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 "no...no...no..." 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: http://www.abetteroakland.com/things-that-are-lame-about-oakland/2008-10-01. 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

streetlights...contractors...bikes...new 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.