Monday, December 6, 2010

one year in...and surely thankful

Firstly: it's been a helluva long time (again) since I've posted anything here. I'd like to say that I've meant to, but that's not even true. I've been so busy that posting to the blog hasn't even made the list.

But, it's just about our one year anniversary - we opened our doors on December 14th of 2009! That's a milestone that I think deserves a bit of reflection. It's a couple weeks after thanksgiving, but I've been thinking about what I'm grateful for in relation to this business, and also not-so-grateful. As with any project, things rarely look like their plans, and this seems like a good time to take stock of our first year, pass on some thanks, and talk about this neighborhood, this business, and my life over the past year. So, here goes...

Things I'm grateful for:

1) our customers

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - we have the best customers I could have ever hoped for. A combination of neighborhood folks, bicycle enthusiasts, and those who go out of their way because they think we're doing something interesting here. When new employees start, they almost invariably mention that customers are friendly, patient, interesting, and good tippers. Most of these employees have worked in many other similar places, and are used to a different experience when dealing with the public.

Actual Cafe would not be in business today, and won't be in business in another year, without you all. Thank you for your support, your tolerance of our rough edges, your friendly attitudes, and your smiling faces. You're why we're here.

2) our staff
In a business like this one, it's difficult to pay folks much money. Our margin is small, and what we do is very labor-intensive. Payroll cost is our highest non-goods expense, by far. It's about four times as much as our rent, utilities and insurance combined. Our employees make much of their income from tips, and this will always be the case (so be generous when you can and when they deserve it).

So, there need to be other things to motivate employees to do a good job. Here, it's our customers (see #1), the neighborhood mission (most of our folks could walk from home to work, and many ride their bikes here every day), the character of the place, and the others they work with. On our windows, it says 'friendly folks' - these are them.

We've got a strong staff, that cares about supporting each other and at making the best food and drinks they can, smiling as they go. This is not trivial, especially keeping in mind that things have evolved quickly here, and we're still figuring things out. Job responsibilities and hours change, and it's a rare group of people who can thrive in an environment like this one, and not wear out. Especially with a nut like me as a boss.

Even so, we've lost many employees along the way, and not everyone has worked out well here. Over the course of the year, we've lost 13 people. The chaos of the early months wore some folks out. Others left for other things - moving out of the area, having babies, new jobs. A few I let go. We started the year with 6 employees. We're ending the year with 16 (maybe 17)! This means I've hired a total of 29 people along the way, which averages about 2.5 per month. If you figure that the average stay of a cafe worker is in the neighborhood of six months, I figure we'll average about the same for every month going forward - 2.5 employees leaving, 2.5 new ones to interview and train.

(Maybe we can improve on that 6 month average stay...whew! :) )

I've been working on growing some management out of the existing staff, to give them the opportunity to get more experience and get credit for their hard work. Anyone who stays here for more than a couple months leaves a bit of themselves behind in the character of this place - I want the people who have done so much to build what we've got to reap the benefits, rather than bringing in new folks to boss them around in some new way.

In any case, our staff is only getting stronger as we go. We'd be nowhere without all the quirky and wonderful individuals who have sweated their little butts off for you, and you'd love us a whole lot less without them. Where customers are the 'why,' they're the 'how.'

3) our impact on the neighborhood
In so many ways, the cafe has already fulfilled it's mission. If I were hit by a truck tomorrow, I'd go to the afterlife knowing I had accomplished something important here; I hope that it endures and grows even more over time.

I wanted to provide a place in my own neighborhood that would serve as a community hub. I wanted this area, which felt disjointed and under-serviced, to feel like a real neighborhood. I wanted to live somewhere where I could walk to places that I liked. We're becoming that place, even though there's still a lot more to do.

Before we opened, our intersection was a full-time hangout for neighborhood pimps and prostitutes. There were fights on the street. There was trash. San Pablo here was a stretch of road that people avoided. That's changed, and really quickly.

In the first few months we were open, we had our share of pimps and girls coming in. There were a pair who would sit at our front counter and text the girls on the sidewalk outside for hours. I had to ask them to leave multiple times. Every once in a while, one of them shows up and I have to chase him away again. But in general, that activity just doesn't happen much here anymore. (To be sure, it hasn't gone away, it's just moved somewhere else...but I'll take a selfish victory point anyway.)

We've had some trouble with thieves - I caught a guy inside my office once, going through my things. We had a couple customers who had their laptops snatched. We probably lost some counter tips a couple times. Someone stole some of our chairs, and someone else vandalized one of our awnings. I'm not happy about any of these things, but on the whole, it hasn't been too bad - no one has been hurt (or even come close to it), and I'd expect similar sorts of disruption in any neighborhood around here.

What's really exciting to me is that now other businesses are considering moving into this neighborhood, and they're the kind of businesses that can really make even more difference. There were already several art spaces around before we opened, and we've had a few more join the ranks during the year. Our new friends at A Verb For Keeping Warm moved into the space next door to us just a couple weeks ago, and they've added a splash of light and color to the block, as well as lots of new smiling folks. One of our customers has been working on a project for a sustainable technologies compound really nearby - I hope it works out for him and that project happens (last I heard, he was waiting on some grant applications and otherwise trying to raise money for the project).

