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."