Popular North Berkeley restaurant Nature’s Express closed this week unexpectedly, with promises to re-open soon, leaving many nearby residents wondering what had taken place.
According to management, the vegan and vegetarian eatery at 1823 Solano Ave. has faced “abysmal” financial struggles and had to make changes, including staff reductions, to survive.
But former employees — many of whom quit in solidarity after several other staffers were let go — have launched a campaign to raise money as they look for new jobs, and to raise alarm bells about what they say are the negative business practices of new management.
Sunday, Nature’s Express said on Twitter that “big things” were happening at the store, and that customers should prepare for an “exciting surprise.” Monday, a business rep wrote on Twitter that the shop was hiring two new staff members.
Wednesday, the company posted on Twitter that it would not open for business: “We are closed today, We’re sorry!” Later that day, they said they would also be closed Thursday, but planned to re-open Friday: “Same great food, and a better attitude coming soon! we are also dumping #sysco ! Food rules!”
Also Wednesday, the company posted a photograph on Twitter proclaiming that the store was under new management, promising “a fresh take on the best food ever, ever!”
The next day, the store tweeted that it was hoping to re-open Saturday, and asked its fans to “stay tuned.”
In the meantime, former employees of the store began their own outreach effort, via a crowd-funding website set up Wednesday. According to that site, created by James Granatowski, employees had been shocked to find out, without notice, that the business had been sold to a new owner.
Granatowski wrote that the new management team immediately fired the “head chef, who built the restaurant up from day one, and was the primary individual responsible for developing our delicious food.” A meeting held with management days later did not go well, he wrote, noting that the team planned to reduce wages for some employees. (Update, 7 p.m.: New store management disputes this allegation.)
“In solidarity, the majority of the current employees quit on ethical grounds, as continuing to work for the company would have been a moral compromise,” Granatowski wrote.
It’s not the first time Nature’s Express has faced trouble. The business had announced plans to close in December, citing financial problems.
Carl Myers, who opened the business on Solano Avenue in 2010, wrote on Facebook at that time that, despite his hopes, Nature’s Express had been “a business failure.” He took responsibility for the problems, adding that “the failure has been mine,” and apologized to his employees and customers.
A week later, Myers thrilled fans when he announced that the business had found a way to stay open thanks to “the heartfelt support and overwhelming response from our customers as well as the personal commitment of the employees at Nature’s Express.”
But clearly, it continued to be a difficult road.
A representative from the new management team, Josh Levine, said Friday that new owners bought Nature’s Express last weekend, and had struggled to get employees on board with their plans. He said Myers had reached out to him “as a last-ditch attempt to save the business.”
“We came in to attempt to implement some new procedures and met resistance with existing staff, which has made it impossible to have continuity,” he said. “And we’re sad to say that, until we are able to hire a sufficient number of staff and train them, the restaurant won’t be able to be open.”
The business previously had 22 employees. Levine said many of those positions are now vacant, and that he’s hoping to fill them quickly and re-open next week.
Levine said Nature’s Express, under past ownership, had been losing $10,000 to $28,000 each month. He said tough choices had to be made to keep the business going.
His plans for the restaurant include an expansion of the vegan bakery line, a full line of organic baked goods made at the Donut Farm in Oakland, more organic and local ingredients, and the removal of GMO items that had previously been used in food preparation.
Levine said the existing menu would stay the same for now, but that the new chef plans to rework it over time, and wants to add large salads to the mix.
Levine said he has been in conversation with some former employees, and felt that, as of Friday, some progress had been made.
“We’re seeing a turn-around,” he said. “On behalf of the staff that remains, we want to thank the customers for being patient.”
He said those who would like to stay informed about plans for Nature’s Express should tune in to the company Twitter feed.
Berkeleyside will continue to follow the story.
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