As pep talks go, the ones Lev Delany and Chris Pastena heard as they dove into the Great Recession to start their restaurant, Chop Bar, weren't exactly encouraging.
"People told us, 'You are complete dumbasses,'" Delany said.
Maybe they were crazy. Unemployment was high; disposable income was low. Banks were refusing to finance new restaurants outright, let alone ones on dark corners in the middle of a business desert.
"There was just really nothing going on — whether you're talking the area, the ability to get money to build a restaurant, or [the ability to] go out and get a job," Pastena recalled. "It just wasn't happening."
Temoor Noor and Adam Lamoreaux heard similar things as they waded into the swampy economy to open Grand Tavern, near Lake Merritt, and Linden Street Brewery, west of Jack London Square, respectively.
"People didn't believe it would work," Noor said. "And what hurt more is that they didn't believe in Oakland — they didn't think there was the community there to support it."
Both Noor and Lamoreaux brought with them tiny, tight-knit staffs that consisted entirely of family members. With the help of his mother and sister, Noor converted an old stucco house on Grand Avenue into a neighborhood bar with gourmet, Afghan tendencies. Lamoreaux enlisted the help of his wife — who also worked a day job. Over at Chop Bar, there was a similarly bare-bones bravery.
"We came in with paint cans and lots of friends," Pastena said. "What we did wasn't the best way to open — we didn't have all the infrastructure, or enough refrigeration, or enough money to sustain a staff — but we decided it was the only way we could open."
Delany, Pastena, Noor, and Lamoreaux were part of a groundswell of calculating, mostly young, entrepreneurs who opened restaurants and drinking establishments in Oakland around 2009, including the owners of Sidebar, Bocanova, Commis, and CommonWealth Cafe and Pub. Lamoreaux has taken to calling them "The Oakland '09ers." Everyone from The New York Times to this very paper declared that the wave of new eateries would make Oakland the next Brooklyn. But that declaration was perhaps a bit optimistic.
Oakland didn't exactly become a dining destination, but it has become home to a blossoming restaurant and bar scene. The success of these upstarts owes less to fierce competition and hype than it does to collaboration, slow growth, and a sense of connection to their community.
"In some ways, it was an entrepreneur's dream," said Lamoreaux. "Buy low, know your neighbors, love your town. Now [investors] are paying a lot more."
Today, The Oakland '09ers — Delany, Pastena, Noor, Lamoreaux, and others — run thriving businesses and are partnering together on even more new projects for 2013. Currently in the works are a German-style beer garden on the Jack London waterfront, an Italian pasta-seafood spot in Jack London Square, a beer garden/restaurant at Linden Street Brewery, a tavern in the Tribune Tower, and a Yucatán-inspired bar/restaurant in Uptown. It may not constitute a culinary renaissance, but in a town that not long ago suffered from a dearth of quality establishments, what these entrepreneurs have achieved — and plan to achieve — seems just as revolutionary.
To help his parents and two younger sisters afford a $500 apartment in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Temoor Noor sold fruit and flowers on a street corner — as a eight-year-old Afghan refugee. (Full disclosure: I've known Noor since high school.)
Noor learned two main things, among many, from that experience. First: After he asked his dad to move him from the street corner to the front of the hospital to spread more love and increase sales, Noor quickly uncovered his knack for commerce; and second, business, however hard-scrabble, beat conditions in Afghanistan, where Noor remembered being yanked back from the window by his mom as machine-gun-toting soldiers walked by.
Pastena and Lamoreaux endured their own challenges to find their business acumen. One day, Pastena abruptly abandoned his work in Manhattan's financial industry to attend the Culinary Institute of America, then crossed the country with $500 in his pocket, no place to stay, and a simple desire to find work in the food industry.
Lamoreaux endured six-month deployments in the Persian Gulf as a Naval petty officer on carriers in Operation Desert Fox. "[If] you go over almost four months without seeing land, [you] get a little cranky," he said. Eventually, he decided to apply his technical prowess and military discipline to the organization-demanding craft brew game.
