Poulet, Berkeley’s 39-year-old Gourmet Ghetto establishment serving made-from-scratch meals with a poultry proclivity, has been sold, but the new owners say they have no intention of tinkering with its successful formula. And its founder, Marilyn Rinzler, is not disappearing completely. “I’m going to be a Frequent Fryer,” she said, referring to the store’s promotion in which customers who buy ten chickens get one free.
Rinzler founded Poulet on Shattuck Avenue in 1979, as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Manager Jesse Savell, who worked his way up from bookkeeper over the last four years, and his brother, chef Casey Savell, bought the place from Rinzler in March.
“I hope it doesn’t change too much. Actually, I hope it doesn’t change at all,” said Renee Goldstein as she stood in line to purchase her favorite Poulet item, adobo chicken, at noon on a recent Tuesday. Needless to say, chicken is the star of the menu, which also includes roasted cauliflower and a quinoa, feta and kale salad.
“Marilyn has been around forever,” said Goldstein, who has been a regular at Poulet since it opened.” She and Bruce Aidells helped to shape the Gourmet Ghetto.”
Aidells, Rinzler’s business partner at the time Poulet opened, created the restaurant’s chicken recipes before going on to make a name for himself in the sausage business. Those same recipes are still in use at Poulet, where customers can get food to-go or eat in the dining room.
“There are so many changes going on. All the supermarkets here are chains now,” said Goldstein. Andronico’s, a family-owned supermarket on Shattuck Avenue at Cedar Street, gave way to a Safeway Community Market in 2017. And real old-timers recall the grocery store that preceded both markets in the same location — the late, lamented Berkeley Co-op.
“Old-timers need continuity. We don’t like to see our Berkeley disappear,” Goldstein said.
Not only old-timers, but a goodly number of young people were in evidence at Poulet recently. Two men in hard hats and orange vests, a young woman with her baby and a number of other people stood in line at the counter.
Many of the customers were greeted by name by lead front server Kimberly Lozada from behind the counter. Some of the lucky ones got a hug.
“So far, so good. The transition is going smoothly,” said Katie Hollenbaugh, another regular, as she took her place in line.
“You’ll love the soup today. It has whole mushrooms in it. You’re gonna die,” Lozada told Hollenbaugh.
“Kimberly is an institution,” Hollenbaugh, a Berkeley resident, said. “She knows I get soup every day.”
“So far, so good. The transition is going smoothly.”
— Katie Hollenbaugh
Myra Emanuel, who was waiting for the roasted cauliflower with Parmesan cheese, capers and spinach, said Poulet has catered her parties over the years. Like the others, Emanuel, an Albany resident, said she hopes the place won’t change.
As more people poured in, regulars hugged, laughed and chatted, some settling at tables in the dining room.
“We are a neighborhood meeting place. And that’s what I really wanted to create, other than to have good food to take home. A friendly place to have a bite to eat and see your friends,” said Rinzler in a phone interview. She said she plans to hang out at Poulet now that she can enjoy it as a customer.
“I had this idea that Berkeley needed a place that served healthy food for people to take home who didn’t have time to cook, such as myself,” said Rinzler, who was a single mother in 1979. Now her sons are grown, and she has a great-grandson, she said.
“The customers really dictated what they liked, and then we would do more of what people wanted, and that was a lot of vegetables and chicken,” Rinzler said.
She noted that many of the kitchen staff have been at Poulet for 20 years.
“It’s all about the people,” she said. “We needed some youthful enthusiasm. The new owners are the same age I was when I opened Poulet.”
Jesse Savell, one of the new owners, said, “We’re very excited at being able to take the place in our hands and keep things going. Our first priority is our repeat customers. We want to show we can do things just as they always have been done and carry on Poulet’s legacy of quality.”
Chef Casey’s last gig was as sous chef at Firefly, an award-winning restaurant in Panama City Beach, Fla. The venue has the distinction of having hosted President Barack Obama and his family in 2010.
While “we’ll never get rid of the chicken,” Casey said that over time he hopes to add some new dishes such as seafood. Firefly is in the Florida Panhandle and seafood plays a prominent role in its menu.
The chef and his brother made it clear that they intend for Poulet to retain its healthful focus and uniquely Berkeley spirit.
“When I opened Poulet, there was a KFC two blocks away, and my partner at the time (Aidells) said, ‘You’re going to put them out of business,’” Rinzler said.
“And we did.”