Comal, the popular California-Oaxacan restaurant in downtown Berkeley that opened in 2012, is planning to open a second outpost in Oakland.
Comal co-owner Andrew Hoffman confirmed the news, first reported by the Chronicle, although he said they have not yet closed escrow on the space at 550 Grand Ave., just north of Lake Merritt, formerly home to the recently closed Italian restaurant Barlago.
“There’s not much of a plan yet,” Hoffman said Friday, “but it will be like Comal, and Comal will be in the name, though modified somehow.”
The move is the second expansion of the Comal brand. In April last year, Hoffman and Comal co-owner John Paluska opened Comal Next Door, adjacent to the original Comal at 2020 Shattuck Ave. The small counter-service spot serves burritos, bowls, tacos and tortas to the lunchtime crowd.
At 3,400 square feet, the new Oakland space is smaller than Comal — which tops out at over 9,000 sqaure feet when you include the outside patio and full-footprint basement — but considerably larger than the diminutive Comal Next Door.
Hoffman said he, Paluska and Comal head chef Matt Gandin, who will helm the new Oakland kitchen, will be overseeing the opening of the new restaurant, though he expects the planning application to Alameda County to take several months before they can start rehabbing work.
“There’s very little probability that we’ll be opening this year,” he said.
It’s not the first time Hoffman and Paluska, who worked as manager of the popular band Phish before going into the restaurant business, have launched a second full-service restaurant. In 2015, after a contentious application and outreach process, they opened The Advocate at 2635 Ashby Ave. in the Elmwood. The California-meets-Mediterranean restaurant, which they built out from scratch, cycled through three chefs and closed 14 months after opening. The pair said at the time they were not able to achieve the level of business necessary to make the place sustainable.
Asked what they had learned from that experience as they move forward with a new venture, Hoffman said that, though they try not to dwell on it, he and Paluska had “studied the failure deeply.”
“We are certainly going to have a different way to operate and already have different contingencies in place,” he said. “It doesn’t by any means protect us from failure at this point, though.”
The original Comal has never seemed to have problems attracting customers, however. Former Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer was a fan, and included it on his Top 100 restaurants list four years in a row. Bauer even described Comal as “exactly the type of place” he would have liked to open had he chosen to be a restaurateur. Comal has also earned plaudits for its attention to noise. The restaurant’s state-of-the-art sound system was created by Berkeley’s Meyer Sound.
Hoffman said the motivation behind scaling their business was twofold.
“A lot of it is personal motivation and ambition, though I’m a little wary saying that. But it’s a challenge, it’s fun, it puts meaning in my employment,” he said.
But he said the biggest reason is that they want to try to grow at a rate where they can be in a position to retain and promote their best employees.
“It’s not a cliché to say in this business that you can start as a dishwasher, and move up to become a line cook, then a sous chef, then a chef. We want more management positions to open up for our best chefs, servers and bartenders so their skills don’t go somewhere else — so we’re not trading them to the restaurant down the street.”
He said it’s one of Comal’s selling points when recruiting staff that, if that’s their ambition, they can get a foot in the door and work their way up. “Every manager in our company started as an hourly employee,” he said.