I always knew that this area was full of all kinds of interesting people - young folks and old, artists and professionals, students and families, black, white and otherwise, rich, poor and everything in between. But until I started working on this project, we had nowhere to gather and meet each other. That's changing, and I'm proud to have been a part of the change. I'm happy to have met so many of you. My favorite part of this job is meeting someone new who's enthusiastic about what we're doing, or meeting someone from my neighborhood with a story to tell. It's the thing that can get me through the hard times and remind me how far we've come.

4) the support of my wonderful girlfriend
I am clearly insane.

I know this because I got involved with a woman while I was preparing to launch the cafe, and (even crazier), she was preparing to launch her own new business. Her name is Gail, and she's awesome. She owns the Liba Falafel Truck (, which makes the best falafel I've ever had (for real), and we've been together for a year and a half (give or take a month). It's been the best year and a half I've ever spent with anyone.

I've lost a lot of sleep this year, but I would have lost a whole lot more if I hadn't had Gail around to talk to, to encourage me, to make me delicious and nourishing meals when I was so exhausted I would have eaten anything (or nothing). She's been an invaluable voice of reason, and a problem solver when I've been in a bind. She's been a source of comfort when I needed it, and a good swift kick in the ass once in a while as well.

I hope that I've been half as much to her.

things i'm less grateful for:
1) the laptop policy kerfuffle
In February, we launched our laptop-free weekend experiment. It stirred up a whole lot of controversy, and was one of the harder things for me personally to manage over the course of the year. The policy has been, by and large, a great success, but I've been weathering the slings and arrows of outraged technophiles all year, and that's made the entire experience feel a bit tainted.

It was so important to me (and it remains so), that this place be different from most other cafes in the area. I wanted to imbue it with a personal touch, and encourage our customers to relate to it in a way that they had forgotten they could. I have no affection for chain stores. It's impossible for me to form a real relationship with a place where the owners don't make their presence felt. Impersonal places that feel like every other place remind me of airports and strip malls - the least charming parts of the American landscape.

So, we did it - we asked people to leave their laptops at home on the weekend.

And we got a lot of publicity. Maybe too much. The fact of our being in everyone's faces for a couple weeks meant that anyone who didn't love what we were doing had their opinion galvanized. It set folks against each other. It brought out the worst in some. I was sworn at, glared at, personally insulted, and generally harangued. And, of course, it's my own damn fault - I said and wrote all the things that I said and wrote. No one put words in my mouth. I might have said or written some different things with the benefit of a bit of time to reflect. Oops.

In any case, the criticism stung. For a period of a several months, I couldn't read our yelp reviews (which, by the way, caused me to miss some cues and not fix other issues that I could have addressed more quickly) - they anger I saw got me really twisted up inside. Even now, it's difficult for me to read the stuff that got posted back then.

On the other hand, the policy has had the desired effect in many ways. We have what I consider to be a much better balance than a lot of local cafes.

Weekend days are now our most financially lucrative days of the week, and folks regularly go out of their way to mention to me or the staff that they're grateful about the lack of laptops on the weekend. On the weekends before we implemented the policy, we were usually crowded (and often full to capacity), but we spent our days slinging two-dollar coffees and teas, and not making all that much money. We saw so many people come in, look around, see nowhere to sit, and leave. Now, the place is busy, but usually not full, and our weekend brunch menu has been encouraging folks to come for a meal and linger for a bit of conversation or reflection, instead of burying themselves in a project (or in their facebook) for the entire day for the price of a cup of tea. We make more money, the staff and I are happier doing it, and the folks who come here on the weekends love it. So, that's good, right?

And on weekdays, we've achieved a better balance as well. Although we still have laptop users, and free wifi during the week, we don't have the same concentration as many other places. Generally, it feels more lively inside to me, and that's what I wanted to achieve. We continue to offer a limited number of outlets, and ask people not to string power cords all over the place or climb our walls to get to the ones that aren't intended to have laptops plugged into them.

The policy has become self-selecting. Generally, folks know what we're up to, and they come here if they like it, and go elsewhere if they don't. This is perfectly reasonable and respectable behavior. Ask any economist.

But, here's the real thing that gets me going when I think about it: What is it about cafes that makes people feel entitled to demand a certain experience? And I don't mean asking politely, or making suggestions, but becoming outraged when we're not exactly like the guy down the street? Why, instead, do we not support and encourage heterogeneity in our local business experience?

To those people: Would you demand that a sushi place serve a hamburger? Would you demand that a fancy restaurant let you in in your cut-offs and flip-flops? Do you smoke inside public buildings? Do you yell at the folks at Fairyland because they won't let you in without a child accompanying? What about parks that don't allow dogs? We tolerate electronic strip-searches and pat-downs in the name of security, but can't tolerate being asked to leave our laptops at home in the corner cafe on the weekends? It all seems a bit skewed to me. Get over it.

What it really boils down to is that some folks get it and love it, some folks don't get it and don't care, and a few folks don't get it and get angry. C'est la vie. If I had to do the whole thing over again, I'd probably end up with the same policy, but I'd handle the communication a bit differently. Maybe.