In other words, Delany, Pastena, Noor, and Lamoreaux weren't easily intimidated. Besides, they saw more opportunity than insanity in entering the Oakland market.
"There hadn't been a production brewery [in the city] since 1959," Lamoreaux said. "If people wanted true Oakland beer, they'd have to call me."
"I knew the Chop Bar neighborhood," Pastena said. "There was no place to grab a quick bite, or just a burger on a Wednesday night and hang out with your neighbors."
"We saw a chance to bring life and energy to a section of the neighborhood that didn't have it," Noor said, "to bring a resurgence of people and community to meet, eat, talk, and relax; watch games; hang at a neighborhood spot."
If anything, the tightened economy helped them. "Everybody was on a budget," Lamoreaux said as he sipped one of his Common Lagers at Chop Bar's half-circle bar. "You only have so many dimes, you want to spend it on locals, not [California Pizza Kitchen] and Chipotle."
Luckily, the nonprofit Oakland Business Development Corporation believed in their experience and acumen, and financed their loans when traditional banks shrank away.
"I'm in awe of all these entrepreneurs," said OBDC Managing Director Felicia Pierson, whose first projects were helping Linden Street and Chop Bar. "A lot are young, a lot want to do something different, and want to contribute." (Noor financed Grand Tavern with money he had saved and additional funds from a college friend; the fact he and his mom didn't take salaries also helped.)
The success was Oakland's, too. Linden Street, Grand Tavern, and Chop Bar have all made community involvement a priority. They have donated food and beer to various nonprofits, and Noor has hosted fundraisers at Grand Tavern. Community ties thickened, and their success triggered subtler stuff, too.
"When they're willing to take a risk," Pierson said, "other entrepreneurs see that and are willing to take a risk. It creates organic growth."
Added Lamoreaux: "The best part as an entrepreneur opening in the worst economy the community's seen is it subconsciously gave them hope. They may not say it out loud, but they're thinking, 'It can't be that bad.'"
Since then, critics and locals alike have been eating up their stuff. (And drinking it, too.)
Chop Bar's easy energy — born of the casual-attentive service, rounded bar, plank-wood walls, and hanging vintage trombones — dovetails with affordable price points ($8.50 for a tasty banh mi) and rigorously sourced ingredients. Its brunches, brimming with baconfied Bloody Marys, chilaquiles, and cazuela, were a hit in the beginning and remain booming.
Lamoreaux can't keep supply remotely in sync with ever-telescoping demand, and that's not just from bars and restaurants lapping at the door of his straight-from-the-1900s, old Chicago-feeling shipping station of a craft beer mini-factory. They want his signature Deep Roots Red, Burning Oak Black, and, his finest work, the Common (a take on steam beer as complex as Oakland). Local restaurant owners are partnering with Lamoreaux to create their own Linden Street-created one-offs, like Bar de Tartine's amber Biere de Tartine and Hawker Fare's Superfly.
Grand Tavern has ridden its homey feel and ahead-of-the-trend drink menu — Noor hunted down a Prohibition-style ice maker in the south for its perfectly square cubes — to hatch a definitive neighborhood hub. The range of market-driven, gluten-free-friendly dishes — from moist, roasted leeks to rich avocado salads and crispy green beans grown in school gardens — earned Chef Nate Barry-Stein an appearance on the cover of the Express this fall.
Their collaborations are increasing — as is their businesses. Noor is biking more kegs of Linden's carbon-neutral, Oakland-only 'Town Lager to his bar on a specially designed Linden Street Brewery platform cruiser. Come warmer months, Chop Bar's whole-hog roasts at Linden Street will return, creating 350-person al fresco parties on Sunday afternoons with live music. Pastena and Noor, meanwhile, recognizing what they say is a common get-things-done spirit, are collaborating on several of the most devoutly Oakland restaurants to arrive since, well, 2009.
