Summer Kitchen Bakeshop, the small, Cape Cod-inspired deli/café that has offered fresh, organic lunches and dinners in the Elmwood for ten years, will change hands in June. Husband-and-wife founders Paul Arenstam and Charlene Reis are handing over the reins to Ezra Proctor and Jason Goebl. The new owners have bought the business wholesale, from its name through its recipes, and say they aim to make the transition seamless.
“Continuity for our customers is key. All menu items and staff will remain the same,” Proctor told Berkeleyside this week. “We do intend to bring back baked goods and dessert items to the daily menu and we’re currently weighing other additions such as serving weekend brunch, but, at the end of the day, customers should not notice any change of ownership … that’s the objective.”
Arenstam and Reis said they are retiring to spend more time with their family while pursuing other interests, though they are unlikely to be food-related, and are excited to have sold the business to Proctor and Goebl.
“Ezra and Jason are experienced Bay Area restaurateurs whose prior experience and ability are a perfect fit for the continued success of Summer Kitchen,” Arenstam said.
Over the years, the small, white-tiled spot became a firm favorite for many locals, and earned a loyal following from some nationally known names too, including Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who could be depended on to come in and order the house salad (seasonal mixed greens and vegetables, formerly known as the Dailey Method salad) on game days. Kerr’s whole family patronized the place, too, as did his coaching colleagues Bruce Fraser, and players Andre Iguodala and Jonas Jerebko.
Summer Kitchen was the antithesis of a celebrity restaurant, however. Over ten years it barely made headlines in the food press, and its profile was always low-key. As Arenstam is the first to admit, they never got into promoting the place on social media, and certainly wouldn’t make a fuss if a famous person walked in.
“We were very happy to see Steve Kerr, but we weren’t taking selfies with him,” he said.
Instead, Summer Kitchen relied on regular customers — locals and weekend visitors to the neighborhood — who appreciated the high-quality fare on its short menu. This consisted of sandwiches, salads, thin-crust pizzas from a wood-fired oven, often prepared by Arenstam, and, on the dinner menu, dishes such as braised pork shoulder with creamy polenta and organic spaghetti and meatballs. Reis, whose credentials include being a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, oversaw a selection of sweet treats including cupcakes, fruit tatins and brownies.
The restaurant had its share of challenges, not least early on when it faced opposition from the Elmwood Business Association and local neighborhood group CENA over the issue of business quotas in the Elmwood. Arenstam and Reis wanted to operate a quick-service restaurant — and it rapidly became apparent there was a hunger for it — but initially, they were told they’d have to follow in the steps of a long-departed previous tenant and operate as a food market.
There was a public hearing and local fans, including UC Berkeley Prof. Robert Reich, turned out to defend the business. Another kerfuffle over whether Summer Kitchen could put out a few tables and chairs ensued, but was eventually settled.
There was also the time the couple dared to stop serving their hugely popular buttermilk fried chicken pieces on weekdays — an item that wasn’t even on the menu — only to cause an uproar among their clientele. On that point they stood firm. Arenstam, who worked at Rubicon and Hotel Vitale in San Francisco before Summer Kitchen, said they couldn’t guarantee the quality on weekdays.
What is perhaps less known is the fact the place almost failed before launch. Sitting at one of the handful of wooden tables at Summer Kitchen this week, the couple talked about their hair-raising genesis, just as the Great Recession hit in 2008.
It was Reis who had the inspiration for Summer Kitchen.
“I was teaching cooking and gardening at Washington Elementary school and realized the students’ parents needed help accessing healthy meals too,” she said. Ten years ago, she said, only high-end restaurants were offering the sort of dishes she wanted to offer.
“There really wasn’t an option if they were going to eat out that was inexpensive, organic, had good meats and was sustainable,” she said.
So, the idea of an unpretentious spot offering quality cooking primarily for take-out took shape. A meeting in Italy with Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, and the fact they were new parents at the time, also influenced their thinking, they said
In the spring of 2008, they leased the vacant space at 2944 College Ave. and threw themselves into the build-out, armed with a commitment letter from a bank for a small-business loan.
However, a few months later they got a call from the bank.
“The loan officer said the whole financial world had turned upside down. We’re not funding your loan, we’re not funding any loans in the country, and we don’t even know if we’ll be here as a bank much longer,” recalls Arenstam.
“We were basically destitute. We had put every penny we had into this venture. And we had nothing, no assets,” said Reis.
“We thought we were done,” said Arenstam.
Their landlord, John Gordon, stepped in with a collateral pledge which allowed them to find a loan from another bank. Reis’ mother put up her house for collateral and her grandmother made them a loan, and they were able to proceed, albeit it with a 10-month delay. At that point, said Reis, it was a case of, “We had so much to lose, we are not going down.”
The couple say they will miss the neighborhood and all their regulars, many of whose children they saw grow up. “We would see them as kids and then they’d end up working here when they were older,” said Arenstam. But they are looking forward to spending more time with their own two children and to traveling.
Proctor said he and Goebl, who have both worked in the food and beverage industry for many years, were looking for a business to buy in one of the smaller East Bay neighborhoods, as it’s a mid-point for Goebl who lives in East Bay and Proctor who is in the North Bay.
“We were very much looking for an existing operation identical to Summer Kitchen in that their focus is on fresh, organic food served in casual a setting with an emphasis on “gourmet takeaway,” he said. “We see the gourmet takeaway concept … as the new norm for casual restaurants. People are becoming busier and busier by the day, fueling a growing demand for takeout or delivered food they can enjoy at home, but food of high quality, not sacrificing convenience for health as is the case with your traditional fast-food model.”
Proctor said they decided not to start a new restaurant from scratch, “because we love what Paul has built.”
The pair have also fallen for the neighborhood.
“The Elmwood exemplifies the quaint, cozy, idyllic family-friendly neighborhood everyone wishes they could walk to from home,” he said.