What could be more benign: A Sunday in a slightly scruffy South Berkeley backyard, where kids play in a tree house, parents sip single-origin brews, and friends nosh on soft scrambled eggs and whipped cream drenched waffles while sitting on a hodgepodge assortment of outdoor furniture in a sun-drenched spot?
Welcome to the Rogue Cafe. But don't be fooled by the innocent setting. The unpermitted and thus illegal pop-up weekend brunch is a neighborhood nuisance, a health, sanitation, and safety hazard, and a parking nightmare, railed outraged readers in response to a story on the Rogue Café on Berkeleyside this week. (Though the nearby church seems to have cornered the market on the parking problem, on Sundays at least.) To date, nobody chiming in on the hyper-local site mentioned tripping hazards such as tricycles and toys, but that may simply reflect the fact -- suspects the café owner -- that many naysayers likely have not attended the pop-up in the first place.
Adding insult to potential injury, this caffeine-and-eggs scourge to civil society has set up shop in a corrugated metal shed in a residential neighborhood. A neighborhood mind, that might benefit from something positive like a pop-up venture, since, alas, it has seen its share of crime, drugs, and violence over the years -- though none, one hopes, by waffle iron or hot, caffeinated beverages with a pristine pedigree.
Talk about a tempest in a coffee cup. The largely vitriolic response that quickly spewed forth from a small but vocal core of Berkeleyans in response to Monday's story took pop-up owner Eric Thoreson by surprise. "Most of the criticism seems to have come from a few people who have never been to Rogue, don't know me, and don't know that many of the neighbors come for brunch," says Thoreson, a long-time barista at Pizzaiolo, who also runs his own roasting company, One Ninety Seven Coffee, and is one of the six founding members of the Alchemy Collective Cafe. "The aggressive negativity threw me. We're trying to do something community-minded but the response to that story was not warm or welcoming."
In comparison, Thoreson says, when the East Bay Express wrote a similarly positive review back in the brunch's early days in February, the only fallout was a doubling of customers at the next Saturday event. But the recent Berkeleyside post essentially shut down his operation in its current configuration. While the article itself did not initially address permits, readers pounced on the matter in the comments. The pop-up had operated quietly for six month in its present location, serving mostly friends, coworkers, and neighbors. But within hours of the Berkeleyside piece running -- in which several concerned citizens vowed to snitch on the renegade food venture -- Thoreson was slapped with a cease and desist order from the city's zoning department.
Sound familiar? Two years ago San Francisco's Underground Market went through a similar hassle with city officials over its popular artisan food and music events, and back in Berkeley the Multi Culti Grill and Birdland Jazz Club, a live music and BBQ venue in a residential garage, repeatedly ran into battles with that town's bureaucracy. Both events wound up navigating around permit problems by operating as a private club that accepted donations. Thoreson plans on following suit. Though, it must be said, eventually Birdland and the Underground Market were shuttered by city officials, in their early incarnations at least. The Underground Market has reopened in new form, check out details for the latest event this Saturday on the forageSF Underground Market page. (For now, people game enough to try brunch at Rogue Café need to email Thoreson and his partner in, ah, crime Ciara Sanker (see Rogue’s Facebook page for details).
So much for Berkeley's reputation for free speech, free expression, and freedom to experiment with both everything edible and radical ideas. Lost in the brouhaha brewing this week: Nobody has to patronize the place if they don't want to. And, of course, pop-up dinners, supper clubs, street carts, and food trucks -- operating in varying degrees of legality -- have become a fixture on the local food scene, fueled by the continued economic downturn, consumer demand, and the area's seemingly endless appetite for the next cool thing from the underground culinary set.
Rogue Café comes out of that culture and is an unapologetically low-rent operation. Think a waffle iron, coffee grinder, propane grill, cast-iron pans, a nitrous-powered handheld espresso machine, and a borrowed backyard and shed, courtesy of a friend from the restaurant world.
Thoreson keeps food on ice (there's no refrigeration) and has a large pot filled with hot water for frequent hand-washing, an industry obsession, says the 32-year-old, who has a food handlers card. No, the health department isn't looking over his shoulder while he cooks, but that's not how a permitted commercial kitchen is inspected either, adds Thoreson, who follows standard health and safety protocols gleaned from his 18 years as a restaurant industry employee.
Typically 20 to 40 people come to eat during the course of three hours on a Saturday or Sunday. Thoreson started serving food to make some money (at $2 for a cup of quality brew he was hardly raking in the cash). He makes his own spice-infused sausages, crusty bread, and sourdough waffles, rolled in sugar before cooking, which accounts for their trademark caramelization, texture, and taste.
Response to the underground café controversy among above-board barista businesses is mixed. "I really like Rogue Café. Eric makes and roasts delicious coffee," says Suzanne Drexhage, who is set to launch her own legit business, Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, in the former Café Fanny space in Berkeley. "It's in my neighborhood, which is great. And I do love the community vibe of the pop-up," adds Drexhage, who ran her own occasional pop-up dinners out of Local 123 café in west Berkeley.
She understands the need for health inspections and business permits. And yet: "I really wish places like Rogue could just work in their own way without hassles. The chance to try things out before putting tons of money into starting a business the official way is so useful, and the customers love it," says Drexhage, who admits to a soft spot for pop-ups. "And, for what it's worth, there are probably hundreds of officially sanctioned restaurants in Berkeley that aren't anywhere near as clean or responsibly run."
Other neighboring café owners are more conflicted. "As an avid supporter of community through food, coffee, and wine, I think what Rogue's doing is great -- cute garden setting, small footprint, real people serving real, honest food and drinks," says Frieda Hoffman, who co-owns Local 123, where her friend Ciara Sanker of Rogue also works.
But as a businesswoman, the rogue model gives her pause. Since she forks out for permits, property taxes, commercial rates for basic services like PG&E, insurance, and the like, she says she feels frustrated that places like Rogue circumvent such costs. "Why should they get a break? We have sweated long and hard to create a café business founded on the same principles and serve a similar market and we're only just reaching profitability after three years," adds Hoffman. Thoreson, who describes his weekend brunch event as "barely profitable," pays taxes and has a business license.
What's next for Rogue remains unclear at press time. "Rogue will happen this weekend, although the location is not yet solidified," Thoreson told BAB. In the interim, Thoreson is getting some unsolicited advice from a fellow renegade who found himself in a similar situation. After being hit with penalties for code violations on more than one occasion, Birdland's Mike Parayno, fed up with running afoul of city officials in Berkeley for his garage jam sessions and BBQ soirees, took off -- to the Philippines.
He relaunched as the Birdland Jazzista Social Club in Manila, in a South-East Asian culture more conducive to small businesses coexisting in residential neighborhoods. "Birdland has flown the coop," says Parayno. "But it's the same concept: Free food, bring your own booze, small donation for the musicians, and we party. People love it. And there's no Berkeley hater energy."
Thoreson may not have to go so far to keep slinging eggs and serving java. He hopes a short hop across the border back to Oakland -- where Rogue Café began -- may prove a more hospitable home to his budding backyard brunch business. Stay tuned.
Full disclosure: This reporter writes a food column for Berkeleyside but did not pen its pieces on Rogue Café.