The sudden closure of Berkeley’s Elmwood Café on Friday left many community members with questions, but the owner tells Berkeleyside he hopes the shop, under different management, could still have a future in the city.
The closure came as allegations of racism tied to an incident at the café in 2015 made headlines again this week. Comedian W. Kamau Bell posted a blog Monday on CNN about the 2015 incident — where he said he experienced racism because he was black — in the midst of the national conversation about the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks.
Berkeleyside broke the news early Friday morning about the café’s closure. But, due to the hour, Berkeleyside was unable to reach Elmwood owner Michael Pearce for his comments about what had taken place. Pearce sent Berkeleyside a prepared statement Friday evening. He said there will be no interviews, however, “As the cafe is closed.”
Pearce did not explicitly say what led to the closure, or identify this week’s backlash as the reason. But his statement focused on the the 2015 incident with Bell, and provided no other explanation. He wrote that the Elmwood had made numerous efforts to rectify the 2015 situation, but “ultimately failed. And for that, we are deeply sorry.”
He said those efforts had “included hosting a community forum, development of an implicit bias employee training curriculum, and the hiring of an outside expert to train our employees.”
Pearce said he is now working with city of Berkeley staff “to find a suitable entity to donate the cafe to or to work out a way to give the cafe to the employees and turn it into a worker owned cooperative.”
Employees continue to be paid, he wrote, and the city “has expressed its commitment to the goal that no one will lose their job.”
Pearce said the decision to close the 8-year-old business came “After thoughtful consideration.”
He said the café’s mission “has always been about supporting our community and celebrating its diversity.” To that end, he wrote, the business has worked with 40 community partners on many charitable projects.
Those have included paying for weekly job-training classes for young adults at Waterside Workshops in West Berkeley, funding kitchen safety and sanitation certification for 15 trainees through The Bread Project, and donating 20,000 pounds of fresh produce to West Oakland through City Slicker Farms.
Three current programs are listed on the Elmwood’s website: the Hidden Genius Project to train and mentor black male youth in Oakland, the East Bay Children’s Book Project, and the Maryland-based foster care organization Comfort Cases. Pearce wrote that, despite the Elmwood’s closure, “current commitments we have made to community projects will be honored.”
As of Friday evening, the café’s website had been updated with a banner announcing the closure.
Friday morning, comedian Bell responded to news of the Elmwood’s closure with an opinion piece on Berkeleyside. He said he was skeptical that the closure might have been “brought about by a few days of inconvenient press and some social media comments that referenced the racism I experienced there.” But if that was the case, he wrote, “so be it.”
Bell also noted he had agreed to work with the café on the training it had planned — after Pearce announced that partnership, previously undiscussed, at a community forum. But Bell said he had later been dismayed when Pearce stopped responding to his emails and never followed up with him on those plans, he wrote.
“The Elmwood Café had a real opportunity to be a force for change in Berkeley and an example to the entire country. Many of the citizens of Berkeley are eager for these sorts of changes,” Bell wrote. “And all the Elmwood Café had to do was dig in and follow through — to attempt to live up to the ideals that they claimed they championed on their website, just one click away from all the photos of their social justice work.”
[This story was updated shortly after publication to include comments from W. Kamau Bell.]