2) yelp
Until I opened here, I mostly thought of Yelp as a good thing. I used it (and still do) to find businesses, and to get some idea of what they're about. I posted a handful of reviews over the years. I had read about Yelp sales trying to strong-arm small businesses, and other questionable tactics, but I didn't pay them that much attention.

Once we opened, I started to see Yelp differently. Especially since we were trying to be a different kind of place, and really wanted to focus on our neighborhood and neighbors. When I look at our Yelp profile, I see a different picture from what I see and feel inside the cafe. To be fair, we've gotten criticism for poor food (which helped me to tune recipes), poor service (which helped me identify and fix some personnel problems), and other faux pas that customers would have never brought to my attention otherwise. On the other hand, there's a bias toward technology folks on any online system, and folks who are (or were) angry about our laptop policy make up a good chunk of our negative reviews.

In February, I changed our Yelp profile - under wifi, it used to say 'free'. Now it says, 'don't know'. (There isn't a better option for us - 'free', 'paid' and 'don't know' are all that Yelp offers). February was our biggest month in terms of Yelp profile hits - over 1,000 for the month. Immediately after changing that configuration, Yelp hits dropped by half. I figure this is because of folks doing a Yelp search for 'free wifi'/'open now'/close to me, and seeing/not seeing us in the search results.

Today, we have a total of 8 one-star reviews, 4 of which are related to our wifi policy; we have 13 two-star reviews, of which 4 are negative about the same thing. At least one of those reviews looks like it was a person who never even set foot in the cafe. If you took those 8 reviews away, our Yelp rating would be 4.5 (or maybe even 5) stars, rather than the 4 that it is today.

Que sera, sera, I guess. I'm glad that we have loyal customers who say nice things about us, and that there's still real value in word-of-mouth. I'm glad we've gotten positive press attention, and have allies in the community, and that these things will continue to serve us for a long time. But yelp...meh.

3) my poor life balance
I went into this project with eyes open, and I'm not surprised that it's been a difficult year for me from a time-management perspective.

I started out the year working over 100 hours a week. Every hour that the cafe was open, I was here. I spent countless hours behind the counter, from morning to night. I worked and slept, and not much else. Today, I'm working more like 60 hours a week, but still don't have days off. In fact, I've had a total of less than a dozen days off all year long. This has been a strain on me, but even more so a strain on my relationship. I need to fix it.

Before we opened, I rode my bicycle over 100 miles a week, and did yoga three times a week. I was in excellent physical and mental shape. I could reliably form full and complex sentences without struggling to remember the word for 'shelf,' or 'table,' or 'door' - I said 'thing' and 'stuff' a whole lot less often. I was calm, and slept well, and had a bit of a tan, year round.

Now, I ride my bike sporadically (sometimes I can get in 100 miles in a week, but often I go a whole week without a single ride). I haven't been to yoga since the spring. I stutter a lot. I forget things. I'm pale, flabby, and 25 pounds heavier. Crap.

In the next year, I intend to get my life back into balance. Two days off every week would be awesome. Riding my bike regularly would be even better. Yoga, too. And, of course, a weekend off here and there to go out of town with my excellent girlfriend, who's been so patient with me so far. Of course, it will be hard to achieve this, but I've done harder things already, so I'm optimistic about my chances for success.

things that surprised me
1) people love us for our food
I thought we'd be primarily a coffee shop. I didn't expect for us to sell so much food. I didn't design the place to accommodate lots of cooking, and we don't have a ton of storage, so it's been a challenge for us to make the menu delicious, diverse, fresh, and a good value. We've adapted well, I think. There's still more for us to do.

Special thanks to those who helped out with menu development in the early days - Gail & Donna especially, but also everyone else who contributed little bits of advice, and employees who put together things in new ways.

It's hard to have really interesting and high-quality food in an establishment like ours. We don't have chefs, or even line cooks. Our counter staff need to be able to do everything, and the physical space makes what seems like simple things even more challenging. I'm committed to continuing to evolve based on customer needs and wants, but we'll just never be able to do all the things that even I want to.

2) so much press...
A double-edged sword, to be sure, but one that's been mostly in our favor. At the beginning, it was a lot of coverage about our bike-friendliness that got our business off the ground. Soon afterward, it was the laptop policy that got everyone writing about us. They say any publicity is good publicity, and by that yardstick, we've been wildly successful.

This is an indicator that, right or wrong, we're doing something different, and many people find it interesting. For my own part, I think the most interesting thing is what this says about the state of businesses like doing a just a couple things (putting some bike hooks on the walls and expressing opinions about laptops), we stand out. I understand that standing out is challenging, but I'm surprised that more businesses aren't more diverse, especially in a city like ours, which is full of folks who might find that interesting. I hope our example encourages others, here or elsewhere, to challenge conventional wisdom and be creative.

things i want to do better
1) attract a better cross-section of the neighborhood
Our customers are certainly local, and they're diverse, but they're not exactly entirely representative of the area. We have a couple hundred units of senior housing within a few blocks, and it's rare that we see the residents here. There are families who have lived in the area for decades, and many of them just don't come in. We primarily attract young folks, creative folks, students, teachers, young families. Most are white. I'd like to see more of my neighbors inside.

