Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum — the coffee shop that claims to have served the world’s first latte, was at the heart of the city’s free-speech and beat movements, and at whose window table Dustin Hoffman famously sat for a scene in The Graduate — is up for lease (with a sales component).
Owner Craig Becker said he will maintain ownership of the building, but is divesting himself of the business to pursue other interests.
“I’ve been doing this for almost eight years, and there are other things that I’d like to do,” he said at the coffee shop on Tuesday. “We grew the business fast and we’ve reached sort of a plateau.”
Becker’s history with the establishment extends back to the 1980s, when he started frequenting the café as a customer. After some time, he noticed that the Med had fallen into “semi-decline.” The bathroom was in need of remodeling, dirty bags often littered the place overnight, and behavioral standards were rarely enforced, he said.
So Becker bought the building about ten years ago, and took over the business two years after that, in 2006. His ownership ushered in a wave of changes. He upgraded the coffee, renovated the bathrooms and spruced up the place with fresh paint and new chairs to promote a social atmosphere.
The café is open from 7am to midnight daily in a city where late night hours are rare — another reason for its appeal.
“The primary reason people come here was to meet their friends and talk to people,” Becker said.
At the same time, he didn’t want to deter customers who like to frequent a coffee shop to work on their laptops, so he outfitted the loft space with electrical outlets. The update added a modern touch to a place that is steeped in decades of history.
Caffe Med opened in 1956 as El Piccolo, which took its name from a café opened by the same person, Maxin Chitarin, in San Francisco. It was renamed Caffe Mediterraneum the next year when Chitarin handed the place over to her Italian baristas. Over the next five decades, the coffee shop changed hands several times, and played host to several notable customers, including members of the Black Panther movement, according to veteran customer Ted Friedman. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Rubin and Patty Hearst were all regulars, according to the café’s website.
And many, including Becker, believe that the world’s first latte was served to a Med customer in the 1950s.
Becker hopes the new owners will continue the café’s long history and take advantage of its renown.
“It’s a destination café and I hope they take advantage of that,” Becker. “We would like to keep the history and tradition of the place alive and build on that.”
Kevin Gordon of Gordon Commercial, who is handling the café’s change of hands, echoed Becker’s view.
“Caffe Med has a great history and is a cultural hot-spot. We’re sensitive to that and open to someone new keeping the café open.” The 3,200 sq ft coffee shop is being offered for lease with a purchase component, Gordon said. The lease rate is $3 per sq ft, and there’s a $115,000 ‘key money’ fee which covers elements like permits, ABC license and the goodwill the place has accrued since it’s been in business.
Becker also noted that the new owners would have the advantage of operating one of the rare quick-serve cafés in the area that can seat more than 49 people. According to Becker, the city has a limit on the number of seats a quick-serve café can have. Because the Med precedes this restriction, it can maintain its original seating capacity.
Becker’s decision to find new owners for Caffe Med comes amid a time of transition for Telegraph Avenue. The street, which figured so prominently in Berkeley’s modern history, has suffered from economic depression, crime, the presence of a persistent transient and homeless population, some of whom spill over from nearby People’s Park, as well as blight triggered by longstanding vacant lots. A major fire in November 2011 that brought down the Sequoia Building at the north-west corner of Telegraph and Haste only worsened the situation.
Local property owner Ken Sarachan recently listed his famous record store Rasputin, at 2401 Telegraph, as being for lease. The building that houses Shakespeare & Company, at 2485-2499 Telegraph at Dwight, is also for sale.
However, significant efforts are under way to revive the street, boosted by funding from the Mayor’s office, a new building is going up on the Sequoia site, and UC Berkeley’s rebuild of Sproul Plaza at its eastern end also promise to help revitalize the area.
Regardless of what the new owners decide to do with Caffe Med, Becker wants one thing to stay the same.
“One thing I would really hope is that they serve good coffee,” he said.
For information about the sale, contact Kevin Gordon at Gordon Commercial.
Drew Jaffe is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the East Bay and now attends Occidental College in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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