage and otherwise entertain you all. For this, I apologize. I do have some excuses, though...

The last couple weeks of construction were incredibly busy. Because of the way all the final inspections are linked together, we effectively had to finish everything, including things like signage and exterior paint, before we could even really start having the inspectors in. We had a full crew of my contractor's guys, plus various subcontractors, plus deliveries - all day, every day. Plus, I was still having to pick up most of the job materials we needed every day and keep the finish work moving fast enough that, for instance, the countertops were put together and rough finished so they could be set in place so that the bar area could get tiled, so that the wall coverings could go on, so the plumbing could go in, so the equipment could get installed, etc. etc.

Construction ended up taking about seven weeks altogether. I estimated between 6 and 8. I guess that means we kept the schedule. For most of that time, my day consisted of waking up at 4:30 or 5:00, answering emails and stuff for a bit, then getting to the Cafe at 6:00 or 6:30, working on whatever I needed to get done before the crew showed up (sanding, painting, whatever), then running errands for most of the day - picking up materials, meeting suppliers, buying equipment, dealing with various permit agencies. When the construction crew knocked off for the day, I'd be back at whatever else needed doing in the Cafe until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Home, sleep, repeat. For the last couple weeks, even my weekends looked like this. Which is a hard routine to sustain, even for a nutcase like me.

Also, thanks again to all the friends and neighbors who showed up and gave generously of their weekend hours to help clean, paint, straighten up, and seal our floor. I'm so glad for the support, and I'm really happy to have had lots of folks add their personal touches to the Cafe along the way.

The good news is that my diligence paid off. Inspections went really smoothly, and within just a couple days, we had all the sign-offs we needed. The contractors packed up all their tools (and a few of mine), and quietly disappeared.

That very night, I came down with the Swine Flu.

The Flu (not just the flu, but The Flu) knocked me back on my skinny butt for a good week and a half. I don't think I've ever been quite so sick in my life. I'll spare you the disgusting details, but trust me - they're disgusting. I'm still trying to rid myself of the lingering symptoms. My voice is mostly gone, my sinuses feel like they're packed with steel wool, and I've still got a lot of crap in my lungs. But, as of Monday or so, I'm back on the Cafe horse, and getting more productive every day.

I hired my first employee yesterday. Her name is Kathryn, and she'll be working weekday afternoons. I like her, and I hope you all will as well. She's an artist, a cyclist, and a real fireball. She's helping out already - painting, cleaning, etc.

I hired my second and third employees today. Donna is a food service pro, and will be helping me lock down the Cafe menu, set up the kitchen, and also be working morning shifts once we're open. Sarah lives in the Triple Point Co-Housing development just a couple blocks away, and has been involved in the neighborhood and neighborhood institutions for years. She's also a photographer, and will hopefully show at the Cafe at some point soon. She'll be working the mornings that Donna doesn't. They're both super friendly, and I'm really thrilled to have them on the team.

I've always talked about the Cafe in the plural - 'we' rather than 'I', even though it's been mostly just me for almost the entire time. Now, however, when I say 'we,' it means something a bit different. Which, I have to say, is nice. I've been working on this project for almost a year now, and I've taken it as far as I can on my own. I've had lots of help on the way, some of it paid, and some just friendly, but now I'm building a team, and that team will make the Cafe much more than I could on my own.

I'm trying to wrap up all the hiring by the end of the week. Next week, staff will be coming in to clean, organize, set up and stock the place, and then (OMG!), we'll be open shortly after. No date yet. I want to be careful about doing too much promotion too early, and let us sort of ease into the flow of the Cafe before we overwhelm ourselves with eager customers who have been champing at the bit for the better part of the year to get their hungry selves in the door.

Stay tuned for lots of pics, and more details about the awesome Cafe staff.

And yeah, we're real close. You can start holding your breath now.


ps - We still don't have any artists lined up to show at the Cafe. If you're making art and haven't already sent me a note, please do. I want to see your stuff, for real.


Thursday, October 29, 2009


I ran out of gas yesterday. Luckily, I was only about a block from a gas station when the truck started sputtering, and I only had to push it across the street and up to the pump. I had been running errands for a couple days knowing that there was almost nothing left in the tank, but too distracted to actually stop for gas. It's not the only thing that should be getting done and isn't. But lots of things are, and mostly going really well.

Construction is moving really quickly. We're just over a month into the job, and we're working on finishes already. Tile installation started yesterday. Booth construction is almost done. We're started building cabinets yesterday and are setting countertops today. We're even working on paint and trim. It's starting to feel like a Cafe, and not just a construction site. Which is great.

I've also been hustling to get my beer & wine permit. I appear in front of the Oakland Planning Commission next Wednesday for review of my case. I've also been working on all the paperwork required, including putting together the mailing for property owners within 500 feet of the Cafe, identifying nearby 'civic uses' (churches, schools, parks), getting fingerprinted, signing affidavits, supplying financial information, hanging posters, publishing legal notices, writing content for the planning staff, and on and on. It's a real pain in the ass actually.

I've had some conversations with individual neighbors about the Cafe and my service of beer and wine. Most have been supportive, but some have been concerned. I think I've been able to reassure folks that we're not interested in creating problems in the neighborhood, and that we'll be responsible neighbors. It's made me even more attuned to the delicate balances that we need to strike to create the type of community I've always envisioned. It's not easy, and I hope we get it right.

I'm really sad about the character of the development which has happened near 40th street on the Avenue, and in Emeryville generally, which has resulted in a bunch of fairly uninteresting looking strip malls and large housing developments. I hope that we do a better job here. While there's a need for new housing and commercial tenants in the area, I'd be sad if that happened at the expense of folks who have spent decades in the neighborhood.