2) more interesting evenings
We've tried a lot of things this year - games nights, craft nights, happy hours, movie night, music, readings, etc. Some have been really successful - our Saturday music shows usually draw at least a few dozen people, during a time when we would otherwise be really sleepy. Our Friday Decompression Sessions just started a couple months ago, but they've already turned into a really fun, family-friendly, laid-back little gathering every week. On the other hand, games didn't work. Crafts petered out. Movies have been inconsistent.

People periodically approach me and ask whether we'd be willing to host some sort of public event. The answer is almost always, 'yes, please.' It's hard to be a neighborhood gathering spot and not be open at night, and without sustained business, we can't be. We just reduced some of our nighttime hours for the winter, but I'd rather kick off some new nighttime activities. I'm open to ideas if anyone's got them.

and finally...the party!
It's time to celebrate all we've done. I hope to see so many of the people who have made this business survive and thrive come out to celebrate with us this Friday night. If not, you have my sincere thanks. The list is too long to thank you individually, but so many of you have made contributions, large and small. This cafe is not about me, or any individual. It's about this place, this neighborhood, this city, and the people in it.

Thank you.



Monday, November 29, 2010

our anniversary party press release...





Actual Cafe, located at the corner of San Pablo and Alcatraz Avenues, in the tiny isthmus of North Oakland bounded by Emeryville and Berkeley, is celebrating its one-year anniversary with a party and group art show. The cafe’s neighborhood, known as the Golden Gate District, Triple Point, Oakleyville, and Paradise Park, among other names, has been undergoing a renaissance, and Actual Cafe is proud to have been a significant part of it.

“We want to say thank you to all of our friends and neighbors who have made us the place we are today, and just make a bunch of noise because it’s fun,” says owner and manager Sal Bednarz about the event.

The anniversary party will be held at Actual Cafe, 6334 San Pablo Avenue (at the corner of Alcatraz Ave) in Oakland, from 6:00-10:00pm on December 10, 2010.

The party will feature a group art show, featuring the work of many artists who have shown during the year at the cafe (Brian Richardson, Eva Silverman, Alexis Babayan, Rachel Duffy), as well as that of Lauren Aczon. The subject matter of the show will be primarily the people and places of Oakland. Because of the holiday season, many items in the show will be priced below $50, to encourage the purchase of local art for holiday gifts.

Entertainment will be provided by The Vultures and For Fear The Hearts Of Men Are Failing, two local bluegrass-and-silliness ensembles, both of whom have performed at the cafe this year. In Addition, DJs Oze, N!k, and Josh Bergman (all of whom perform at the cafe’s every-Friday-night Decompression Sessions) will be spinning excellent and eclectic records.

There will be food and drink specials, the unveiling of the new Actual Cafe t-shirt (designed by Eva Silverman of Pushcart Design), and a make-your-own-s’mores station.

Over the year, Actual Cafe has become known as a bicycle friendly East Bay destination, garnering the East Bay Bike Coalition’s Bicycle Friendly Business Award. It has also received much attention (and controversy) because of its laptop-free weekend policy. It has been awarded Alameda County Green Business certification, due to its local and sustainable practices. It was recently awarded “Best Cafe Food” in the East Bay Express Bar and Cafe Special Edition Reader’s Poll. It hosts monthly openings for local artists, weekly (and sometimes more often) shows for local musicians, fundraisers for local organizations like AIDS/Lifecycle, Girls Rock Camp, Berkeley Maynard Academy, the East Bay Free Skool, and more.

From a business standpoint, Actual Cafe has created new jobs for 17 local residents (all of whom reside within a couple miles of the cafe), and has been part of the attraction for new businesses who would not have otherwise considered moving into the area. It does its purchasing almost exclusively from local producers, including McLaughlin Coffee, Hopkins St. Bakery, Artisan Foods of Berkeley, and the Berkeley Bowl.

In the month of November, Actual Cafe was joined on San Pablo by A Verb For Keeping Warm, a fiber/yarn/spinning/knitting store, which has further contributed to the emerging neighborhood’s character. In a down economy, Actual Cafe is a shining example of local business creating economic opportunity, and its commitment to doing business locally means that most of those dollars stay in its own neighborhood.

Yeah. Why wouldn’t you come?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

percolating along...

It continues to be a fun ride over here in the north o. We've been working on a bunch of stuff, and I'm really excited about the coming months.

Firstly, our May first Friday show (May 7th) is going to be a great one. Brian Richardson, a longtime local, is showing a new exhibit of his photography entitled "Spirited Decay". He makes crumbling structures and junk-strewn fields look like colorful shrines. Great stuff. DJs Garlynn and Joe Rice will be slanging discs, and Comfy Chair ( will be providing the live entertainment. Yessir.

Next, on May 15, we'll be screening a series of short films made by Charlotte Buchen for, of a series called Street Portraits. One of the films is about me and the Cafe, filmed shortly after we opened. Blurbs for all three are below.

Terri Saul paints impossible childhood fantasies on canvas. Inspired by her Choctaw-Chickasaw roots as well as memories of childhood bike rides through the outer edges of Los Angeles, many of Terri’s paintings combine classic Tour de France imagery with the regalia of Native American dancers. And now, her daughter Lydia, too, is taking to the magic and independence of the bicycle.

