Sarah Dvorak, Oliver Dameron and Eric Miller weren’t thinking of Berkeley when they first began planning the expansion of Mission Cheese, their popular Valencia Street cheese and charcuterie bar. They expected to open their new spot — called Maker’s Common — somewhere in San Francisco.
But, as has been the case with other restaurants like Millennium, which relocated to Rockridge, and Pal’s Takeaway, which opened in Uptown Oakland, finding affordable space in San Francisco proved impossible. The three founders started looking further afield in the East Bay. And when they had a look at the large, light-filled space at 1954 University Ave., just east of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, in downtown Berkeley, they were sold.
With plenty of space to build out both a market and a restaurant, plus outdoor dining space and zoning permits already in place for beer and wine service to boot, the Rose Garden building was too good to pass up.
“When we first saw the space its layout just said ‘THIS IS IT!,’” wrote the founders on the company’s blog. “We all walked and and knew where the retail market would be and where the kitchen would go for the eatery. When we brought an architect in they said the exact same thing — we knew we were onto something.”
Plus, as Dameron says, “It’s a great time to come to Berkeley. There’s lots of change going on here.”
Maker’s Common will be a much different restaurant than either OctoberFeast or Bittersweet Café, both of which were operating out of the building until fall 2014. The core of the business will focus on domestic cheeses, wines and beer, as well as house-made charcuterie. Dameron and the rest of his team are “very focused on sustainability” and promoting great products from small producers.
Its menu will expand upon the offerings at Mission Cheese — cheese flights, charcuterie boards, simple sandwiches, pickles — with more substantial “family-style dinners” that are designed for sharing and will likely make use of off-cuts of meat. (Think: milk-braised lamb neck with celeriac purée, charred rainbow carrots and broccoli flowers, or green garlic and leek sausage with sauerkraut, spaetzle, Levain crumble, dandelion greens and alpine-style cheese.)
Like Mission Cheese, Maker’s Common will follow a counter-service model. Dameron calls the concept “fine casual.” “You order at the counter, but the food is really good,” he said. “This system allows us to operate efficiently and keep prices down … especially because our ingredients aren’t cheap. … It’s affordable luxury.”
Counter service will allow Maker’s Common to keep its staffing lean and efficient while still paying a fair wage. “We want to make this place as great of a place to work as it should be,” said Dameron. To that end, he and his partners have a profit-sharing program with their employees at Mission Cheese and keep their books open so any employee can see where the money is going. They’ll continue these practices in Berkeley.
Dameron hopes to hire local residents to work at Maker’s Common. In fact, the ability to hire within the neighborhood is a big bonus for the Berkeley move. “That’s one thing were really excited about in moving here; people who work for us should be able to afford to live around here,” he said.
Ultimately Dameron and his partners want to build restaurants that run counter to the idea that one has to save up for months before going out for a good meal. “We want our places to be affordable enough that you can feel comfortable coming in here every week,” he said.
And in case you’re not planning to dine in every week, there’s always the Maker’s Common market, something the team didn’t have room for at Mission Cheese. It’ll stock cheeses and charcuterie, of course, plus grab-and-go meals like salads. Eventually Dameron hopes that they’ll get an ABC license to sell beer and wine to-go in addition to their eat-in license. “The market will be set up so you could come here to organize the most amazing picnic,” he said.
Unlike other cheese shops like the Cheese Board or The Pasta Shop, Maker’s Common will sell only domestic products, much of which will come from California. “We get really geeky about our local producers,” said Dameron. “It’s very Portlandia-like.”
Dameron is proud that Maker’s Common will provide a sales place for small producers that can’t rely on larger retailers like Whole Foods to sell their cheese. All of these products will be be prominently displayed. “[Cheese and charcuterie] are really sexy things,” he said. “We want to feature them.”
Miller — the culinary director — will be heading up the kitchen, charcuterie production and general restaurant management. Dvorak will manage the market, the restaurant’s media and marketing presence, and continue to build relationships with cheese producers as she has done at Mission Cheese. Dameron is the “finance and operations person,” and he’s a certified cicerone (a sommelier for beer), so he will create the beer list. That beer list will likely consist of 8 to 10 taps of Californian beers, with a focus on the East Bay. Dameron insists that it’s best to keep the list relatively small. “You really don’t need more than one beer in each style,” he said.
As far as wine is concerned, Maker’s Common will sell exclusively by the glass. Dameron said they want to keep all the wines affordable and good for pairing with food. “All the wines will be very clean tasting, not too oaky or big,” he said. As with the beer list, most of the wines on offer will be from California. “The challenge for us is in finding great affordable wines that we can sell by the glass,” he said. “We can’t buy a $75 bottle and then charge $18 a glass. People don’t want to order that at a counter.”
The build-out of the space is largely being funded by a direct public offering (DPO); Maker’s Common has so far raised a little over $300,000 of its $600,000 goal with 112 investors on board. It has set the minimum investment at $1,000 and all investors earn 4% annual interest plus “additional perks.”
Dameron said they ultimately decided to go with a DPO for the restaurant’s financing because it felt like an extension of the principles of the good food movement in which he believes Maker’s Common is a part. “We’ve all been buying local for at least a decade now, so investing local is a natural next step,” he said. Plus, he said, local investment is a great way to put money into your community. “People want to invest in community, and [they want to] take money away from Wall Street where we don’t know what our money is doing. People really want to invest in local production and economic activity.”
The Maker’s Common team signed a ten-year lease on the new location; so they’re betting that their investment strategy works out and the remaining $300,000 comes in between now and their targeted opening date of February 2017. “We’ve raised [all of our funds] just on the idea of the place and on the fundraising model, so we should be able to get even more now that the space is tangible,” said Dameron. “At some point you just have to go for it. … Having a home is important to investors.”
Now that they have the keys to the space, they’re planning to hold fundraising events in Berkeley to drum up more interest from neighbors. So far, over half of the investors live in San Francisco; Dameron hopes to add many more Berkeley residents to that group.
“I was a little worried about choosing a space in Berkeley, but ultimately all of our investors want our business to succeed, so they seem happy about it,” he said.
And Dameron already feels like the DPO strategy has started to build community: “At Mission Cheese, we are already seeing groups of investors eating and talking together, and it’s awesome.”
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