In addition to managing their own restaurant-bars, Grand Tavern's Noor and Chop Bar's Pastena are working on no fewer than three major Oakland restaurant projects at once: The waterfront Cinque Terre-inspired Italian lounge-restaurant Lungomare, the downtown tavern Tribune Tavern, and an as-yet-unnamed Yucatán-focused food-and-tequila destination in the proposed mixed-use "Hive" development at 22nd Street and Broadway. Meanwhile, Linden Street's Lamoreaux — who introduced Noor and Pastena when he learned both were looking for projects — is overhauling his entire brewery and adding a promising restaurant collaboration of his own. And Chop Bar partner Delany has a plan in play for a German-style beer garden right on the waterfront, featuring afternoon barbecues and rotating taps. (See "Projects in the Pipeline for 2013" sidebar.)
When asked why he's taking on so many projects at once, Noor replied, "Why not?"
Well, there's the risk — the chance of undermining the success of his existing restaurant — not to mention what such an undertaking will do to his ability to sleep. But maybe the more accurate answer than "why not?" would be the same answer each of these guys gives when asked about their inspiration: Oakland.
The logic that worked for Chop Bar, Linden Street, and Grand Tavern is the same that drives these new projects: Look for what Oakland needs, and fulfill the need with solid principles carried out by a competent staff. Pastena recites his operating philosophy regularly: "Quality ingredients, perfectly executed."
"It's just something that resonates with us and what we're trying to accomplish," said Pastena. "I think [when] people are driven by profit and other things, that starts taking away from values."
That philosophy led Pastena and Delany to look at how Chop Bar could offer conscious sourcing without sending its prices beyond the realm of its core clientele. What resulted elevated Pastena and Delany's reputation for craftiness: Pastena campaigned stubbornly for more wineries to sell him wine by the barrel, saving space, money, and packaging, while widening the wine menu in ways he couldn't before — and creating real demand for bigger-format wines. Delany started doing in-house whole-hog butchery and charcuterie like cured fatback and smoked tenderloin, saving more money in the process. The surging drink program stocked rare spirits and offered specific and stylized drinks, allowing bartenders to manage without a big back bar they couldn't fit anyway.
Recently, Pastena identified a need for a defining downtown tavern, hence the Tribune Tavern, which is due in March. He also believes the Jack London waterfront remains woefully underused, hence all the more incentive for a place that will enthusiastically optimize large patios with trellises and heat lamps, and coastal Italian fare that matches the climate and local ingredients nicely.
At the Tribune Tavern, customers will be greeted by a big U-shaped bar, and a lounge area will beckon with a tall ten-top table and old palm wood lounge chairs. "People are going to be racing to sit in these chairs," Pastena predicted.
The restaurant is being funded in part by local businessman Tom Henderson, whose group of investors purchased the Tribune Tower, where the Tribune Tavern will be located, in December 2011. Henderson has partnered with Noor and Pastena to form 5 Terraces, a restaurant group that's behind the Tribune Tavern, Lungomare, and Hive concepts. (For more on Henderson, see the sidebar "Distant Local Love.")
"Chris [Pastena] and I have discussed doing restaurants for several years, and the Tribune Tavern was a perfect fit to partner together," Henderson said. "His ideas on fresh foods and the creativity was exactly what we were looking for. This is the first of many restaurants to come."
Elements like a tin ceiling, casual bar-area tables, and roomy booths will be intentionally visible from outside, and large windows will slide open to create the kind of indoor-outdoor environment that gives Chop Bar its neighborhood-y vibe. The bar area will blend more into the private dining sanctuary behind it, and the customized kitchen will be designed to allow for in-house butchering and bread-making. The menu will take gourmet pub fare and spark it with the same relentless sourcing and creative twists that have been Chop Bar hallmarks.
Far less work will be required with the Lungomare project, which will take over the space currently occupied by Miss Pearl's Restaurant and Lounge, which shutters in December. The restaurant is pretty much ready to go, but Pastena and Noor still need to hire and train staff; update paint, furniture, and flatware; pimp out the patios; and revamp signage. They've already tapped high-profile people in the business to head up the restaurant's leadership, and are giving them full control to develop the place's identity in their own way. That means important creative control for Executive Chef Craig DiFonzo, who moves from Napa Valley, where he was a chef for Francis Ford Coppola Presents. Saeed Amini is on board as wine director, after a recent stint at Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. Longtime Pastena friend and colleague Rob Soviero — a restaurant veteran who has opened restaurants around the country — will act as general manager.
