Emmet Kauffman opened his first food business, the Backyard, this month. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
It’s not every day that an outdoor dining spot pops up in the back cuts of Richmond. But near the Chevron refinery and train yards, tucked between the marina’s port and Highway 580, you’ll find a new gathering place for food, drinks and live music: the Backyard.
Hidden in an unassuming lot behind the Whale Point Marine & Hardware store — where day laborers, fishermen and construction workers pull up for specialty work wear and supplies — the Backyard feels like a quirky oasis surrounded by industrial grit.
With lawn games, spacious outdoor seating, a music system that slaps, a large stage, palm trees and splashes of vibrant color that pop in contrast to the surrounding steel and chain-link fences, the venue promises to be a fun, family-friendly place to chill while grubbing on burgers, sandwiches and small shared bites. There’s a plan to project movies at night, too.
During the Backyard’s grand opening two weeks ago, Khruangbin’s psychedelic guitar riffs blared from surrounding speakers to a small crowd of patrons, who — like me — lined up outside of the business’s converted Airstream trailer to order lunch. Even on its first day, the spot was already serving as a restful gathering place for construction workers, young parents, elderly couples and anyone else who needed a break. As 16-wheelers rumbled along Cutting Boulevard, I soaked in a rare beam of sunshine and grubbed on “the Backyard Burger,” a classic cheeseburger with pickled onions and special house sauce served on an Acme bun.
It all felt appropriately Richmond — seeing cranes and shipping containers across the street while enjoying a no-frills burger that was cooked up in a food truck next to a gravelly lot.
Here’s what the painter-turned-backyard-chef has to say about Richmond’s latest spot.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ALAN CHAZARO: Congratulations on opening this month. Tell us about the Backyard and your vision for this new space.
EMMET KAUFFMAN: I want the Backyard to be a place for people to feel comfortable to come and not just have to buy a burger. If you need a place to hang out with your kids and let them run around and you want some small bites, you can do that.
The menu right now is simple, tight and delicious. I’m focusing on those hearty, number one items that people want. We have a solid breakfast menu in an industrial area. This is for your working-class people. You can pull up and get a breakfast sandwich with cheddar cheese, fluffy egg and sausage or bacon. You can add avocado and other toppings. We also have a breakfast box which is a deconstructed breakfast sandwich, with more eggs and a hash brown.
For lunch, we currently have two solid burgers: a Santa Fe burger and the Backyard burger. We have a BLT and a grilled cheese, too. We’re using Acme Bread from Berkeley, which is delicious. We also serve tartines [the restaurant's take on a bruschetta], and we’re getting ready to expand that soon. Currently we have the margherita tartine. That’s my speciality: a bruschetta with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, garlic, basil, balsamic. It’s like a fresh pizza. We also have avocado [toast] — micro greens, sauteed tomatoes, honey drizzle. We offer charcuterie boards, too — we call it a “cutting board,” since we’re on Cutting Blvd. in Richmond — but only on the weekends. It serves about four — a full spread with brie, salami, nuts, fruits. Something fun to share.
My dream restaurant would be like something in Barcelona. A full spread, tapas style. Fancy breads, tartines. That’s the direction we’re going in, and we’re just settling into our capacity.
When did your interest in food making begin?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I was never the best at school. My mom tried getting me in programs that I could click with. She knew I had a passion for cooking. She got me into a program in Marin. They did an event at the Fillmore Jazz Festival when I was 17. I worked with Chef David Lawrence at 1300 on Fillmore, and he spotted me out of everyone and told me to come back the next day. He had me make sweet potato gnocchi. I was a senior in high school, and he hired me to work on the line on the weekends without prior experience. That was it for me. I was there for three and a half years. In between that, my dad had his house remodeled, and the paint contractor was looking for workers. I got a job at a painting company when I was 19 and was working both jobs, 80- to 90-hour weeks.
How did your work as a painter complement your growth in the food industry?
I went into painting full time and started managing a paint company [in San Francisco] at 19. I had a ton of experience, for about three years. Then I stopped painting and worked at Alexander’s Steakhouse, which had a Michelin star at the time. I got experience there, then joined the California National Guard. I focused on my military training. When I was 21, I started my own painting company [Kman’s Kreations] and was in the National Guard for six years. I kept running my paint company for 10 years. COVID shook that up, and I wanted to rethink things.
I was priced out of San Francisco. A few years ago I moved to Richmond and saw an opportunity. The military allowed me to move to Richmond with the VA Loan. I fell in love here and took a leap by going back to my roots and passion with cooking. I’ve had over 10 years of experience running a business, building employees, working with clients and customers. This is my new passion project at 31. I still have time to fail (laughs). Food is the best kind of building. You can build it and then eat it and taste it. You can tweak it. It’s a form of art. It reminds me of painting in a way.
Do you still operate your painting business in San Francisco?
COVID hit, and everyone went their own ways. I continued working on my own for the past two years. I got a text the other day to come paint a house (laughs). I actually have a product I invented called Sprayer Saver. It’s a simple product that my brother and I started. It holds your bucket at an angle so you can get all that paint when you’re using a paint sprayer.
Is that how you ended up behind the Whale Point Marine & Hardware store?
Definitely. I’ve spent a lot of money at that hardware store (laughs). When I had the idea of creating [the Backyard], I was looking at other areas, but this area in Richmond was perfect. There is a lot getting built and bought very quickly here. I had a relationship with Jay [owner of Whale Point & Marine Hardware] because of my experience in painting. They also sell my product [Sprayer Saver]. He shot my idea down at first, but then a few days later he changed his mind and was down. That was it. I signed a contract and built it out as quickly as possible. It took me five months.
I did everything by myself: the fence, the mural, digging the palm trees, putting up the pergola and the foundation, moving everything, setting up the food trailers. It’s a true passion project. My dad would come out and water the palm trees when I was out of town. My brother helped put the fence together. My family is a big support. They’re all in San Francisco still but helped me get here.
What other events and surprises are you planning for the Backyard?
In a week or two we’d like to book some live musicians. We’re figuring out a movie aspect as well. There are old, funky movies from the ’40s and ’50s that are in the public domain that we could project once it gets dark. The overall feel that I really want our neighbors to get is this being their own backyard. This is a regular spot to just hang out. No need to spend a ton of money when you go out. We’ll have bands, beer and wine soon. We want this to be a space that can be rented for events, with custom menus, too. We can create a special menu for you. Stuff like that.
What do you like about living in Richmond compared to San Francisco? How did you end up on this side of the Bay Bridge?
This is a better way to see the City. I didn’t have a ton of money, but enough to get a starter home here. I was driving around the Bay looking at homes, and I liked Richmond the most, especially down by the Marina. The opportunity presented itself, and I’m glad I ended up here. It reminds me of the Dogpatch [in San Francisco]. About 20 years ago [in what’s now Dogpatch], you could climb into abandoned industrial buildings. I always had a fondness for that. But now it’s like a hotspot in the city. That’s crazy to me. That’s how I see Richmond as a whole, from the industrial side. It’s like the last holdout in the Bay Area. There’s an opportunity for growth. That whole ferry area is growing. I have a fondness for what Frisco used to be, and this reminds me of that.
What motivates you to run a food business in the Bay Area, despite the high costs?
Seven generations in California. Our great-great-grandfather was the 13th senator of California. My mom was born in San Francisco. This runs in my blood. My blood runs gold.
The Backyard is located at 205 Cutting Blvd., Richmond, behind Whale Point Marine & Hardware. It’s open Mon. through Thu. 8 a.m.–4 p.m. and Fri. through Sun. 8 a.m.–6 p.m.
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