Marilyn Rinzler is that rare bird in the Gourmet Ghetto: a food purveyor who shuns the label foodie and shies away from fancy food. She doesn’t even like to cook much.
Back in 1979, Rinzler got the idea to start a food business when she was a busy graduate student in social work and single mother of two then teenage boys. She was frustrated she couldn’t find a takeaway place in town to pick up a simple, healthy dinner — say, roast chicken and salad — on her way home.
So the unlikely edible entrepreneur set up her own shop, Poulet, on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley to provide just such a service. This was well before the term Gourmet Ghetto came into vogue. The deli, now in its 33rd year, is an anchor institution of that iconic food corridor, turning out made-from-scratch meals for those with who crave unfussy comfort food.
Rinzler, who lives near the Rose Garden, was so busy with her budding business that she never did practice as a social worker. But that training, as you might expect, has come in handy in dealing with both staff and customers.
Poulet stills serves up staples that have been on the menu since its early days — chicken in many varieties, a wide range of salads, along with sandwiches, soups, and desserts.
Originally conceived as a takaway spot, the storefront turned into a casual dining place when it expanded early on into the pharmacy next door which closed the day Poulet opened its doors.
Bruce Aidells, now known for his charcuterie and sausages, was Rinzler’s first chef and co-owner; other notable food folk who have run the kitchen include hospital food overhauler Alison Negrin, and Shuna fish Lydon, the voice behind the popular blog Eggbeater.
In keeping with Rinzler’s no-nonsense sensibility, the store has a simple aesthetic — the only nod to interior decorating the chicken-and-rooster themed knickknacks scattered throughout.
Rinzler doesn’t talk the typical lexicon of the Berkeley food community: the words seasonal, sustainable, and organic don’t tumble from her lips. When asked about the pedigree of her poultry she says only that they’re “natural” and come from a producer in Livermore whom she’s never visited.
Here’s where the passing of the torch to a new generation of food purveyors comes in. Local cooking professional Rebecca Stevens landed the job of Poulet’s latest chef six months ago. At 36, she’s the exact same age Rinzler, now 70 and toying with retirement, was when she opened her doors.
Stevens, a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, who has done stints in town at Venus, Café Gratitude, Phoenix Pastifico, Rick & Ann’s, and Local 123, is keen to curate the large deli menu to reflect a more modern palate. But given Poulet is a place with a loyal and aging clientele who aren’t big on change, she’s not interested in messing with success so much as updating what’s on offer — her hand is apparent in new items such as Kale Salad and Kabocha French Lentil Soup.
The author of the delightfully simple, self-published cookbook SoupLove and the forthcoming SandwichLove, Stevens hopes to attract a younger generation of eaters to the corner of Shattuck and Virginia with her updated menu items in the soup-salad-sandwich genre. With a pastry chef pedigree, she turns out some pretty delectable desserts, too, including an almond cake with raspberry ganache and chocolate frosting.
“My goal here is to simply freshen up the menu and refocus towards offering more seasonal items,” says Stevens. “Even though chicken is a big part of our business we’re essentially a vegetable-centric place that specializes in picnic-style food.”
Rinzler is open to change, just as long as her simple and successful formula: healthy, wholesome, home-style cooking is the cornerstone of the menu. Rinzler rattles off recollections from a bygone era, when there was a soda fountain next door in an old-fashioned pharmacy (it even sold beer) that housed a quaint relic of recent history known as a telephone booth.
There are regulars who have called Poulet their own for decades: a trio of runners, in their 80s and 90s, who still stop by for tea every day at a window seat. The retired doctor who showed up with his own tea bag, ordered only hot water, and sat in the same spot every day. The seniors who call their order in and pick up curbside with credit card in tow, to avoid the hassle of parking and getting out of the car. The day Rinzler talked with Berkeleyside she’d read an obituary for a long-time customer.
But there’s also a healthy smattering of young moms, university staff, friends meeting for work lunches — even a drug dealer who orders chicken drumsticks — who come through the deli’s doors on a frequent basis these days.
Over the course of three decades Rinzler has seen food fads come and go, watched children grow up and go on to have young ones of their own, and dealt with the ups and downs of running a food business in a town where, back in the day, North Berkeley was the only place to go for good food — long before eating enclaves popped up on College Avenue, 4th Street, and Solano Avenue.
She’s not sure what’s next, but is mulling over the idea of using her skill-set to ensure people in need get fed. “There is enough food and yet people are hungry and there’s so much waste in the food industry. I’d like to do something to address that imbalance,” she says.
As for new chef Stevens, she wants to build on a formula that has stood the test of time. “There’s good bones here,” she says. “I like working where the challenge is and the challenge for me here is drawing people 40 and under who may never have set foot inside Poulet.”
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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