Some good news - one of the two newly renovated storefronts on the block is open for business - a new beauty salon.

I get asked several times a day when we'll be open. I don't have an answer that I trust yet. Construction will hopefully be done in just a few weeks. Inspections will probably turn up some issues that we'll need to address. Hopefully, none of them will be huge. Once those are done, we've got cleaning, hiring, stocking, training, and opening left to do. The time is approaching. Soon.

Off to build more stuff.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

it's the time of the season of building

Another two-week gap between posts. I wish I could find the time to post more consistenly, but at the moment, I can't. So...

Construction is well underway. We've got almost three weeks behind us, and things are progressing nicely. Most framing is done, rough electrical and plumbing are just about done, and we've got a wave of inspections happening this week, working toward 'OK to close,' meaning we can start covering walls. We hope to be hanging sheet rock before the end of the week. HVAC guys showed up today to start installing our heater, and almost all equipment is bought and ready for install.

Pics soon. I promise.

I've been making good use of my Xtracycle - it's hauled lots of nice loads, including a big load of light fixtures last week, and a couple runs of electrical supplies this week. I still haven't figured out how to haul really long stuff, so I'm using my car for loads of pipe/conduit/lumber. Today, I picked up a truck from Jason, who's kindly agreed to lend it to me for a while while I'm doing lots of materials runs. Thanks, Jason!

Furniture and decor is progressing nicely. Benches are put together, and ready for installation. One of the seating bars is completely done, and it looks really good. Cutting and sanding of the main seating bar will start this week. I'm also starting to think about service countertops, and framing the structure for booths. I picked up a load of old floorboards today, which I think will become the apron of the bar, and maybe some other things.

I've been spending lots of time in the past couple weeks working on various things related to the Cafe's beer and wine permit. I have several endorsement letters, but am still working on collecting the last couple. I wrote nearly 10 pages of responses to the questions on the city conditional use permit application. I also spent some time with the planners at the city who are working on the permit. I got good feedback on the materials I've already submitted, and expect notices to go out to neighbors at the end of this week. This week, I'll also get the official notice which will need to hang in the front window for two weeks. And I'm on the agenda for the November 4th planning commission meeting. Still lots to do between now and then to ensure everything goes smoothly.

One annoying thing - since I'm getting some money from the city Redevelopment Agency, I have to collect three written bids for all work we're doing. I've been trying to get bids for some minor storefront work (doors and windows) I need done, and I just can't seem to actually get bids. It's been a month of working on it, and I've had guys that just don't return my phone calls, guys that don't show up, guys that do show up but never get me bids, bids that don't make's a mess, really. I think I'm finally done with the process, but maybe not.

It's been a lot of long days - I'm up between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning, and working until 11:00 at night most nights, with not much time for anything else. Two Fridays ago, I fell asleep in my evening yoga class (right in the middle). Last Friday, I couldn't even get it together to actually go to class. Luckily I've still got weekend days to recuperate. I finally caught up with all my bookkeeping this weekend, and even managed to clean my house, which is one of the things that's been getting less attention than normal lately.

I get asked about 20 times a day when our opening date is. I wish I had one. Unfortunately, it's hard to know how inspections are going to go, especially having had so many long delays with various permitting agencies already. Also, the Health Department final inspection is the last one to happen, and they'll be the most picky - paying attention to finishes, type and placement of equipment, etc. I hope that next week or so, I'll start to feel a bit more confident in a construction schedule, and can start laying out the rest of the opening activities. In any case, we're definitely going in the right direction, and barring big delays, we'll be open before I know it. Literally.

Anyway - I'm a little sad I don't have more to report. I've been so busy, it seems like I should have lots more to write about. I don't. And I want to get to sleep tonight, so...

Stay tuned for more updates, soon. Also, check out the new Facebook widget on the blog page (to the right), and if you're on Facebook, check out our new suggestion box discussion ( If you've got opinions, we want 'em.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

dusty, inside and out

It's been an exciting couple weeks. So exciting, in fact, that I haven't been able to find a free hour to sit down and write about it until now.

First, and best: we finally managed to get building permits last Thursday (not even a week ago). The city finally agreed that a single rest room was adequate, and everything past that was just paperwork, payments and formalities.

We broke ground on construction last Thursday as well. By the weekend, all the demolition had been done - concrete cut and trenches dug for new drain lines, sheetrock and framing torn out where needed. After one full week of construction (at the end of today), lots more is done. Framing of almost all interior walls is done. All the drains and sewer lines are installed and being tested. A whole lot of electrical stuff is done - most lights are wired, some switches are installed. Our first inspection is tomorrow (Health Department review of the rough plumbing), and more inspections will happen over the next several days.

My day is now full of various errands - running for construction supplies so I can keep the crew productive all day. When the crew goes home for the day, I'm working on countertops and other furniture. Emails and phone calls I try to squeeze in the early morning. And lots just doesn't get done every day. Which I'm pretty used to now.

I still haven't quite adjusted from the shift from waiting, negotiating and arguing and into doing. It feels a bit surreal now, watching the thing I've been imagining for so long starting to become really tangible - in concrete, iron, copper, and timber. It also reminds me that there are lots of other things that I now can't put off any longer - menu decisions have to be made, distributors selected, equipment ordered or bought. And hundreds of other little things that I can't even really think about right this second.

On the decor front, there's been some progress on counters - the laminated beams that I found at Heritage Salvage cleaned up really well with just a bit of sanding, and I've got one cut to size for the front window, and am in the process of finishing it and mounting it on legs. I hope to have it completely done by early next week. No pics yet, but I'll post a whole album when I've got it done.

