A closed sign was posted at the Elmwood Café early Friday morning. Image: Citizen reporter

Update, 2:26 p.m. Kamau Bell responds to the news about the Elmwood Café’s sudden closure with an op-ed published exclusively by Berkeleyside.

Original story: Berkeley’s Elmwood Café has closed abruptly, shutting down its social media pages and posting a brief note on the door.

As of about 2 a.m. Friday, the windows of the Elmwood neighborhood restaurant at 2900 College Ave. were covered with brown butcher paper, a Berkeleyside reader reported. A sign on the door proclaimed the business has closed for good: “Our sincere gratitude to all in the community,” the note reads. “Thank you for your support through the years.” The café had been open for business Thursday, the reader said.

But a recent wave of negative Yelp reviews accusing the business of racism may have contributed to the sudden closure. The reviews were prompted by news coverage this week drawing a parallel between a 2015 incident at the café and last week’s controversial Starbucks arrest of two black men in Philadelphia. Berkeleyside has asked the Elmwood’s owner for information, but failed to speak with him before publication time.

The café was thrust into the spotlight Monday when comedian W. Kamau Bell posted a blog on CNN to share thoughts about what he and his wife have said was racism at the Elmwood in 2015. Bell’s opinion piece, “I know what it’s like to get kicked out for being black,” was featured prominently online as Starbucks drew significant criticism for the arrest of two black men who sat down without ordering, then would not leave when police were called. The New York Times identified the men as real estate agents there for a meeting. Starbucks has apologized, called the incident “reprehensible,” and pledged to train staff to be more aware of racial bias. A video of the arrest on Twitter has been viewed more than 11 million times.

In his CNN piece, Bell, who is black, said the Starbucks incident brought up a lot of memories for him. In 2015, he had walked up to the café to speak with his wife, who is white, and her friends as they sat at a table outside. It was his birthday, and the couple had also eaten breakfast at the Elmwood that morning. But he had left to work on his computer at another coffee spot on College Avenue. When he got back to the Elmwood Café and approached his wife and her friends, he said a staff member gestured for him to leave, and thought he was a stranger trying to sell something. That person ultimately was fired. Bell asserted on his blog that he was discriminated against because he is black.

The San Francisco Chronicle and ABC 7 both featured Bell’s story this week. The Chronicle said “Starbucks’ racial apologies” had revived “bad memories” for Bell. He told ABC 7 the Elmwood had “let the story go,” and that “the owner of the Elmwood Café stopped answering my emails because once they got through the storm, they were able to sort of go back to business as usual.” Bell said the café never followed through with promises it had made to launch an ambitious implicit bias initiative for service-workers. The Chronicle said it was unable to reach Elmwood owner Michael Pearce to get his side of the story.

Some community members have said on social media this week that they were disappointed in the Elmwood, based on what Bell had written. One woman who shared the CNN blog said on Facebook on Tuesday: “Shame on the Elmwood Café (College Ave, Berkeley)!! I remember when this happened a few years ago, and I’m further appalled that NOTHING has been done to prevent it from happening again… and that they’re not kept their promises.”

Others said the business had done what it needed to do, and been a big supporter of community efforts over the years: “I do not sit outdoors when I am there because of the panhandling that happens every day. It’s unfortunate that W. Kamal [sic] Bell continues to slam them.”

There was no explanation for the Elmwood Café’s closure at the business early Friday morning. But its Facebook page “isn’t available right now,” according to a message reached by clicking the Facebook link on the company website. Its Instagram page is now set to private.

A red banner on the café’s Yelp page reads, “This business is being monitored by Yelp’s Support team for content related to media reports.” A large red pop-up box, entitled “Active Cleanup Alert,” notes that the Elmwood “recently made waves in the news, which often means that people come to this page to post their views on the news.”

Posts on the Elmwood Café’s Yelp are under review in the wake of this week’s media coverage. Image: Yelp
Posts on the Elmwood Café’s Yelp are under review in the wake of this week’s media coverage. Image: Yelp

As of Wednesday, the Yelp message said, reviews “may be removed as part of our cleanup process” to limit reviews “motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience.” But 15 mostly one-star reviews since Monday, criticizing the business in connection with Bell’s recent opinion piece and other media coverage, are still present.

“This place is miserable and racist. They are hypocritical. Why bother? There are so many other places to go,” one person wrote. On Friday, a woman who listed Los Angeles as her location wrote, “Get some diversity and race sensitivity training ASAP or close down shop! This is Berkeley.”

Another reviewer wrote, “Not gonna go there. I don’t care how … hip, cozy, whatever it seems to be. They didn’t do the diversity training that they said they would after they threw W. Kamau Bell out for talking to a white woman (his wife), thinking he was trying to sell her something.”

Wrote another, “Darker folks with Afros who go to this place with their ivory skinned wives and their little mixed baby should be able to eat all the overpriced food and drink all the overpriced coffee they want to. It’s time the owner sets the record straight. Apologize and do better. I’ll be back soon if you do. If you don’t I will be counting the days until you are no longer in business.”

Said another reviewer, who signed off “BLM” in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement: “I would have gone here with my family until I learned about you kicking out black folks like Starbucks does. How very Berkeley of you. Now I hope you go out of business. I urge everyone in the East Bay to boycott this café immediately.”

Bell’s 2015 blog about his experience at the café, called “Happy Birthday! Have some racism from Elmwood Café,” continues to be among the top Google search results for the business.

Despite the 2015 incident, the Elmwood Café has retained many devoted customers. Many fans have lauded the café’s program to support local and international nonprofits that are chosen by the community. The Elmwood’s Yelp page shows a four-star rating and nearly 700 reviews. It has a “Certificate of Excellence” from TripAdvisor, bestowed upon “attractions and restaurants that consistently earn great reviews from travelers,” according to that website. No reviews appear to have been written on that page since the Bell blog on CNN.

The café remained busy right up until its closure. Thursday around noon there was a line outside the door of people waiting to place their orders.

Marion Abbott, a co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s, the bookstore next door, said she saw a lot of people gathered for a meeting in the café Thursday evening after a bookstore event. “Private party or crisis powwow,” she said in an email.

Berkeleyside has asked the café for further information. This story will be updated if it is provided.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...