Chef Keven Wilson.
Chef Keven Wilson worked for 20 years in fine dining around the Bay Area before deciding to open a modern American diner with his wife. Photo: Eric Wolfinger Photography

When Justyna and Keven Wilson first came up with the concept for their upcoming Uptown Oakland restaurant, Daughter’s Diner, they envisioned the classic family-friendly American diner, but with high-quality, well-plated versions of accessible comfort fare. The restaurant, named for the couple’s three-year-old daughter, Mila, would seat 30 diners, and be affordable enough for parents to take their kids out for meals, while also serving food discerning grown-ups would be excited to eat. The menu, with main dishes ranging in price between $9-$22, would offer dishes like Ham on the Run, an elevated breakfast sandwich made with artisan cured ham, melted cheddar and fresh arugula on a giant, housemade gougère as a bun.

The concept for Daughter’s Diner seemed relatively straightforward, especially given chef Keven’s 20 years of working in fine-dining kitchens (including RN74, Perbacco, Volta, Picco and Hotel San Francisco), and Justyna’s professional marketing background. But then the pandemic hit and, like with so many other businesses, everything came to a screeching halt. The Wilsons, who earlier this year had started a full demolition of the space at 326 23rd St. (formerly a Chinese restaurant called New Lakeside Café), began to worry that the diner might never get off the ground since renovations to the interior and exterior of the building were indefinitely delayed, consequently preventing a clear opening date.

By May, the Wilsons felt they’d already invested too much capital and time in their dream diner to call it quits. They decided to move forward in the midst of uncertainty. To accommodate shelter-in-place restrictions, they shifted their plans from a full-service eatery to a counter-service, to-go operation with a corner store thrown in. They aim to open Daughter’s Diner in about two months.

“We are in too deep to turn back now,” said chef Keven. “We always had a forward mindset as far as a to-go business, and we’ve leaned more into that concept realizing that not a ton of people are going to want to come and stay and be in a restaurant for a little while.”

The Wilsons are eager to settle in Uptown with the thought that when people are ready to eat at a restaurant again, “we will already be established in people’s minds as a place to get good food,” Keven said. Along with ready-to-eat prepared food, Daughter’s Diner will offer a selection of basic grocery needs, such as milk, eggs, bread and fruit and pre-made meals.

Alameda County plans to green-light outdoor dining starting June 19, and, although the Wilsons would love to serve diners al fresco when they open, they’ll likely start with takeout only. “I have reached out to the city for sidewalk seating but it is slow going, I am not sure if we will get clearance by opening,” Keven said.

Still, the Wilsons are optimistic.

“One of the other benefits we have going for us being a new business,” he said, “is all of our standards and procedures and dailies are still being developed. We have flexibility in changing and adapting them to how things are looking.”

While the Wilsons recognize the silver lining in their situation, other East Bay eateries find pivoting due to the pandemic more challenging.

Trapped in a closed museum

For Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker, co-owners and chefs of Babette, the café inside Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), getting their business back up and running was difficult given their unique relationship with their landlords, UC Berkeley. After the Cal campus shut down, Ellis and Hooker were essentially locked out of their kitchen.

“It was interesting,” Ellis recalled, “because we didn’t think we had an option to go back to our kitchen because the museum said we couldn’t.” With no clear timeline as to when they could get back in their café, Ellis and Hooker applied for government-backed small business loans and launched a GoFundMe, all while toying with the idea that they may need to run their café out of their house in El Cerrito.

Babette co-owners Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker.
Babette co-owners Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker. Photo: Aicha Nystrom

In early May, when UC Berkeley announced its plans for fall semester were still uncertain, and that the university might resume with remote instruction only, the café owners began to panic. Desperate to regain access to their kitchen, Ellis reached out to BAMPFA’s administrative director again, imploring that he allow Babette to reopen for business. The couple was met with a resounding “No.”

Frustrated, though undeterred, Ellis reached out directly to the university’s chancellor, Carol Christ, in a last-ditch effort.

“I thought I would write the chancellor partly because [UC Berkeley doesn’t] know what’s going on,” Ellis said. “I wrote a letter thinking it was a longshot.”

Two days later the Babette owners got an email from the administrative director stating that the university would permit the café to reopen for delivery.

Cautiously optimistic, the couple got back to work revamping Babette’s business model to offer delivery one day a week, with the idea of eventually expanding to at least two days a week. They launched with the new model in mid-May, and while they are happy to be cooking again, the chef-owners are having to adapt to new constraints and challenges, including limited access to the space while the museum remains closed.

“The most challenging part is that we don’t have a key to our own facility,” Ellis explained. “We have to push a button and ask to come in, and we get buzzed in by a member of security.”