Benches started with a bunch of busted up tongue-and-groove cedar boards I found at the ReStore in East Oakland - they cost me about $20 for 75 feet or so. Gerard and I spent a couple hours on Monday night cutting them into clean four-foot lengths, then gluing them together in three-board planks. I picked them up yesterday, gave them a light sanding, and have a couple coats of Varathane already on them. They're taking very little work, and are coming out really nicely. A bit rough around the edges, which I like, but also with lots of character. More pics to come.

Also, I posted pics last week of the newly-refurbed storefronts in the building next door.
There was a fire in the building a while back, and there's been a crew working on rebuilding the facades of the buildings for months now. I've had a few looks inside myself, but it was still a little surprising to see them finally unveiled when they took down the temporary plywood that had been covering them for all this time. They're covered in sort of classy-looking black and while porcelain tile, which gives the whole block a nice lift. One of the two spaces is an old take-out restaurant, so I'm hoping for another food place to move in. More options in the neighborhood is good for everyone, I think.

And, speaking of options, the cafe at the corner of 65th and San Pablo which, by the way, is called Tribu, is showing signs of imminent opening, adding to the cluster of restaurants and cafes stretching from Hollis to San Pablo on 65th, which will hopefully encourage people to venture off Hollis Street when they're looking for something to eat or drink in the neighborhood.

I had a nice moment at the end of the day on Friday, when I was sitting outside the Cafe at sunset, taking a break after the construction crew had left for the day. I watched people strolling up and down the block, checking out the newly uncovered storefronts, walking dogs, riding bikes. There were a couple schoolkids chasing each other down the sidewalk, laughing. And I had a vision of an evening not too far away, with folks sitting inside and outside the Cafe, enjoying the last bit of afternoon sun, feeling relaxed and safe and friendly. And I thought that this neighborhood is well overdue for that particular sort of love.

More soon (or as soon as I can manage, anyway)...


Monday, September 14, 2009

Can't we all just get along (with a single bathroom)?

Last week was another busy one, although the one big blocking problem is still blocking. I had a brief glimmer of hope on the City of Oakland front late last week, when I got an email from the Chief Building Official asking for some clarification on the history of my situation, which I provided. Unfortunately, this was followed by five days of City furlough, including the infamous Admissions Day (, and a two day workweek, during which I'm pretty sure nothing actually happened at the City, on my project or any other. So, it's back to the water on stone game starting today.

On the bright side, I have been using the extra time productively.

My tabletops are done, and they look pretty cool, I
think (judge for yourself). Certainly, they're a step up from the condition I got them in (below). All that's left to do is mount them on table bases. Next up is seating bars, which will be a bit hairy, since I'm cutting them out of 4"x 18" laminated beams, which are really heavy. One bar is 14' long, and the chunk of beam required probably weighs a good 300 pounds. I'm sure I'll figure it out, but I may need a bit more help with them than the tabletops. After the bars are done, I've got to make benches for the two booths by the front window, and my service counters (which will also be big and unwieldy). Fun stuff, especially since I have no real idea what I'm doing.

I also hired a contractor this week - Black Creek Builders. They're local kids that have really impressed me with their diligence at working through the bid, and their flexibility with their approach to the project. Hoping the actual work goes as well as the negotiation has. Oh, and that I can actually get permits and start work someday.

And - Sparkle Motion is almost ready to be unveiled. I've sort of alluded to it a couple times before, but since I've been working on it forever and it's been slow going I haven't been talking about it directly. I'll write a full post on it as soon as it's all the way done, but the short story is that it's a human-powered (bicycle driven) video jukebox. I was sort of inspired by the old penny-arcade mutoscope ( when I started the project: crank the handle, see a movie. In the case of Sparkle Motion, it's: pedal the bike, see a movie. It's made of a bunch of salvaged electronics, lumber, a salvaged bike, and some circuitry I had to build. I've also been collecting interesting and weird short video clips to play on the machine - I've got a pretty good collection, but I'm always looking for more. If anyone's got short (less than five minute) videos that you think would be cool played from a Gilligan's Island/Rube Goldberg/Fat Albert-style jukeboxy-kinda-thing, send 'em my way (Valladares - I'm talking to you!).

I've got a few more letters of support from neighborhood folks for my beer and wine permit review. Thanks to: the staff and residents of Sister Thea Bowman Manor and Percy Abram Jr. Senior Housing, Forthrite Printing and Brooks Jewelers. Still more coming.

I've also been having tons of fun on my new
Radish, thanks to the kind and generous folks at
Xtracycle. It's been really useful for hauling tools and materials. In fact, I've only had to use my car for the Cafe one time since I picked up the Radish, to carry a sheet of plywood. I'm told that I can get plywood on the Radish, so I'll try again next time I have to haul some. It's also really good at carrying coffee, as you can see.

I had a nice ride in the Solano Stroll parade yesterday with a bunch of Xtracycle riders. One of the guys who came out is a home inspector, and had a 9-foot ladder lashed onto one side of his bike. He was riding circles through the parade, and managed not to knock anyone down, which was pretty impressive, I thought.

I also made it to the Walk Oakland Bike Oakland ( Bike Love festival and swap meet. Ran into all sorts of folks, including the Cycles of Change bike shop guys. We're all talking about ways to partner on bike-related events and such in the neighborhood.

Stay tuned for updates on the rest room and construction schedule as soon as they break.

And, thanks for all the love!


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

the build up to the buildout

It's been a busy time - lots getting done, lots to do. So much, in fact, that I started this post about a week ago, and am just getting around to finishing it now.

