William (Bill) Briscoe has been in the food business for more than 30 years.
He started as a dishwasher, went on to work as a short-order cook in a steakhouse, then did stints in five-star restaurants around the Bay Area and attended culinary school. In 1989, he decided to open a wholesale bakery serving mostly restaurant clients.
The Bread Workshop, which moved to new digs on University Avenue in 2004, now includes a cafe that’s open for brunch, lunch and dinner. The cafe sells sandwiches, pastries and coffee drinks, along with rotisserie chicken, soups, salads, steaks and burgers. And bread, of course, which you’ll also find at Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market.
The Bread Workshop’s sandwiches are rated #2 in the Bay Area on Baylist, sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle and SF Gate. The cafe’s sandwiches also got a nod recently from a Berkeleyside reader commenting on our story on sandwiches around town.
Briscoe, who turns 50 next week, has four children and lives in central Berkeley.
1. Where do you eat out as a family?
We go to Picante. It’s a great place to take kids — everyone can find something they like to eat — and it’s a family-friendly environment. Plus, they serve Margaritas and it’s right next to the soccer fields where my son and I play.
2. What’s a challenging aspect of doing food business in Berkeley?
Running a place in a sustainable way. I combine my passion for food with my concern for the environment in my workplace. That means making decisions every day about what we buy and what we use. For instance, if we buy beans from China that are organic, what does that really mean? Who certifies organic food in China and are they legitimate? What is the carbon footprint of shipping beans versus having them trucked in or flown in from somewhere else? I need to investigate all these things before I’m comfortable selling organic beans from China in my cafe, which I do. It all takes time.
3. What’s missing in the local food scene?
There’s no restaurant in town with farm-to-table aspirations like Mudd’s in San Ramon, which served food — from its own gardens — for 27 years. It went out of business in 2008. I guess the cost of land in Berkeley could make that prohibitive. There’s also no place for people interested in food to get a sustainable culinary education. Some places teach this stuff on the edges, but I’m talking about an entire professional academy dedicated to sustainable culinary education.
4. Can you name a favorite vendor you work with?
Berkeley Youth Alternatives. They run a garden program for teens in the neighborhood. They’ll call us up and we’ll take whatever they’ve got. We get our flowers from them. Last week it was fava beans. I like it when our sustainable food comes directly from our own community.
5. What’s the most remarkable aspect of Berkeley’s food culture?
It draws people with talent and vision. Before Alice Waters, Berkeley food was in the dark ages; she showed us what food could be. Ann Cooper did a great job coming into the schools, seeing what needed to change, and doing it. She found a way to get good food to kids and make it work like a business. Then over at UC we have people like Ignacio Chapela, the environmental science professor who’s trying to safeguard seeds. He’s bringing our attention to things we need to be careful about in terms of how we produce food, as does, of course, Michael Pollan.
6. What’s great about the restaurants here?
It’s fairly eclectic — you can find a little bit of everything. Drive down Shattuck Avenue and at one end of the spectrum you have Chez Panisse and Cesar, which routinely make Bay Area best restaurant lists. As you get closer to downtown there’s Zatar, dishing up Mediterranean cuisine in a place that can fit about 15 people. Across the street there’s a Turkish-style store selling food for $5-$6 a plate, right next to a taco joint, then you hit the city center, where you’ll find a McDonald’s. You know a lot of people don’t realize we have a McDonald’s downtown. People choose to see what they want to see.
On University Avenue we have a plethora of mom-and-pop places dishing up decent ethnic eats or they wouldn’t survive. We’ve even got Temple Tiki Bar and Grill, which serves Hawaiian barbeque, and a Cheese Steak Shop.
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing. Henry is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. A contributor to the food policy blog Civil Eats, she muses about food, family and growing greens on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale.
If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to email@example.com or leave a comment here.
To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.
[Photo: Sarah Henry]