Sal Bednarz believes in creating community, so when he opened a new cafĂ© in his beloved neighborhood in Oakland, he gave it bike-friendly features. But Sal’s not trying to make a statement – he just thinks bike parking should come standard.

Antonio Mendoza has been living in Oakland and sending money home to Mexico for 13 years, but these are especially hard times. For him, riding his bike is a way to relieve stress, get around, and stay fit at the same time. Bicycles are also one way he can stay connected to his son in Mexico: They haven’t seen each other in over a decade, but whenever he can, Antonio fixes up a bike and sends it home so that his son can have something that his father’s hands have touched and loved.

We'll have live music by The Marshmallows (featuring Elliot Warren, who composed some of the soundtrack for the films), and Even Taylor.

The screening will also serve as the kickoff for Saturday night live music at the Cafe. I'm frantically listening to and booking bands in pretty much every free moment these days. In the month of May, we've got Go Kart Mozart ( on the 22nd, and Annah Anti-Palindrome ( on the 29th. More to come.

Also in May, we'll be starting to do some workshops on Thursday nights. Kendra Poma (aka girl on bike, whose recycled bike-tube earrings have been selling here for a couple months) will be doing a workshop on making jewelry from recycled bike tubes. Alison Tharp (yay, Alison) will be doing a shadowbox shrine-building session. More of these coming as well. If you're interested in hosting a workshop or group activity, say so. There are a helluva lot of Thursdays lying around here.

We've got some fundraising activities happening, too - on May 1, we'll be hosting a jewelry sale to benefit Team in Training. I've spoken to a couple AIDS/Lifecycle riders who are interested in doing some fundraising activities here as well. I've got a particular soft spot in my heart for physical challenge fundraisers like these, because they serve the dual purpose of raising money for folks who need it and helping motivate people to push themselves physically farther then they think they're able to go. I'm a four-time ALC cyclist, and I'm sad to not be riding this year. ALC was the thing that turned me from a casual, around-town rider into a pretty strong long-distance cyclist. If you're participating in these or other events and want to host a fundraising activity here, I'd love to hear about it.

All the above stuff is on our calendar (, which you can subscribe to with RSS/iCal or Gmail. It gets updated more often than the Facebook event pages, for various reasons.

We made a couple minor adds to the menu recently - bagels and bacon. Yum.

This weekend, we're also kicking off our new brunch menu, featuring belgian waffles (including our delicious bacon/parmesan version), mimosas, and a thing we call the Bloody Tire, with our housemade bloody mary mix and Fat Tire ale. 9-3 on weekend days.

We're making some minor changes to the interior of the cafe - adding a couple more seats, shuffling some things around - trying to make it a bit easier for us to do music without moving too many things every time, and just making the place more comfortable and usable.

Our Sparkle Motion bike-powered video player is on its way to Rock Paper Scissors for the month of May; it will be part of a show called Beyond Bikes (, full of human-powered things that will probably be pretty darn cool.

The weather is beautiful. Great for bike-riding, which I'm actually managing to do once in a while these days. Hope to see you all out there, and in the Cafe.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

life goes on, and we build more stuff

Until just about an hour ago, I hadn't been keeping up with online comments to the blog (or anywhere else) lately - I've been busy actually running the Cafe. We hired a couple new folks (stop by and say hello to Rosy and Even), and are hiring more again. Business continues to grow, and the addition of new events (game nights on Sundays, craft nights on Thursdays), along with our Wednesday movies and First Friday parties isn't hurting. Inside the Cafe, it feels like we're doing all the right things.

But then, I did read the comments. And there are still a lot of people posting who don't like what we're doing. And I guess that's how it will be.

I'm still surprised at the vehemence of people who think that they have the right to have unfettered network access and a seat for as long as they want it for nothing more than the price of a cup of tea. They don't. Cafes are for-profit businesses, and will make decisions about the services they provide to their customers at least partly based on their revenue impacts. If I thought I'd make a lot more money by catering directly to laptop users, I might install more outlets, put in a faster internet connection, add printers, sell subscription wifi - whatever. Lots of Cafes do this already. Instead, I made a different decision, by limiting the available outlets, and restricting laptop use on the weekends to try to create another kind of environment. I believed that there were enough people who would appreciate this to support the business. This was done consciously, and is achieving the desired effect. If it weren't, I'd change it.

Enough dead-horsing. I don't want the entire online conversation about the Cafe to be about our laptop policy. It feels like time to move on to some other things. are some other things:

We just finalized the calendar for our next art show. On April 2 (the first Friday in April), we'll be having a little party for the opening of Dave Glass's exhibit titled 'Oakland: Study in Contradiction'. for more on that. Great photos from Oakland in the 70s and 80s, along with great music, etc.

We're launching our craft night THIS VERY NIGHT! I asked customers and fans what sort of activities they'd like to see in the Cafe, and got lots of great suggestions. Craft night is the one that I got from the most people, and the one that people went out of their way to track me down and talk to me about. So, it's on. Come check it out. I'd like to add some workshoppy-sorta things as we go forward, so if you're interested in teaching or participating in a particular workshop, let us know. We'll do our best to accomodate.