I've been working on furniture and interior decor quite a bit - sanding tabletops and putting together tables, scouring the salvage yards for the rest of the stuff I need. I found some old laminated beams that I think will make good sitting bars, also a couple old cast iron sinks that I think will become planters.

I've also meeting a lot of neighborhood folks. I've talked with neighborhood associations in the area, businesses up and down the Avenue, the senior center across the street, schools, and just people. I've been collecting letters of recommendation from anyone I can to submit to the city supporting the case for my beer and wine permit - I don't want to take the chance of paying several thousand dollars and getting my permit denied. Also, without being able to serve alcohol, it will be hard for me to sustain nighttime business, which frankly is one of the most important aspects of the Cafe - there are so few non-bar places in Oakland where folks can go at night to socialize, and I really want to be able to serve that need for the local neighborhood and for the city at large. Thanks specifically to SPAGGIA, the West Alcatraz Neighborhood Association, Triple Point Co-Housing, and Civicorps Elementary School - all of whom have already given me letters of support. Still more are coming.

And, by the way, the reactions I've been getting from the community have been really incredible - everyone I talk to is excited to have the Cafe in the neighborhood, and is really eager to help. This makes me more excited about what I'm doing, and confident that I'm on the right track - that people really want a place like the Cafe to exist and thrive.

On that note, a special shout out goes to Xtracycle ( - makers of longtail bicycle conversion kits and rack systems. Their HQ is a mere three blocks from the Cafe, and when I approached them for support, they jumped in with both feet. When I told them I wanted the Cafe to be as car-free as possible, they offered me a Radish ( to use in the Cafe for running errands, doing deliveries and such! I'm picking it up tomorrow (yay!), so I can actually use it during construction, and see how well it holds up under the abuse of hauling building materials and tools. They also donated a commercial fridge, which I'll use to store backstock of beer and wine. Totally awesome company, and great folks. I'm glad they're in the neighborhood.

I've also gotten great support from the folks at the East Bay Bike Coalition (, who have been connecting me with all sorts of useful resources, and brainstorming various ways for us to work together. I'm really excited to partner with them - their work for bike accessibility really meshes well with the Cafe's vision of bike-friendliness. More to come as we figure out details.

Alfie at eShutter Creative ( has been working on graphic design for the Cafe for a few weeks now, and finished a final logo, color scheme, and business card layout last week. I think they look incredible, and I hope you all agree. He starts on web design this week - the website (which I did myself in the very early days of planning the business) needs an overhaul. I'm looking forward to what we come up with. Should be rolling out in a couple weeks.

Online fans are over 200 now, between blog and twitter followers and facebook fans. Word is continuing to spread about the Cafe, and I've picked up some local bloggers and community groups as followers in the past couple weeks who I'm hoping will have good things to say about the Cafe when the time is right.

Of course, there's always a cloud under the silver lining...I'm stalled again at the City of Oakland. What I thought was a done deal related to occupancy and floor plan of the Cafe got kicked back at the last possible moment with a requirement to add a second rest room. At this point in the process, that's a really hard thing to do. Not only did I give away a bunch of floor space to trash storage during the early phases of occupancy discussions, I've bought furniture and equipment, and paid architects many thousands of dollars to design the most efficient use of the remaining space in the Cafe, and taking more floor space away will really hurt. It will cost additional design money, additional construction money, and take maybe a quarter of my seating area away. I'm working with my architect to negotiate our way through, but I'm not confident that resolution will go my way.

Also, banks suck. No need for details.

I realized a couple weeks ago that this process is a lot like making a baby - my influence over the finished product diminishes inversely with the amount of time spent. I've had a really strong vision for what the Cafe would be, and that vision has evolved over time. But, as with any project of this size, I rely on others for various pieces of the job, and they bring their own sensibilities to what gets done. This only gets more dramatic once we open our doors. We'll have employees who will be making food and drinks and interacting with customers. There will (I hope) be lots more customers than employees in the place at any given time, and they (you) will contribute much more to the atmosphere of the Cafe than anything I could do. Sure, the decor will be a certain way, and the menu will have certain things on it, but that's not what's most important about the character of a place. It's the people inside that really make it. And that's exciting. Especially if the folks I'm interacting with now become loyal customers - you guys are all pretty awesome, actually. Actually.

I can't wait to start construction. I can't wait to be open. I can't wait to meet each and every one of you over the counter, and see the Cafe grow up and crash its car and get drunk and married and have babies of its own.

Stay tuned - more soon.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

things done, happening, coming, and random

It's been a little while since I've been able to find time to write a blog entry, but I've had some really interesting days lately, and I wanted to communicate some things before they slipped my mind entirely.

First, and most momentous...

I had made the ride several times before, riding my bike down Market Street, through Uptown, City Center, Old Oakland, Jack London, the Embarcadero, lower Alameda, and out to Bay Farm Island - to the Alameda County Health Department. This time was a bit different than the times before - I was carrying what I hoped would be final plans, and hoping for the approval which would allow me to submit plans to the City of Oakland building department. This, in project management speak, is the critical path of the Cafe project. Every day spent on getting these permits is another day that I can't start construction, and another day later that I open.

The Health Department plan check is supposed to take no more than four weeks. Mine had taken five - they had come in last Thursday. I had the bad luck to submit plans just after lots of other people had. I like to think this is a good economic indicator - more plan reviews means more restaurants and cafes and such soon to be open in our fair city. Which is just fine, honestly. But it was slowing me down.