“We are only going in a few days a week for a handful of hours,” Hooker added, “so there’s some constraint as far as what we can actually do.”

Community support and loans will sustain Babette for now, but the café’s longterm success is hampered by their circumstances.

“We got our big loans and we’ll weather the storm through the year,” Hooker said. “But we are still unsure where our income will come from.” This is especially true if the university continues to limit the pair’s time in the kitchen, and the longer the museum stays closed. UC Berkeley told the owners to check back at the end of July or early August for its decision on when they could reopen.

“We just don’t know if there is a future at Babette or not,” Ellis added. “It’s just so uncertain.”

A summer camp goes online

Uncertainty is a sentiment that is not just shared among the chefs and restaurant owners of the culinary world, but of cooking classes as well. Berkeley-based Bliss Belly Kitchen, which offers afterschool and summer camp programs applying the philosophy of yoga and meditation to cooking, almost shuttered entirely after COVID-19 arrived in the Bay Area.

“We shut [the program] down, and it felt like my whole business was taken away in a matter of days,” said Neelam Patil, chef, educator and CEO of Bliss Belly. “It was very traumatic for me.”

After experiencing what Patil called “a state of stasis” for two weeks, she went through an intense healing meditative practice before deciding to try to move classes completely online, a task that was particularly challenging considering Patil previously worked with her students in a very controlled kitchen environment.

Bliss Belly Kitchen founder Neelam Patil.
Bliss Belly Kitchen founder Neelam Patil. Photo: Courtesy of Neelam Patil

“I decided to do this for the kids,” she said of the decision to completely pivot her business model. “We decided to go online… and we just put it out there that we were doing an online cooking camp.”

On June 5, the city of Berkeley updated its health guideline to allow childcare services and camps to reopen, but Patil has decided to keep all Bliss Belly Kitchen programs online only.

“Cooking camps have too much shared equipment,” she explained.

Kids enrolled in Bliss Belly Kitchen’s full-day online summer sessions cook a three-course meal with ingredients from the farmers market, learn chocolate-making and get familiar with whole-grain baking. In order to adapt to her new virtual classroom, Patil redesigned her program and created a new set of values for her business centered around creativity, adaptability and flexibility.

“We said to parents and kids, ‘It’s OK for you to have different ingredients. We can still have fun and make something delicious and still be creative,’” she said, explaining that participating families can easily adapt recipes for whatever they have on hand.

Father and son participants in a Bliss Belly Kitchen virtual class.
Father and son participants in a Bliss Belly Kitchen virtual class. Photo: Bliss Belly Kitchen

Patil admits she was absolutely terrified to transition her program online, but, she said, it has turned out to be one of the best things for her students. Before the shelter-in-place order, Patil would prepare one large dish during the class that everyone would eat on the spot. Now, with kids at home, students are cooking food for members of their family, all of whom are also invited to participate in daily meditation and breathing exercises, which Patil leads before every class session. Many, if not all, of the parents are learning how to cook right alongside their child, Patil said.

“Yes, we lost our classroom,” Patil reflected, “but the kids got their homes and started cooking for their families. [A]s a teacher, someone who thrives on being with students, the tech is challenging, but that’s a small price to pay for the value the kids are getting.”

Only time will tell how these businesses will fare, but all three are searching for that “new normal” and how best to serve the community. The ultimate goal is to be a classic 24/7 sit-down diner, but for Daughter’s Diner, the new normal will look like opening for takeout and operating as a neighborhood bodega five days a week. For Babette, the new normal will be serving hungry students once more, whether inside the museum or perhaps, on the streets of Berkeley. And for Bliss Belly Kitchen, it’s the exciting opportunity to expand its virtual offerings to include all members of the family, practically anywhere in the world, through a mindful cooking practice.

“We aren’t ever going back to normal and we need to embrace that,” Patil said. “I want to have a greater impact and going online is going to allow for that and that’s huge. We can teach kids in Palo Alto, New York, Seattle and expand to other cities and countries… there is so much resonance with whoever participates, [and] instead of one kitchen, it’s five or ten. We are making a greater impact because it was just the kids in an isolated scenario and now it’s kids and families cooking, eating, meditating and sharing together.”

Daughter’s Diner aims to open by this fall at 326 23rd St., Oakland. Until BAMPFA reopens, Babette is open for delivery only; place orders online. Bliss Belly Kitchen‘s summer programs are online only. 

Lauren is a Bay Area freelance writer and editor specializing in all things lifestyle including travel, culture, fitness and food and drink. She has an incredible soft spot for cheese and is a firm believer...