We're also starting to think pretty hard about doing music on a more frequent basis than just monthly. This is a bit challenging for us because of the layout of the space, but we'll figure something out. If you're playing music or want to recommend someone to play here, please tell us so.

We're also shifting our menu out of winter things and into spring ones. We've got a really delicious roasted asparagus soup on today, and have swapped out strawberries for pears in our fruit palette. We're experimenting with more syrups, and have turned out pretty great cucumber and mint ones this week. We're also making fresh limeade along with our fresh lemonade.

I've also been noodling on extending our hours on Monday and Tuesday (and maybe Sunday too), now that the sun is up a bit later. Stay tuned for more.

And, we'll be a morning energizer station for EBBC's Bike to Work Day:

Speaking of which - now that all you cyclists are out on the roads in the nice weather, stop by and say 'hello'. Maybe I'll actually see you out on the road someday soon.

Gotta run and pay the bills.


Monday, March 1, 2010

laptop-free weekends. for good and for real.

I'm thrilled to announce that our laptop-free weekend experiment, while not without it's bumps, has been on the whole, a huge success, and that we'll be keeping weekends at the Cafe laptop-free indefinitely. The Cafe has become a different (I think nicer) place on the weekends, and many people have told me that they go out of their way to come here on the weekend because of this policy.

To see the reasons why we're doing this, check out my original post on the topic.

We'll be making more prominent mention of this on the website and also making some better permanent signage to prevent folks from getting surprised on the weekends when they take their laptops out and I come visit (which has happened a few times, I'm sorry to say).

I had a couple people suggest that we just turn off the wifi on weekends, rather than restrict laptops. I don't think this achieves the same effect, and so we won't be trying it at the moment. I am sympathetic to people who need to work on their laptops on the weekend, but it's not what we're trying to do here.

I'm also really happy that Sunday game nights have been going really well, and that we intend to make these a permanent feature of the Cafe. Folks have been bringing their own games, as well as playing the (not tiny) assortment we've got here. People are playing with their own friends, as well as with people they don't even know. Which is cool, right?

And there have been unicycles.

We're looking for another activity for Saturday nights. I'm open to suggestions. Ideally, it would involve some interactive component, rather than just passive participation. Cause that's how we do here at Actual.

And, btw - don't miss our new opening this Friday. Just like every first Friday, it will be a party. Great local photography by Eva Silverman, along with her WPA-style illustrations, and a slideshow of photos that she inherited from her father, taken in Chicago, Brooklyn and NJ mostly in the 70s. DJs Oze and Kid Frostbite. Live music by Loretta Lynch.


Making waves on San Pablo since 2009...


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

more time elapses...laptop-free weekends continue

It's been an interesting few more days over here. We continue to have lots of people coming through the doors who are really excited about laptop-free weekends, and also creating a space that's a bit different from the average cafe.

On the other hand, I've steeped myself in the negative opinions about what we're doing, and I'm sad to see that the one thing I wanted to avoid has come to pass: people have become polarized, which doesn't lead to any kind of solution.

The negative feedback I've seen and heard about seems to fall into a few general categories:

1) Technology is unequivocally good, and I'm crazy to want to limit it

This is an argument that I expected, and it's surprisingly a very small part of what folks seem to be upset about.

2) I am an annoying publicity-hound, and should shut up.

There's something to this, honestly. I did want attention on what we were doing here. I had been interviewed for a piece on oaklandnorth just after I had announced the laptop-free experiment. I sent out a press release about it, which I expected would be largely ignored.

I was interviewed by the Chronicle on Friday, and knew there was going to be a story in Saturday's paper. I had no idea that story would end up on the front page. I'm not sure it belonged there. I had no idea that that front page story would lead to so much other press. To be sure, I didn't turn down any interviews, and I took the attention to mean that there was a positive interest in what we were doing, which made me excited about it. Who would have thought that a brand-new little cafe in oakland trying out a slightly different technology policy would garner so much attention so quickly? Clearly, what we were doing struck a chord with some people.

With the space of a couple days, I feel like all the attention just got on some folks' nerves. For which I don't blame anyone. It probably also swelled up my head some. Sorry about all that.

So far, I have had great success with this project by being really open and direct. I don't plan to change that, at least not yet.

3) I don't have the right to make people talk to each other.

This is true. I can't make anyone talk to anyone else. I like it when it happens, but it's not something I can compel, nor do I want to. I'm only trying to create a balanced environment inside this place. Talking, working, reading, eating, whatevering all together, like ebony and ivory. Or something less corny.

4) I don't have the right to ask them to turn off their laptops, either.

This, I'm going to have to disagree about. There's a libertarian argument that crops up whenever there's the threat of regulation limiting some behavior (like smoking, for instance): that business owners can restrict behavior and customers can decide who to patronize - the market will sort everything out. In this case, I'm the business owner making a decision about how I run my business. I'm doing it for community-minded reasons, but the community won't fail if I do the wrong things - the cafe will.

Businesses restrict all sorts of activity all the time: no eating in your favorite boutique, no outside food or drink at the movie theater, no kids during school hours...I can go on and on. What's so different about limiting laptop use?

5) I'm a hypocrite.