The comments from the original check were pretty straightforward - Sarah, my friendly draftsperson, had updated drawings for me the very next day. We had to get them off to the printer first thing yesterday in order to get them signed and back to me in time to meet with the plan checker for final review today. My plan checker was about to embark on a week-long vacation, so if approval didn't happen today, I would lose another week. The plans looked good to me. I dared to hope.

I arrived at the appointment, unrolled my plans, and started to go through the comments. Reviewing item number one ("Provide proper equipment for making hot sandwiches and warming the meats for sandwiches per proposed food menu"), I discovered that part of the equipment schedule had been truncated from the plan. The equipment reference numbers, make and model number information had fallen off. I know that these were OK in one version of the plans that I reviewed with Sarah on Friday, but they were gone now. This was a problem. I asked the plan checker how I could address the issue - could I email him something, fax something? He said he needed a new set of plans. I proceeded to cover my head in my hands and walk around in circles, saying "" for several seconds before I got hold of myself.

I proposed writing the information on the plans. He seemed skeptical. I said, "let's review the rest of the issues, and see if there's anything else." He agreed. We did. There wasn't. Everything else was totally clean. I asked again. I begged. I didn't want to leave without this approval today. He relented.

Relieved, I stood over the table for almost an hour, drawing lines with the edge of the folder I had brought my documents in, and hand lettering thirty-one reference numbers, thirty-one manufacturers, and thirty-one model numbers, three times - one for each submitted plan set. My hands were splotched in ink. They cramped. They shook. I hadn't written so much by hand in years. The first time through, I made a bunch of mistakes. The second time, only a few. The third time, just one. I put the third plan set on top, the second in the middle and the really messy one on the bottom. I called the plan checker back. He glanced at my work, and said, "I can't believe you wrote all that...OK - I trust you. You're done."

This was a good moment.

An hour later, I had plans in hand, stamped and signed, and ready to go to the building department. I would have dropped them off today, except I'm waiting for Title 24 review and certification.

Let me tell you about Title 24. It's about energy conservation - all new construction is required to minimize the energy consumed by lighting and heating. Basically, I'm allocated a certain amount of electricity based on the size of my space, the size of my windows, and some arcane math. This, on the face of it, is fine. But, in actuality, it's a pain in the butt. The math has to be done by a certified Title 24 consultant, who takes my plans for a week or so, charges several hundred dollars, and either provides a certificate of compliance or asks for adjustments. The certificate of compliance is required in order for the building department to begin review of my plans. And, the Title 24 consultant my architect is using is out of town. Figures.

Also, in the past week, I've spent an inordinate amount of time meeting with lots of different city officials - getting permits for all sorts of things - signage, lighting, sidewalk encroachment, grease interceptor waiver, and (the biggie) alcohol.

Let me tell you about alcohol in our fair city. In Oakland, we have a surplus of alcohol-selling outlets. The city code is written to minimize the number of new permits issued. It's difficult to transfer permits from one address to another. It's impossible to get a brand-new full service permit for either off-sale (liquor store) or on-sale (bar) sales - you can only buy an existing one. For beer and wine, it's a little easier, but still not easy.

I had been talking to city planners for months - I was worried about getting a beer and wine permit from almost the first day I started thinking about the Cafe. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what the issues were going to be. I was wrong.

The biggest problem for me is that, since I'm not actually cooking food (just assembling and warming it), the city doesn't consider the Cafe to be a full-service restaurant. Because of this, we're subject to a much closer review, and additional variances, and findings. All of which add up to money, time, and more uncertainty. There's no planner assigned to my case yet, so I don't know exactly what I can do to improve the odds of receiving the permit, but I've already been contacting neighborhood associations and other neighbors (St. Columba's church across the street, the local schools, the senior center nearby) to get their written support. I don't know what more I can do, except keep my fingers crossed.

More exciting things:

Tomorrow, I start working with Gerard, who's a furniture maker, and helping me with tables and such. We're going to start with tables - cutting, sanding, refinishing, etc. Then, service counters, customer bars, booths, and planter boxes. I'm excited to see what we end up with. I think it will be interesting, and I'm really happy to be doing a bunch of the work myself.

Have I mentioned yet that almost all the seating in the Cafe will be communal? There are some outdoor tables, which are little two-tops, and a couple booths inside, but otherwise it's big tables and some bar space. I'm interested to see how customers react to this.

I've been working with a graphic designer for a couple weeks. Up to now, I've done all the design work for the Cafe myself. Now that I'm getting some professional support, I'm looking forward to being done and unveiling the updated logo and website. Will post updates as they happen.

Oh, and I found out recently that the city is scrapping our beloved Oakland tree, and replacing it with a new (and much lamer) one: Which sucks, honestly. That tree has been great to the city. Someone should organize some opposition.

OK - enough for now.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wifi? Need opinions please.

I've been pondering this issue for a while, and I think it's time to turn it out for feedback. Those of you who know me personally know that I'm no luddite. I like technology - I think it's really useful. However, I think that we often immerse ourselves in it to our detriment. And so, the subject of wifi is a difficult one.

The name Actual Cafe came from a conversation on this very topic. I was telling a friend that we're becoming more dependent on 'virtual' socializing, and that it's become a substitute for the real thing in many cases. And that we, as human beings, need actual contact in order to stay healthy - real face-to-face interaction. This is a key value of the Cafe.

When I was in early planning stages, I was considering leaving wifi off the menu entirely. I gave this some serious thought, for two reasons: 1) social interaction in the Cafe is so important to me, and 2) to avoid the potential for abuse. But, having thought about it, I decided that the positive aspects of connectivity are substantial, and that they justify providing the service. Which left me having to find ways to address the two problems - how can I encourage people to socialize even though there's wifi service? and how can I avoid being taken advantage of?

