After Nearly Shutting Down, Smoke Berkeley Finds Hope with Spats Partnership

From left, Spats general manager Craig McClain, Smoke Berkeley Chef and co-owner Tina Ferguson-Riffe with husband Jed Riffe and son Sean Hagler. (Chris Cox/KQED)

Barbeque joint Smoke Berkeley is now melding its delicious Texas-style smokes with the offerings of quirky neighborhood pub Spats. Thanks to a restaurant-bar partnership between the two, Smoke Berkeley reopened this September, following an uncertain few months where the restaurant was displaced from its previous location.

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The family-owned eatery became known for its Texas-style barbeque, which Chef Tina Ferguson-Riffe brought with her all the way to the East Bay. Her signature dry rubbed brisket and vinegar-based sauce draw on the variations of barbeque found throughout the state and have amassed a following for its authentic preparation. The restaurant is also one of the few local barbeque spots that smokes all of its meats in-house.

“When I grew up, barbeque was just a special thing that we loved,” said Ferguson-Riffe, who honed her culinary skills in smokehouses in Dallas, Texas and at the Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy in Paris. “I smoked just about anything.” Ferguson-Riffe’s cooking won awards back in the South and built Smoke Berkeley into a community staple — the restaurant even appeared on an episode of KQED’s Check, Please! Bay Area in 2014.

But after operating for almost 8 years out of their San Pablo space, Smoke Berkeley co-owners Ferguson-Riffe and husband Jed Riffe eventually found themselves in a tight spot: they would have to either relocate or close shop. The dilemma began back in late 2017 after the pair received a notice from their building’s management.

“We got a call from the owners saying they were going to tear us down to build what they said was a car wash,” recounted Jed Riffe. “Now they’re building a two-story office building, and we could’ve been on the first floor.”

That launched their years-long search for a new home, which the co-owners found to be an incredibly difficult process, especially for an establishment that uses special equipment like smokers. “Not only were my hands tied behind my back, but they were tied to my feet because of the smoke issue,” said general manager Sean Hagler referring to the City of Berkeley’s outdoor smoking regulations, which apply to restaurants as well.

Smoke Berkeley BBQ Plate
Smoke Berkeley BBQ Plate (Courtesy of Smoke Berkeley)

Smoke Berkeley would need to find a space that was not only affordable but could also manage to ventilate the large amount of fumes emitted from the restaurant’s many industrial smokers. Riffe said finding a suitable location was next to impossible and that the few buildings with potential would cost up to hundreds of thousands just to move in.

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That expensive reality left Smoke Berkeley with little option other than to ride out the rest of their lease, which was set to expire in June 2019. Ferguson-Riffe and co. had been able to push property management to allow them to operate until the end of July, which is their most successful month of the year due to appetites on Independence Day.

Sadly, an electrical issue hit the restaurant this summer, leaving them without power and putting a dent in their plans. Since Smoke was going to be shutting down regardless, fronting the high price of repairs to restore power in the short-term would be futile. Generators in the interim proved to be costly and inefficient, and the restaurant opted to close for an indefinite period.

“You know what we said, we’re done...having a restaurant in today’s market with meat costs going up three or four times in the past two to three years. We have to deal with rent, the power increases, all the complexities of EDD and tax ramifications. I mean all of this makes it so unreasonable to even have a restaurant,” said Hagler.

Just as a report from Berkeleyside came out chronicling Smoke Berkeley’s displacement, a call came in from Spats co-owner Mark Rhoades, a fan of theirs who had heard about their dilemma.

With a brick and mortar that is over a century old, the space that is now Spats has undergone multiple variations. It’s been a ticketing station for a train to North Berkeley, it was a restaurant called Oleg’s in the 1950s and in the late 70’s, it transitioned to become Spats. After closing for a few years, the historical bar reopened in 2015 with new management and a large kitchen ready for partnerships.

The kitchen had housed a few pop up vendors in the past but to little success. However, Smoke Berkeley, which had built a reputation in the city and grew its own clientele of regulars over the years, presented Spats with a new opportunity to create a long-standing partnership. And for Smoke, Spats’ kitchen, equipped with multiple cutting edge ventilation hoods, provided them the ideal space to continue smoking their delicious meats.

Smoke Berkeley officially reopened for business in late September and has been steadily recruiting new customers while spreading the word to reach former regulars who frequented their San Pablo location. Ferguson-Riffe has also worked to expand her menu by including vegetarian and vegan options with a BBQ tofu base.

Smoke Berkeley storefront.
Smoke Berkeley storefront. (Chris Cox/KQED)

Both establishments hope that their partnership can serve as hope for small businesses finding themselves hitting hard times. “My thought is their success is our success. The more people that are coming in and eating their food, the more people that are drinking my drinks. The more people that come in and drink my drinks, the more they’re going to order the food,” said Spats general manager Craig McClain.

For Ferguson-Riffe, Spats’ proximity to UC Berkeley and community outreach events is also an opportunity to connect with a new side of the city.

“This space has so many opportunities. Every night there’s something going on here that draws people in and makes them go ‘Oh, wait. Do I smell barbeque? Oh Smoke is here!’ It really has made a difference.”

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