I'm a technology guy. No doubt about it. I run my business on technology. I promote it using technology. I think the world is a better place in a lot of ways as a direct result of the widespread dissemination of technology. I think that the developing world's increasing access to technology is a great thing. I think my personal access to information when I need it is a great thing. It's so much easier to settle bets these days than when I was a youngster.

And, by the way, I first programmed a computer in something like 1978. I've been around and used computers most of my life. I managed a messaging hub for a thing called Fidonet back in the early 80's, out of my bedroom. I've evangelized broadband access, and helped build it. I've evangelized cheap cell phones, and helped build them, too. I've also spent a lot of time doing non-technology things along the way.

What's hypocritical about a guy like me wanting to create a space that's not all about technology? If anything, my experience should give me the right to have an opinion that includes some critical views. No?

One solution to this problem would be to turn off wifi altogether - like every day, not just weekends. I don't want to do that because there's utility in having it, and because lots of folks appreciate their ability to come on in and do wired things sometimes. Because I think technology is often a good thing, I want to create that balance that I think most other folks also appreciate.

6) I'm an idiot, and my business will fail because of it.

Possibly true on both points. The fact is that I (like any business owner) make great decisions and stupid ones constantly. When the great decisions outweigh the stupid ones, a business thrives. When the opposite is true, the business fails. Only time will tell which side I'll fall on.

7) Cafes should be wifi shacks. Period.

This strikes me as completely wrong. Cafes should be diverse and interesting, and should serve their own respective markets. There's room for all sorts in this little world of ours. I think we've experienced too much of the same in the last decade or so, and that a bit of variety is long overdue. For those that just want more of the same, it's easy to find out there as well.


I'm sad (although not surprised) to see that some faces that I used to see around here every day have stopped coming by. Obviously, they believe one or more of the seven things above. There are some new faces, which is nice, but I'll miss the old ones. I never wanted to drive people away - I just wanted them to leave their laptops at home a couple days a week.

Someone called me on the phone the other day, cursed me out, and hung up. This was a bit unnerving.

I've had angry comments on the facebook page, have a couple nasty emails, got some bad yelp reviews. Many from people who haven't been here, and maybe never will. I wish they'd stop by before they complained.

A guy came in the other night to pick up a friend who had been in the Cafe working for a while. When he walked in, he pointed the laptop-free weekend sign out to his friend, and without looking in my direction, hustled her out the front door. Which was a bit strange.

Apparently, a bar in SF had a trivia night last week, and one of the questions was about our new weekend policy. Lots of people knew the answer, and a heated discussion broke out afterward.

I don't want a fight.

We're going to continue our experiment, a bit more quietly, for the rest of the month. Jury's still out on the relative merits of this approach, and I'm still open to others. Cue the suspenseful music...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

the first laptop-free day - a status report

What a day.

We had an incredible response to our laptop-free weekend experiment. Not everything went perfectly, but a lot went really well, and I'm excited about what comes next.

First of all, we had a really great first Friday party last night - a great turnout of neighborhood folks, photographers, musicians, cyclists, and other art murmurers. Great DJs, great accordion, great sewing, great photographs. I'm so excited to see that we *can* throw a party on San Pablo, and people *will* come. I'm really looking forward to next month's party and show - it's going to be a special one, I think. Stay tuned for more on that.

And then today. I walked into the Cafe this morning, and found a copy of today's Chronicle, which had a story about us on the front page. Big pictures, and really interesting. The reporter talked about how our laptopless weekends echo the idea of the jewish sabbath, and of leaving work behind for one day a week. She also said that we're revolutionary, which I'm not sure I agree with. But anyway...

That story led to all sorts of other press - I was interviewed for two different TV news shows and one radio show today, and I have another radio interview in the morning. Clearly, we've hit on something. People are really interested in the problem of ubiquitous technology, and the adverse effects it's having on our human lives.

And, of course, we had lots of new visitors today. Customers who drove from other cities to come see the freaky cafe with no laptops. A lot of them expressed their support and excitement. Which was nice.

I had one interesting conversation with a couple who was leaving after they had finished their meal/snack/coffee...I asked how everything was, and they came back to the counter and said, "it was a bit quiet - we thought there'd be more conversation." They went on to say that they wanted to talk to people in the Cafe, but they were shy, and didn't quite know how. Which I thought was really interesting, and started me thinking about all sorts of things.

I had to tell exactly one person that we were laptop-free today, and that he needed to close his laptop. After which he left (and not so happily, I think). I saw a few other people read our sign on the door and leave. And one person asked if we had wifi, and when I said 'not today,' he ordered a drink to go, and went elsewhere. These things didn't make me happy, but I wasn't really surprised by them.

A woman posted on facebook something to the effect that we *are* just another wifi shack, and that all this stuff is just hot air. Which hurt my feelings a little bit, I have to admit.

I also just saw a blog post by a woman who was a bit worried that we would somehow force her to be social, even though she's a bit introverted. And didn't love the idea.

And, after reflection on all this, and a few other things, I wanted to quickly jot down some thoughts:

1) The removal of laptops from a room which might have otherwise been full of them does not result in a magical cafe wonderland. It only creates space in which other (I think more interesting) things can happen. And it's up to all of you people to make them happen. If you want conversation, start one. If you want art, make some. If you want smiles, give some. It takes effort to build a community. Expend some.