Let me expound on the abuse issue for a bit. It's not intuitive to many consumers of wifi in coffee shops that there is a finite resource at play. Most people think of wifi as cheap and abundant, and can't understand why there's any problem with providing it without limits or controversy. But, in the case of a cafe, the finite resource isn't the wifi primarily (although it is finite, and bandwidth hogs can take more than their fair share), it's the space inside the cafe. And that space can have a substantial cost.

The value of space in a cafe is variable. When it's empty, the value of a seat is nominal. It doesn't cost me much in electricity to keep the lights on and power a single laptop. But, when it's even a little bit full, a single seat can have a much higher value. Maybe that seat is the one with the best outside view, or the one with just the right amount of shade, or the one next to the cute girl/boy over there. And the fact that the right seat is unavailable might mean the difference between a customer coming in and passing by. This is compounded as the cafe gets more full. And a cafe can't exist without making sales - without paying customers coming and going pretty constantly.

And, on a personal note...let me tell you: if I'm not planning to set up my laptop and put some headphones on and disconnect from the world around me for a couple hours, when I look around a cafe and see that everyone around me is neck deep in their screens, I won't sit down. And so, here's the dillema. I think all of you can recall an experience at a coffee shop like the one I'm describing - where seemingly everyone inside is computing, and there's not much room for anything else to happen. It's not fun, and I want to avoid creating this sort of atmosphere at all costs.

So, how do we avoid this?

I considered various strategies:
- turn off the wifi at certain times of the day (too disruptive)
- put up some signs asking people to be considerate (too easy to ignore)
- approach people one-on-one and ask them to leave (too disruptive, and likely to end badly)
- limit available outlets on the floor (a bit passive) - one of the problems with this is that if there are any outlets available, they'll be overwhelmed with demand, and those seats will never be available to anyone else
- cross my fingers and hope there are no problems (risky, and hard to adjust later)

In the end, I'm leaning toward a solution which will generate time-limited passwords for users (sort of like the one Peet's uses). I'll give them away with a purchase (or maybe just for the asking). When they expire, the user will need another, which they can get by making another purchase (or maybe just for the asking again). I'll also be vocal about our policy, by posting some stuff on the website about it, and maybe having some printed materials around the Cafe for folks who ask questions.

Still reading? Good. It's interactive time. I'd love some feedback.

- Is it a better idea to keep wifi out of the picture entirely?
- Does the idea of limiting wifi annoy you? If so, is there a way to mitigate that annoyance (communication, etc.)?
- Should wifi use be given away without a purchase required?
- Do you understand why limiting wifi might be necessary for the success of the Cafe?
- Are there other approaches to limiting use that seem more reasonable or likely to succeed?

I'm sure some of you have opinions on this sort of thing - would love to see them aired here.


Sunday, August 2, 2009 neighbors

First, and most exciting (to me, anyway):

The City of Oakland Redevelopment Agency has been talking about installing pedestrian-level streetlights on San Pablo for some time now. The project is officially underway, and a crew came out late last week and marked off their locations (photo). Ground will break this week on the project. They should be in well before we get our doors open.

Streetlights by themselves aren't all that exciting, but in combination with other things happening in the neighborhood, they're an indicator of an end to years of neglect of the San Pablo corridor by the city. I'm not unreservedly pro-development, but I do think there's much that can and should be done to attract residents to the corridor - it's a major public transit route, it's close to freeways and shopping (including the new Berkeley Bowl West, which is pretty incredible), and has lots of small and medium sized businesses throughout. There are plenty of opportunities to add new housing to the area, with minimal impact to existing area residents, and with adequate services, folks can live, work, eat, shop, etc. within walking or biking distance, or take transit into or out of the neighborhood.

More residents add up to louder voices in local government, more eyes on the street (which has a positive impact on crime), and more successful businesses, all of which can help build a cohesive neighborhood.

But I digress. Streetlights. I don't have art on the actual ones going in, but I think they'll look something like these. Which are not ugly.

As a side benefit, in the process the city will be tearing up a big strip of sidewalk in front of the cafe, and pouring fresh concrete. Which leads to more space for anchorage of city-installed bike racks in front of the Cafe. On the existing sidewalk, the concrete is so broken, there weren't many options. I'm trying to get the bike parking coordinator, who's been really nice and helpful so far, to come out for another look.

I've been getting construction bids for weeks, and although I'm not entirely done with the process, I'm pretty close, which is good. I'm used to doing a lot of work myself on my construction projects, but because I'm getting reimbursement from the city from some of the Redevelopment Agency programs, I've got to get licensed contractors for everything that I want reimbursement for. Which makes containing costs a bit harder. But I've found some guys who are pretty flexible and creative, and I'm hoping we can get everything done for less than a boatload of cash. I'd rather save what money I can for better staff and more reserves to carry us through to break even.

I've also started networking on the bike front in earnest. I've got a decent design for indoor bike parking, which basically involves hanging bikes by one wheel from hooks on a wall (thanks to AB, who spent a bunch of time helping figure this out). I'm also trying to figure out how to have things like a pump and tools on hand to lend to cyclists who need to change a tire or make an adjustment. I'm planning to have small accessories (mostly tubes and patch kits) available for those in need. Also, since I'm fairly car-free, and want the cafe to be as well, I'm looking for partners who will sponsor a cargo bike for the cafe to use for running errands, making deliveries, etc. I've got some really promising leads, but nothing concrete yet. Will post more when there's more to post.

I'm expecting the Health Department to complete plan check this week. I'm also submitting all my planning permits this week (signage, awnings, lighting, sidewalk encroachment, and the conditional use permit for beer and wine). After I've passed the Health Department plan check (which might require a re-check depending on the scope of their comments), the plans go to the building department for review. Then construction starts.