The prospective menu will hone in on fresh pastas made in a special on-site pasta room, rustic seafood, regional pizzas, and other dishes to pair with well-curated Italian wines and Northern California takes on Italian varietals.
Meanwhile, over at Linden Street, Lamoreaux is talking with Commis mastermind and fellow Oakland '09er James Syhabout about putting together a restaurant in the beautiful 2,000-square-foot space with brick walls and old pine floors next to his tasting room as early as spring. Oakland's bearded minister of beer is also aiming to ramp up production toward his ultimate goal of 20,000 kegs a year (he's currently about one-sixth of the way there) by expanding into a second existing tank room, and spilling tasting-room action onto his 1,500-square-foot outdoor landing. Across all his various endeavors, Lamoreaux insists on one consistent quality:
"You will not be successful if you're not 100-percent authentic," he said. "This town sniffs a fake."
There's a circular theme to this story: People are again calling Pastena nuts for what he's attempting.
"I've been called crazy by a lot of people," he said. "But it's nice when people close to me in the industry say, 'That's insane, but if anyone can pull it off, you can.'"
There are five main reasons he will. He listed the first two: "We can do anything we want if we have a good team and finances." He added a third and fourth as an aside: clear roles and communication.
The fifth was more implicit, and may explain what will make the other pending restaurants successful as well: This isn't another hyped "Oakland renaissance" story — these projects won't work because they promise to make Oakland a great new food city, or because they'll introduce some unprecedented fusion of flavors. They'll work because, like Linden Street, Chop Bar, and Grand Tavern, they're giving Oakland the fundamentals it needs (and deserves): namely, what it used to have — a sturdy waterfront spot, a downtown tavern, a worthy brewery/restaurant, and a community across venues. These guys get it.
"I've always told people we're not trying to reinvent anything," Lamoreaux said. "We're trying to remember. For us, it's been easy to embrace Oakland's amazing history, especially 1890 to 1920, looking at what worked in that timeframe and putting in a modern twist — what breweries meant to Oakland, why they were here, and who they served. All we have to do is remember and embrace it."
Pastena sounded a similar note. "It's not about trying to strike when the iron's hot," he said. "It's about great places for people in Oakland to enjoy. What we're about is Oakland, the people, what is already happening. We all have a passion for the city itself."
So call him crazy if you must. But make sure you call him — and the rest of The Oakland '09ers — crazy about Oakland, too.
Distant Local Love
The job Tom Henderson has given himself is jobs — for as many people in Oakland as possible.
Almost exactly a year ago he bought the city's most iconic edifice, The Tribune Tower, with that in mind. He plans to employ as many as 2,000 people at the CallSocket call center it houses.
"We will create the most new jobs in Oakland over the next few years," Henderson said.
His fierce belief in the East Bay is in line with the local loyalty of his 5 Terraces partners, Temoor Noor and Chris Pastena. That the new restaurants he's helping fund — Lungomare, Tribune Tavern, and an as-yet-unnamed project in Uptown — employ scores of people only sweetens the cannoli.
"He's creating three hundred or four hundred jobs in next couple months," Pastena said. "Beyond that, the sky's the limit. That's inspiring me, knowing that I'm part of that."
Ironically, though, in order to do well by his strict local spirit, Henderson, a third-generation local, has to deal with faraway forces — but maybe that's only appropriate for a man who made his mint importing things like tiger shrimp for Avalon Bay Foods Inc. A big chunk of his investment capital comes from a largely unknown Immigrant Investor Program known as EB-5. In it, wealthy prospective immigrants must soak $1 million or more in US communities with low employment rates to earn a US visa, which in turn can help qualify immigrants for a green card. In communities as hard up for jobs as Oakland, qualifying investments start lower, at $500,000.
Henderson's ample contacts in China from his importing past, paired with his extensive local network, acts as an ideal conduit to finding places that can benefit from those regulated investments best.
In other words, he's just the man for the job(s).