Too easily, one could express dismay over Dona Savitsky’s decision last summer to shutter her beloved 20-year-old Temescal restaurant, Doña Tomás, in favor of a related quick-service concept, Doña, which opened in early December 2019 near the heavily trafficked corner of Piedmont and MacArthur in Oakland. Plaintive takes may be a matter of nostalgia for the “old Doña” like the old Andronico’s, pre-Safeway and what the transition could manifest: another nail in the coffin of ambitious, full-service establishments that can’t bear rising Bay Area operating costs. The current case for ordering at a table, not a register, looks especially dire considering that fast-casual concepts often up profit margins by cutting down on front-of-house staff.

But rote application of the sell-out trope would be inappropriate in Doña’s case, though financial factors no doubt played a role in Savitsky’s decision. To begin, longtime Doña Tomás fans may underestimate how difficult it was to run the legacy restaurant, despite its impassioned following. “Brunch was growing, but the nights were slowing down,” Savitsky confided between bites from a bowl she threw together before we spoke on a bluebird day in February. It felt natural to chat at Doña’s eye-catching bar, packed with shimmering tequila bottles that reflected rays from an unseasonably warm sun.

Dona Savitsky at Doña.
Dona Savitsky at Doña. Photo: Kristen Loken

“I decided to open for lunch because [Temescal] became an area where people were walking around during the day, and looking for places to eat,” Savitsky said. “But after two and a half years, lunch wasn’t busy enough.”

The slow midday service didn’t just fail to generate adequate profits, Savitsky said it didn’t bring in enough to pay the bills. Savitsky, who wasn’t paying herself a salary at Doña Tomás, attributed the flagging pace to a menu that she described as “very limited,” and our society’s obsession, generally speaking, with novelty: “You have to be the young, hot thing in restaurants too.”

Savitsky, who also owns Berkeley darling Tacubaya, knew she had to make change at Doña Tomás. “I was going to have to close because it wasn’t worth the amount of time and energy that I put in running that place,” she said. And while Savitsky wanted a fun, fast and lunch-forward concept, she didn’t think that a radical redesign could work in the same physical location. “I knew if I did it in there, that people would just be disappointed.”

That’s when the former Chow space became available. At first, Savitsky resisted moving to the massive, two-story complex that briefly housed the hybrid eatery, bakery and market. “I was like, ‘Oh, god, no way — this place is too big,’” she recalled. But she reached an agreement with the landlord to divide the property three ways, allowing Doña to occupy less square footage, and minimize its rent costs, while still capitalizing on the building’s sun-drenched downstairs. To be sure, Savitsky further brightened the former café space, redecorating the interior with a tropical palette of cream, yellow, blue and green.

And about that lunch crowd.

“Oh my god,” Savitsky responded, when asked if she’d noticed a material difference in midday traffic. “We’re doing three times, or more, the amount of sales at lunch.” She continued: “It is, hands down, the best move I’ve ever made, besides moving Tacubaya two doors down.”

As Savitsky estimated, part of the appeal is geographic, considering Doña’s proximity to Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center and the growing Uptown neighborhood. But it’s also a direct result of Savitsky’s introduction of a modular, mix-and-match menu that offers Doña Tomás flavors, but with a relaxed aesthetic that works all-day, a la Tacubaya. Think, specialties like mole-slathered enchiladas and chile relleno, but without the rice and beans; plus choose-your-protein bowls and burritos, tacos, entree-sized soups and salads, and a la carte sides.

“For a long time, I was above burritos,” said Savitsky, who noted that her culinary philosophy has loosened up as she’s gotten older (she opened Doña Tomás when she was 29-years old with former business partner, Thomas Schnetz). Now, Savitsky explained, she just wants her food to taste good, and for people to enjoy whether that’s on-the-go between hospital shifts or lingered over during a celebratory meal with family.

Notwithstanding persistent lunch throngs at the restaurant two months after its debut, Doña’s evolution to quick-service was hardly a means to get rich quick. “Our sales at lunch will be like $700 or $1,000, and we’re doing over $3,000 a day and that’s just enough to pay the bills, pay everyone, make it a place people want to work, keep up the quality,” said Savitsky. It is in this regard labor and community continuity that Doña defies analogies to a culturally vapid, labor-zapping iteration of the Souvla model.

Savitsky said that Doña Tomás’ entire kitchen team moved with her to Doña: “There’s a good core of staff that have been here for 15 and over years, and then our newer people have been here like seven years.” Doña’s line cooks, even without experience, start at $17 per hour, Savitsky said, a rate well above Oakland’s current minimum wage of $14.14.

All but a handful of front-of-house workers made the move too, and those who departed did so for unrelated career reasons, Savitsky said. One-time servers at Doña Tomás became cashiers or bartenders at Doña, many of whom are women. “I always find women managers, moms, because they can multitask — and they’re badasses,” said Savitsky. And because Doña is open more hours, more days of the week, Savitsky even brought on several new employees.

“It is, hands down, the best move I’ve ever made, besides moving Tacubaya two doors down.” — Dona Savitsky on opening Doña

With quick-service, there are immediate cost-savings on items that don’t have to be purchased, like linens, and a potential for greater long-term sales by increasing the number of guests who can be served and seated. Profits can then be redirected towards staff salaries, higher quality products, and items like glassware that seem instrumental but aren’t regularly replenished when restaurants are financially squeezed, as most are. Savitsky has also added more tables and bar seating to better accommodate the midday rush, and plans to install outdoor heaters so that guests can enjoy the patio even on colder days.

Naturally, there have been growing pains, stemming in part from the recent fanfare, the rapidfire pace of counter-service, and debuting during a notoriously busy time: the holiday season. “It has been a challenge for my kitchen, even my best crew, that could do the job at Doña Tomás with their eyes closed on a busy night.” She continued. “It’s harder; we have to get used to it again.” Even as a seasoned restaurateur, Savitsky didn’t anticipate the early crowds. “We’re busy like that over at Tacubaya, but that took years to build up,” adding, “I’m so happy, it’s just unexpected.”

The bar at Doña on Piedmont Avenue.
The bar at Doña on Piedmont Avenue. Photo: Sarah Han

Savitsky, who is still hands-on at both of her restaurants, said she’s focused now on bigger-picture business developments, like rolling out catering, brunch and an online ordering system at Doña that allows guests to pay in advance of picking up food, so that they don’t have to wait in line. She noted that fresh-baked sweet and savory scones are debuting in mid-February, with flavors like apple-pecan-cajeta (a version of dulce de leche made with goat milk), pending recipe development.

One trend that Doña won’t be buying into? Delivery. “I’m going to hold out as long as I can,” Savitsky said, noting that quality often suffers when food is passed through third-party carriers. In doing so, Savitsky joins a chorus of restaurateurs eschewing Postmates and DoorDash, which recently received flack for adding establishments to their platforms without permission; last week, those criticisms inspired proposed regulations to limit the practice of unauthorized “partnerships.” For Savitsky, saying no to delivery goes back to basics. “When people eat my food and they think it’s bad because it was cold, or it wasn’t made right, it kills me. I die. I’m too attached to it.”

It’s that care that forms a continuous thread for Savitsky, irrespective of how guests order, whether that’s at a table or at a counter.

“I just … I really like to cook, and I like it to be really good. So that’s kind of my thing, always.”

Kathryn Bowen is an Oakland-based writer with a background in law and food policy.