I learned a week or so ago that Clif Bar is relocating its headquarters to 65th and Hollis sometime next year. Which is really exciting - I use and like their products, respect the company and would love to have their employees in the neighborhood. Especially when they come by for coffee and sandwiches.

Also, there's a building a few doors south on San Pablo which had a fire a while back, and is just finishing being rehabbed. One space was a small restaurant at one point, and has a little kitchen inside. I'm hoping for another restaurant neighbor, and the return of the barber shop in the same building. Also, there's a new cafe which should be open soon on 65th and San Pablo, joining Bailey's on 65th and Cafe Aquarius and Cocina Poblana in the up-and-coming 65th st. corridor.

Stuff is rocking and rolling in the Actual world. Stay tuned for more fun and games.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Chairs! and a cool counter!

More salvage hunting, and another great score - a lot of 24 oak library chairs. These things are probably 50 years old, really comfortable, and solidly built. I figure if they survived this long in a library, they can sustain a few more years in a cafe. It's hard to tell from these shots how beautiful they are. They're worn in all the right ways - signs of decades of butt friction and table pushing-into. They just need some cleaning and maybe a bit of linseed oil. You don't want to know what these cost - it'll just make you jealous. Trust me.

Also found this really excellent old chemistry lab table. Complete with gas jets for your bunsen burner mounted on the side. I'm not sure I can salvage all the cabinetry underneath. I want to use this for the espresso counter. I'll let the builders get a look at it and give me some advice.

So, my furnishings list is getting shorter - I still need interesting light fixtures (which are surprisingly hard to come by these days), 10 or so stools, another couple countertops, some sitting bars, and a couple couches.

Also still shopping for used equipment. Need espresso machine, brewers, grinders, a panini grill, a couple sinks, and an undercounter freezer.

Man, this part is fun.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

scroungers of the world, rejoice!

I've been spending the past few days looking through salvage yards for interesting materials to make stuff from. I need tabletops, countertops, benches, material to face the bar in, chairs, stools, lighting, on and on...I got hold of a free three-compartment dishwashing sink over the weekend (thanks to Kim for turning me on to it, and getting me permission to take it, and to Girard for helping me move it). It's bigger than I need, but for free, I'm not complaining.

Today was a good one, though. I ran into my friend Josh, of People's Donuts fame. He was at the Habitat for Humanity store in East Oakland, picking up some trim boards for his donut shop just down the road (San Pablo & 55th), which he hopes to open in a couple months. I told him what I was looking for, and he told me about a cart full of wooden tabletops he had seen at the UC Berkeley salvage store (just off San Pablo across the Berkeley border). So I went there to check it out.

What I found was pretty great. A rolling cart with six (6!) 2" thick, 6'6" x 3' oak tabletops. They were a bit beat up, but scars are just signs of character. I asked the cashier how much they were, and she didn't have a price. I offered her $50 (just over $8 each), and she said that would be just fine. I looked around a bit more and saw a couple other things I may go back for tomorrow, then paid up.

Getting the things to the shop was a bit of a chore. They're heavy - maybe 75 pounds each - and the cart was not the easiest thing to navigate. I considered borrowing or renting a truck, and decided it was overkill. I considered calling someone to help me roll them around, but decided I'd just do it myself.

So I did. I rolled the several-hundred pound, 7 foot long, metal-wheeled cart, up to the corner, then 5 blocks down San Pablo to the Cafe. I ride down San Pablo quite a bit in the morning, and always see guys pushing their enormous, really unwieldy shopping carts loaded with huge bags of glass and metal, and now I know exactly how they feel. It's hard work, and the cars in the road, construction on the sidewalk, bumps, ramps, driveways, bus stops, newspaper dispensers and trash cans
didn't make it any easier. I worked up a good sweat, but managed to get the whole thing to and inside the Cafe without major incident (although I did get into a couple conversations with drivers along the way).

Now to decide how I'm going to use them. I was waffling a bit on using larger communal tables or smaller ones. I think now the decision is largely made for me. Thanks, salvage!

Thanks to Josh for the tip. I owe you one.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Feels a bit like love

I posted signs on the Cafe windows just about a week ago. Since then, I've been really surprised at the outpouring of interest and support I've received. I'm getting multiple emails every day from folks in the neighborhood, offering help of various kinds, looking for work, or just cheering me on. I have to say that I love this. I knew from talking to people in the area in the past months that there are folks who want to have local places to go, and that I'd probably be able to find customers and even get some input into what I'm doing which might improve the Cafe in the end. But I didn't expect there to get so much enthusiasm, from so many people, and so immediately.

[A concrete measure of this: with very little encouragement from me, the Cafe has collected over 75 web-type followers, between its blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles. And these things have only been online for a couple of weeks.]

I'm amazed that someone passing by the Cafe would take the time to notice that there's something going on there, read the signs, make note of the URL, go home and find the webpage, click around to find an email address, and write and send an email. That's a significant effort, and meaningful. I figure that for each person who emails, hundreds more have noticed, and many feel the same way.

Two things that stand out from the past several days:

1) I'm learning more about my neighbors and neighborhood
Even though I've lived here for a little while (8 years or so), and have spent plenty of time on the streets in the area, walking my dog and riding my bike, I still don't know a lot about neighborhood people and their particular situations outside my immediate few blocks. I'm learning about the co-housing communities, the artist enclaves, the neighborhood associations, the block parties. Which reinforces for me the need for a place for us to gather and meet and learn. As long as we have to go to other neighborhoods (or, even worse, chain stores) to enjoy a cup of coffee and a quiet moment on a sunny afternoon, we won't ever get to know each other.