2) I can't (and don't really want to) force anyone to socialize with anyone. But there's nothing I love more than watching strangers find something in common. And I've seen it happen so many times in the Cafe. Some may find it difficult to believe that I'm actually pretty introverted, and that's it's really difficult for me to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But it's important. Technology has made it much easier for natural introverts (like me) to feel social without making much effort. But it's a false sociability - in the end, it's not really fulfilling, and by not practicing social skills (which, like all skills, work best when used often), we make it increasingly more difficult to make real connections. Which leads to all sorts of bad stuff in the long run.

3) I am not anti-technology. I am anti-isolation. I think we have lots of great tools and that we often misuse them. I also think that our obsession with staying constantly abreast of whatever interests us is silly, and leads to a crappy quality of life. Sometimes, it's OK to wait. I also think that we (and I say 'we' because I'm guilty of this as well) forget that we have certain obligations to each other when in public spaces - that we've forgotten good manners. Shame on us all.

4) We may not be doing everything right, but we're trying. If nothing else, this experiment has led to a ton of conversation. I've made new friends along the way. I've seen customers engage each other over this issue. Just like having parties on first Fridays, we're doing this experiment and others, trying to find ways to bring people together. Excising laptops and wifi entirely from the Cafe is something that some people seem to be advocating for, but I think that's a bit extreme. Why can't we create a balanced environment, where our devices are tools, and don't run the show? Does it have to be so black-and-white? Are we so dependent on these gadgets that we need to keep them out of sight so we don't fall under their spell?

So, anyway...I'm interested to see what happens when all the hoopla blows over. Will the place turn into a ghost town on the weekends? Will conversations spontaneously erupt? Will folks post lots of annoyed yelp reviews about us? Will it matter if they do? Maybe it's best that we be the quiet neighborhood joint that no one really knows about. And that pretty cool things happen inside.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

laptop-free weekends - the experiment

I knew that the day would come eventually. It came much sooner than I thought, and has taken me by surprise.

It was the day when we filled up with laptop users, and became just another wifi shack, at least for a couple hours.

It happened this past weekend. And led me to losing many hours of sleep, trying to figure out how to handle the situation.

I was serious when I wrote our manifesto, and our tagline ('not just another wifi shack'). I didn't want this place to become just another Cafe full of people a couple feet from each other but so absorbed with their gadgets that they did not interact. To that end, I made a lot of design decisions - I made all our seating communal, I didn't go out of my way to install laptop power, I make sure the music is a bit livelier and louder than in most places. And I hoped that our mission would resonate with people and that behavior might be different here.

When I walked out into our dining room last week, and saw a sea of laptops, with tangles of power cords everywhere, and so many people wearing headphones, it really upset me. And so I set out to figure out what was so upsetting, and why.

And here's the thing I got to, after much agonizing - community doesn't come for free. We must each support it as individuals. And that means that I have the right to ask you - our customers - to help us make the Cafe a place that's a bit different. There are plenty of places in the area which are full of laptop users, and where such behavior is welcome (or at least tolerated).

There are financial reasons for wanting to limit the time that folks spend in seats, and they're important. What most people don't realize is that the margin of a business like this is razor-thin, and that we make most of our money during our peak times. If we lose money because all or most of our seats are taken by people who spend little money and much time, our business is at risk. Cafes fail all the time. When that happens, we all lose.

But this isn't the most important thing. It's more important to me that we re-discover the social webs that used to tie us together. Ennui, depression, boredom, and desperation are the result of long-term isolative behavior. We're about love, hope, discovery, creativity, and looking each other in the eye.

And so, we're embarking on an experiment. For the month of February, our weekends will be laptop-free. This may anger some. It's a risky thing for a brand-new business to do.

But it's so important, I can't not do it.

If it goes well, we'll make it a permanent feature of the Cafe. If not, we'll try something else. I'm open to suggestions that lead to the desired result.

If you haven't already seen it, you might be interested to read dialog I had with facebook fans several months before the Cafe opened, on this very topic ( It wasn't conclusive, and this isn't either. We're just trying to make our way in a cold world. :)

(wish us luck!)


Quick update

I haven't had a second to give any updates on the Cafe, except 140 characters at a time. Here's a (slightly) longer one.

We've been doing spectacularly well, thanks to our neighbors and local cyclists. Weather has been a bit dodgy for the past couple weeks, and folks are a little less animated now that the holidays are over, but I'm past worrying about getting people into the Cafe, and on to bigger and better things.

We've started a movie night. Tonight will be our second week. Last week we played Willie Wonka (the original with Gene Wilder), and it was great. More on this soon.

We're also getting into the rhythm of first Friday openings, and starting to put together some interesting activities, music, etc.

This month, on February 5th, we'll be hosting an opening of 'Getting There' - photography by Christopher Hall. We'll also have B Spoke Tailor making made-to-order arm warmers out of recycled sweaters, and a nighttime bike ride after. There will be music, and fun of various sorts.

We're also embarking on an experiment - laptop-free weekends. I'm devoting a whole post to that today as well. Stay tuned.

First month in the bag. I'm looking forward to many more. If you haven't already, stop by and introduce yourself. We like making connections.