Nosh received a surprising email today from Sarah Dvorak, one of the co-owners of seven-month-old restaurant Maker’s Common in downtown Berkeley. Dvorak wrote, “It’s with a heavy and exhausted heart that I’m writing to inform you that Maker’s Common will be closing.” The last day of service will be Sunday, March 4.
Maker’s Common opened in July 2017, three years after co-owners Dvorak, Oliver Dameron and Eric Miller first came up with the idea to open a second, larger location for their successful San Francisco cheese shop and café, Mission Cheese. Although they originally thought they’d open the next iteration in San Francisco, they eventually set their gaze on Berkeley when they found the space at 1954 University Ave. They saw potential here, where they could open a restaurant as well as retail cheese shop and food market, where they planned to serve charcuterie and cheeses, as well as products from local and small domestic producers. It also helped that the space had a beautiful outdoor dining area and zoning permits already in place to serve beer and wine. Miller told Nosh back in July, “It fit the concept. It had a nook for the market, the light was good, the shape was right, the landlord was friendly.” And the rent was cheap — at least in comparison to prices across the bay.
They launched Maker’s Common through a direct public offering, becoming the first investment-crowdfunded restaurant in California. In their first two years of crowdfunding, they raised $532,000 of their $600,000 goal from 165 investors. They signed a ten-year lease on the location, believing they had the backing of the community. By the time they opened, things were looking up for the trio, who had high hopes for Berkeley.
But soon after opening, Dvorak, Miller and Dameron had trouble finding footing in their new digs. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
They created a tight menu of well-made dishes — many based on what was successful and popular at Mission Cheese. They offered a happy hour with food pairings and wine and beer at a discount and brunch on weekends. They held regular events, including educational classes on cheese, wine and beer and a monthly First Friday raclette party. They partnered with local theaters and organizations. They offered catering, delivery via Caviar and took part in Berkeley Restaurant Week and SF Beer Week.
“We really gave it everything we got. It was a struggle to make seven months, to be honest,” Dvorak told Nosh.
In fact, Dvorak admits that “alarm bells [had been] going off from the beginning,” starting from day one when the owners immediately sensed they didn’t “have that pop you get at a new opening.” They also were concerned when their revenue forecasting for Maker’s Common’s was totally off.
“You know at Mission Cheese, we were spot on with forecasting. We all thought our forecasting [for Maker’s Common] was conservative this time, and it was just absurd at what we had planned for,” said Dvorak.
But yet, they persisted, taking feedback from the community to heart and trying everything they could to make it work. That included gravitating to table service, even though the original business model and space was designed for counter service; adding more entree options; and offering menu items at lower price points. Dvorak said the offerings at cheese and wines at Mission Cheese are different than Maker’s Common, because generally the customers at Berkeley have asked for lower prices. Unfortunately, the margins are thin when ingredients are sourced domestically, often locally and seasonally.
“A chocolate bar from Berkeley is not going to cost the same as a chocolate bar produced by Hershey’s,” said Dvorak.
Dvorak doesn’t fault the community for the demise of Maker’s Common, though. Nor does she think the location’s to blame. She looks across the street at The Butcher’s Son, which is constantly busy and mentions the rose garden in the backyard (“There’s nothing like it!”). She still feels the spot has “tremendous opportunity.”
Instead, she wonders if maybe the concept — a casual, accessible cheese shop and restaurant that focuses on craft ingredients and products made in the U.S. — just didn’t click with Berkeley.
“When we opened, it was really hard to build a base level of knowledge that comes with the concept. I had taken it for granted after years in San Francisco. Knowing all the wines, all the cheeses, being able to speak to [customers] and have them believe …. that it’s not just fancy cheese. It’s something that was made 50 miles from here, it’s about milking the goats, the whole story of it all. It’s hard to explain that from the beginning. That was a challenge,” said Dvorak. “You want to buy something made from the soul, from people who do good things, but you need to feed your family along with all the other expenses [you] deal with.”
December was Maker’s Common’s strongest month — the retail market especially helped during the holiday season — but business still didn’t get to a level that was sustainable. Staffing costs were high — as was turnover. Dvorak said the struggle to staff a restaurant took a toll on their ability to focus on strategy because they were constantly filling in holes. The owners really felt they were in “dangerous territory” when they wondered if they’d be able to continue paying employees and vendors. Ultimately, that’s what led to the decision to end the business.
About a month ago, the co-owners decided to put Maker’s Common on the market. There’s been some interest so far, but “no sure bet at this moment,” said Dvorak. While they wait for the next tenant to take over, they’ll rent the space for private events and pop-ups, and figure out what’s next.
“It’s soul-crushing for sure,” said Dvorak. “On the bright side, hopefully I’ll have some real sleep in my near future.”
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