2) My neighbors are really helpful
I've had several offers of help of all kinds. A woman who had saved some of the leavings from the Pacific Bait & Tackle Shop when the building was renovated offered to lend me some to decorate the cafe. People have offered their ideas and their time. I hope this continues - especially the ideas. I love to hear what people have to say about the Cafe, the neighborhood, and what they want to experience here. Obviously, I won't make everyone happy, but I hope that you all continue to feel like you can and should contribute to the Cafe experience. It's about the neighborhood more than it is about any one of us. Even me.

Also, I mentioned the other day that someone is leaving me flowers on the door. There's a picture of one below. It's sweet, and though I'm curious about who is leaving them, I also sort of hope I don't ever find out. Mystery is nice.

Thanks, neighbors.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Artist's rendering

Exterior view of cafe, with lighting, awnings, and signage locations. Looks pretty cool, I think.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

One day mad equipment fest

I happened to get a note this morning from a friend (thanks, Sue!) who owns a deli in Walnut Creek, hipping me to a restaurant going out of business in her neighborhood, and selling off all their equipment. Today only. For two hours. In five minutes.

So, taking the moment by the horns, as it were, I jumped in my car and sped east. I got to the restaurant at 10:30, and found a good dozen people running in and out of the place with armloads of stuff. I thought I was probably too late to get anything good, but I poked around a bit, and found differently.

After an hour or so of scouring and negotiating, I had purchased almost all the refrigeration I need, along with an icemaker, a ton of wire rack shelving, some wall shelves, a kitchen door, some floor mats, a microwave, a hand wash sink, and some paper towel and soap dispensers, for only a few thousand bucks. All the equipment was only six months old, and came with warranty information and original invoices. Score!

I spent the rest of the day disassembling stuff in the restaurant, renting a truck, getting cash from the bank, finding friends to help me move (thanks, Gail and Everett!), and loading and unloading the truck.

In the meantime, I found out that there were some errors in the floor plan that the city had provisionally approved for occupancy puposes. My interior space had gotten bigger. Which you'd think was a good thing, but in the world of municipalities and permits, it's not. I had gained about 50 square feet, which I now need to remove from my seating area in order to get my occupancy permit. I'll deal with that in the morning.

Also, the city wants me to sign off on an agreement which relieves them of liability in case I don't adhere to the terms of my permits. Which, as far as I can tell, no one else has been asked to do. And the agreement is some non-standard thing that one of the building department guys just drew up. And which, when I marked it up to something a bit more palatable, I can't get feedback on. It may be that this issue (which, by the way, is the first problem I ran across when I started working with an architect a month and a half ago), is going to be the last one solved before I open. I have my fingers crossed that it will get worked out, since I'm approaching the point of no return quickly. More so after buying all this equipment today.

Some nice things - someone has been leaving flowers tucked into the front door of the cafe. When I get there in the morning, they make me smile a bit. And, people walking and biking and driving by the cafe often stop to look, and sometimes poke their heads in to ask what I'm doing, and when I'll be open. They all seem genuinely excited to have something opening in the neighborhood. I'm glad. Hopefully we won't disappoint.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A look inside (with pictures)

I spent some time yesterday & today inside the Cafe space. A couple builders who will be bidding on various parts of the project came by. I taped off positions walls/countertops/equipment and furniture on the floor to try to get a better feel for how the space will work. No major issues. I also took down the 'For Rent' signs on the windows (!!!), and put up 'Coming Soon' signs today (also !!!).

And, I took some interior and exterior photos, which I made into the panoramic images below. I love the afternoon light in the space, although it does make it a bit warm inside.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Welcome to Actual Cafe's Blog

After protracted negotiations with both the landlord and the City of Oakland, Actual Cafe signed a lease for its space last night. And so, it begins for real. We hope to be open in the fall of 2009, barring unforeseen battles with other public agencies, service providers, or construction delays.

This blog will chronicle our adventures as we work on this project, which we hope you'll find as exctiting as we do. Today, a bit of introduction:

The idea for Actual Cafe came from the convergence of two ideas:
1) That if you want to hang out in Oakland after about 8pm, and don't want to spend a ton of dough, your options are super narrow - there are some great bars here, but not everyone wants to spend every night out in a bar. There were some great coffee shops here once - back before Starbucks came to town, there were lots of places where a body could hang out, meet people, drink coffee, and feel at home. Those places are largely gone, replaced with some great newer places that close at dusk, and a bunch of really sterile feeling chain-copycats. We want to change that. To provide a place where people from the neighborhood can meet, gather, and experience something that's about their own city and neighborhood, while contributing to it.

And 2) That, for various reasons, Oakland has not shined. Until very recently, the potential of this really unique city has been largely untapped. There are just bunches of really interesting, creative people here. It's why we're proud to call this city our home. We're excited about the emerging golden age of Oakland. If you haven't experienced it yet, get out around town a bit - go check out the Uptown district, or Temescal, or hit the streets for Art Murmur . There's something in the air, and it's both overdue and really refreshing. In our neighborhood, there's still work to do. And rather than let other people do it, we decided to take it on ourselves. Sure, it's risky, but we're hoping our neighbors will be as excited as we are, will come support us, and will make the project the success we know it can be.

If you're in the neighborhood and see our doors open, stop by and say hello. We'll be inside for the next few months, planning, building, getting inspections, decorating, hiring staff, and about a million other things. We'd love to meet you, so don't be shy.

Will post pictures of the space shortly. More updates to come.