It was Fleet Week in 2016 when Niko Thysell, a Livermore-based real estate developer, took his wife and young son to Treasure Island to watch the planes fly overhead. After some time on the island, they got hungry, and without a whole lot of choices, they found a bright pink shipping container housing Tammy’s Chicken in Waffles.
Thysell is a self-described foodie; he and his wife are the types to travel somewhere in particular just to try a certain dish. But they had heard neither of this business nor concept.
“There was a good line going; she was slammed,” said Thysell, who ordered a couple waffles for his family.
He was immediately taken with what he tasted; a waffle not with a piece of fried chicken resting on top, but one with pieces of chicken inside the waffle itself. “This was a crazy twist on something, this is brilliant,” he thought, as he bit into the concoction that was both savory and sweet, with the addition of maple syrup. “I somehow knew that my life would change from there.”
He added: “I love business, and I always knew I wanted to have a restaurant, and my wife wanted one too. We didn’t know what it was until we met Tammy.”
While the waffle in question changed Thysell’s life, in that it made him want to venture into opening a food business with the waffle-maker as his partner, one could argue that it was much more life-changing for the waffle maker, Tammy Powers.
That one waffle has taken the entrepreneur, who was once living on the streets of San Francisco to opening a brick-and-mortar waffle shop this month right near UC Berkeley.
At lunchtime on its third day in business, the line at Tammy’s Chicken in Waffles, which opened on June 18, was non-stop. People continued to trickle into the lower-level waffle shop in Sather Lane off of Bancroft.
“This place was vacant for two and a half years, the landlord couldn’t rent it,” said Powers. She noted that given its tiny size and subterranean location, only two non-food industry people could say yes to such a place.
“Food people all said ‘no way,’” she said.
When Powers and Thysell spoke to the landlord, though, and saw all the students walking by when they visited, it didn’t take much more than that to sell them on the place.
Like so many other things in Powers’s life, she attributes where she is now to a combination of hard work, determination and luck.
Powers, 52, is a transgender woman who made the calculation that undergoing gender transition was a higher priority with her limited income than having a place to sleep. Originally from New York, Powers was living in Colorado when she chose to move to San Francisco about ten years ago to transition. Powers spent much of her high school years in the South Bay, so she was familiar with the Bay Area, and decided she could be homeless here more easily than in other cities.
“Even though I had wanted to do something about my gender my whole life, I had the epiphany at 42,” she said, explaining that multiples of seven are auspicious ages for change. “I thought, ‘You gotta start now, or you’ll hate yourself for having started even later.’”
Looking for a place to sleep that wasn’t crowded with other people is what led Powers to eventually settle on Treasure Island. When she learned of the bike path that was being built on the new span of the Bay Bridge that led to Treasure Island, she realized that plenty of people — both locals and tourists alike — would end up on the island via bike. An avid cyclist for much of her adult life, Powers also knew how to fix them. In 2013, she opened A Tran’s Bay Bike Shop, using a $3000 settlement she received after being doored by a car while riding her bike.
“Any bike mechanic could have seen that this was needed here,” she said about her shop. Powers is a talker, and the narrative of her journey is often interrupted by the phrase “when I was a dude…” and philosophical tidbits, like “I had to suffer and be there at that moment to realize that the bike lane will change everything; even suffering and doing things wrong can be beneficial to you by helping you learn to move on.”
Over time, she was able to get more tools, inventory and double the size of her space. Then, she began to think about serving coffee. If she wanted a cup of coffee in the morning, surely others would, too.
“Of course I could have brought my Mr. Coffee into my shop,” she said, but I thought, ‘Why don’t I start a coffee cart, too?’”
Nevermind that getting power to it was a challenge, or that she had to get up at 3 a.m. sometimes, to set up before the first trickle of business. Soon she began offering muffins and bagels, too, but business was so minimal that the food often went bad before it sold, and the profit margins were tiny.
She had never worked in the food industry in her life, but she knew enough to realize she shouldn’t offer something that someone else was already offering.
“I don’t want to do anything that’s already being done, and I’m not trying to take anyone’s business,” she said. Waffles were a happy association from her childhood; it always seemed like a special breakfast when the waffle iron came out. “No one’s doing waffles. What the fuck, I’ll see what happens. I knew nothing about nothing… and then I thought, I’m going to put chicken in the waffle.”
She started selling waffles in August of 2014. In the beginning, business was slow. She’d get up while it was still dark to sell coffee, and maybe selling one to two waffles a day, but slowly it grew to eight or so waffles a day. When she wasn’t griddling, she was working on people’s bikes.
And occasionally, she’d sleep. “It was crazy hard,” she said. “It’s hard to remember how I did that. I was just working my butt off, but the harder I worked, the luckier I got. I figured if I kept doing something, it would work out.”
Fast forward to that day in 2016, when Thysell was one of Powers’s customers.
“Tammy likes to talk, and I loved who she was,” said Thysell. “As she’s making my waffle, she told me her story, and it left an impression on me. I thought ‘this woman is really amazing, I want to do something with her.’”
It’s easy to understand why Thysell wanted to go into business with Powers right away. A movie producer who visited Treasure Island also spent some time with Powers to make a documentary about her. It’s still in the works.
After he met Powers, Thysell came upon an article about her, and a few weeks later, returned to Treasure Island to find her.
Powers is the first to admit that it sounded a bit crazy at first, when Thysell asked her whether she had thought about taking her business to the next level.
Powers suggested they have lunch every week for awhile to get to know each other, without talking business at first, to see how they got along. By the time they decided to become partners two months later, “it felt like I was starting a business with a friend,” she said.
They make an unlikely pairing. She’s older than his mother, and a good bit taller than he is, too. Thysell had never met a trans person before. That didn’t matter.
He grew up in a very tolerant household, he said; his mother had always had a lot of gay friends. He experienced some bullying in high school, he said, adding, “I know what’s it like to feel on the outside. I don’t think of Tammy as transgender. Tammy’s has no label, Tammy is Tammy.”
Powers said that Thysell is an especially great business partner for her; he is a calming presence when she gets erratic sometimes, with the hormones she takes.
As for the menu, there are a few more options besides the chicken in waffles. There is a waffle with Oreo cookie crumbs, topped with whipped cream and Hershey’s syrup. There is a waffle with bacon and cheddar in addition to the chicken. There are some rotating waffles, such as one with peaches and whipped cream, and almond butter and strawberry jam.
The maple syrup in the double-nozzled plastic squeeze bottles is Log Cabin and the whipped cream comes from a can. The business works because it’s deceptively simple, said Powers.
There is no seating in the tiny space, just a counter along one wall. So far, Powers is doing all of the cooking herself but is looking for more employees — queer people and people of color are especially encouraged to apply (stop by with a resume, she said). She especially wants to employ other trans people.
“In other places, people are scared of transpeople,” said Powers, with Thysell agreeing. “We want people to know that this was started by a trans person.”