Chef Tina Ferguson-Riffe with husband Jed Riffe and son Sean Hagler at Smoke BBQ, which closed this month.
Chef Tina Ferguson-Riffe (middle) with husband Jed Riffe and son Sean Hagler at Smoke BBQ’s former location on San Pablo Avenue, which closed on June 24. Photo: Colleen Leary

This week, seven-year-old BBQ operation Smoke Berkeley signed a lease for a new home base. It will take over the kitchen at downtown Berkeley watering hole, Spats.

Smoke Berkeley closed its restaurant, a small building on the outer edge of a car wash lot at 2434 San Pablo Ave., on June 24. Over the years, Smoke became a favorite for locals seeking hearty, meaty plates of Texas-style BBQ, but the business was told last April that it would have to vacate the premises. The property owners notified Tina Ferguson-Riffe they intended to build a new car wash on the lot — the restaurant would be demolished for the new plans.

This June, Ferguson-Riffe told Nosh she hoped to remain in the space through July — at least through the Fourth of July holiday, Smoke’s busiest time — although the landlord had given her through the end of June, when Smoke’s lease expired. But less than two weeks later, Ferguson-Riffe contacted Nosh with the news she was pulling the plug early. A recent heatwave caused the restaurant’s electrical meter to malfunction. Fixing it would cost too much money; Ferguson-Riffe chose to walk away.

When Spats co-owner Mark Rhoades first heard Smoke Berkeley was losing its restaurant, he was in the middle of negotiating a deal with a food vendor from Oakland that was about to take over the kitchen at Spats, but he said he told his business partners, “If something happens with this group, I want to call Smoke, they’re losing their space.” Weeks later, when Smoke closed, the deal with the vendors fell through and Rhoades was on the phone with Ferguson-Riffe.

Mark Rhoades and Nathan George (right) co-owners of Spats. Photo: Katie Gladstein

Rhoades has been a fan of Smoke Berkeley for years, he said, noting the quality and care that chef Ferguson-Riffe puts into her food. When he, Spats co-owner Nathan George and operators Farm League Management, met with Ferguson-Riffe, her husband Jed Riffe and son Sean Hagler, for a second time, Rhoades wore his old Smoke Berkeley t-shirt, something which may have helped convince the Texas-born BBQ chef to make the deal. “Oh, you’re not bullshitting me,” he recalled she said.

Their conversations also led both businesses to realize they shared something else in common.

“Both of our groups are deadset on being a reflection of the community,” Rhoades said, speaking of their contributions and participation in social justice programs. Smoke Berkeley hires formerly incarcerated individuals and others who may have trouble getting hired, while Spats raises money for local community groups through its guest bartending events. According to Rhoades, Spats has raised more than $250,000 for various charities from these events.

But the deal was really sealed when Smoke Berkeley saw the kitchen at Spats. When Rhoades and George reopened the bar in 2015, they completely redid the kitchen, installing state-of-the-art equipment.

The bar at Spats in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Mark Rhoades

“We have these two vented hoods in the kitchen. Our kitchen is way over-vented for whatever we typically prepare there,” Rhoades said. (Previous food businesses that have worked out of Spats include Cracked and 310 Eatery.) “There are not many hoods like ours, maybe Comal, maybe Eureka. They’re very high-efficiency, high-quality hoods.”

When Ferguson-Riffe spoke with Nosh on Smoke’s last day of service, she said that smoke and odor were a concern for her, especially given KC BBQ’s ongoing dispute with residential neighbors over the matter. Although KC’s BBQ uses an outdoor smoker and Smoke uses an indoor smoker, Ferguson-Riffe wanted to be absolutely sure it would not be an issue. At Spats, she won’t have to worry, Rhoades said — just one of the kitchen’s hoods “will take the vents of all three of their smokers.”

Rhoades said Spats is proud of being a local business owner that can help another local business stay in Berkeley and he hopes, if all goes well, their partnership can be a model for other struggling businesses.

Spats’ state-of-the-art kitchen hoods can accommodate Smoke Berkeley’s three indoor smokers, where it prepares its Texas-style BBQ, like these ribs. Photo: Smoke Berkeley

“It’s difficult to run a restaurant. It’s impossible with minimum wage, food costs … it’s just expensive. That’s why this partnership where Smoke Berkeley takes over our kitchen, it’s huge. It’s huge from all sorts of perspectives. They’ve been here for almost eight years, and they can now stay in the community. They can focus on the art of their food. It can be a model: [A food business can] find a kitchen that’s being underutilized with a complementary service that’s already going on, like a bar,” Rhoades said.

Still, additional costs will be needed to make the move into Spats. On Monday, Ferguson-Riffe started a GoFundMe page, with a goal of raising $5,000, which she says is the amount needed to move and operate in the space.

They’ve been here for almost eight years, and they can now stay in the community. They can focus on the art of their food. — Mark Rhoades, Spats co-owner

Smoke Berkeley has also been working with the city of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, which assists displaced businesses with finding new locations. The partnership between Spats and Smoke Berkeley is being applauded by city officials.

“Our office is delighted to hear that Smoke Berkeley, a displaced Berkeley business, has found a new home and partnership with Spats, also locally owned, in our downtown. In these times of difficulty for small businesses, we are excited by such a local partnership and success story,” said a written statement from Berkeley Councilwoman Kate Harrison.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín also released a statement: “I am excited that Smoke Berkeley, a treasured local business will continue in operation. Thank you to Spats for stepping in and supporting our small locally owned businesses.”

The two businesses are working out logistics, including hours of service and a menu, but Rhoades said Smoke Berkeley plans to offer much of what they did at the San Pablo Avenue restaurant, along with some new non-BBQ items. What is known at this time is that Smoke will be open for lunch during the week, but other details are in discussion.

Locals gathered for a 2018 election watch party at Spats Berkeley. Smoke Berkeley aims to debut at a screening of the Democratic presidential debates, July 30-31, at the bar. Photo: Pete Rosos

Still, there is an opening date on the calendar. Rhoades said Smoke Berkeley will soft launch on July 30-31, for the second round of Democratic presidential debates. The Berkeley Democratic Club is hosting a debate viewing event at Spats, and if all goes as planned, Smoke will be working the kitchen.

Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...