Fans of the pancakes and hash at Bette’s Oceanview Diner have reason to celebrate. The well-loved Fourth Street restaurant shuttered abruptly last month, after nearly 40 years in business serving up soft-scrambled eggs and savory scrapple. But by the end of February, the restaurant will reopen as Oceanview Diner with the same menu, same employees and a new worker/owner business model.
As you likely recall, on Jan. 16, Bette’s owner Manfred Kroening informed all his employees that the restaurant would close for good, effective immediately. His reasons for closing down were many: He’d intended to retire for years, the stresses of the pandemic grew too much to bear and the industry-wide struggle to staff all played a role. Patrons, many who’d regularly visited the restaurant for decades, grieved.
So did the workers, William Bishop told Nosh. He’s a restaurant industry veteran who first visited the diner “with my high school girlfriend when I was 15 — maybe in 1987 or 1988.” He’s made a career working at Bay Area restaurants like Rose Pistola, and was the diner’s financial manager when it closed.
A day later, Bishop said, “I was sleeping and woke up 3 a.m., upset about and missing customers and their dogs. We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”
“And I thought, what if we didn’t have to say goodbye? What if we just reopen the restaurant?”
The day after that, Bishop reached out to Denny Abrams, the building’s owner, a co-founder of Bette’s and the developer widely credited with making Berkeley’s Fourth Street the destination it is today.
The closure still fresh, Abrams had yet to seek a new tenant for the space. In fact, he told Nosh when the restaurant closed that “it would take a minor miracle” to find a new business fit for the thoughtfully selected formica-and-chrome interior, a period piece that manages not to feel too stagey.
But that’s exactly what’s happening. Bishop assembled a group of seven former Bette’s employees, including Bette’s To Go manager Rima Ransom and Darryl Kimble, the restaurant’s chef for nearly 37 years. That group of seven will be the restaurant’s workers, managers and co-owners, Bishop said, financially backed by Abrams and his development partner, Richard Millikan.
Once the restaurant is up and running, and “after we pay Denny off,” Bishop said, “we’re going to turn it into a co-op.” He envisions a fully worker-owned business similar to Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective and Arizmendi Bakery. It’s a model that Abrams believes is the wave of the future for “small, single-entity restaurants that don’t have the financial presence of these big restaurant groups. It might be the only way this business can survive.”
It’s also a plan that Kroening was excited about, Bishop and Abrams both said. According to Bishop, Kroening had been mulling a co-op model a few years ago, but the financial toll taken by the pandemic made that ownership change impossible. The financial support of Abrams and Millikan could make the process easier this time.
The other big change is the restaurant’s name — it will no longer be called “Bette’s,” but will simply be known as the Oceanview Diner. It’s a change that makes sense: Bette Kroening, who co-founded the restaurant with her husband, Abrams and Sue Conley, died in February 2017, nearly five years ago to the day. Keeping that name under Manfred’s ownership was natural, but with this new group of owners, “it wouldn’t be quite right,” Abrams said.
Everything else at the diner will remain the same, Bishop said. Kroening sold the new owners all of the Bette’s recipes, “so people will get the same pancakes as soon as we open,” Bishop said. Since many of the owners “have worked here for 20, 30, years,” Abrams said, “every detail of every dish lives in their heads already.”
Bishop and his colleagues expect to open the restaurant by the end of the month, as the only delay is a bureaucratic one. Since the restaurant closed just a few weeks ago, and the incoming team all have their diner routine down to a science, it’s just a matter of finalizing bank details here, and lining up permitting there.
“If we got our business license today,” Bishop said, “We’d be making pancakes for people tomorrow.” Given the speed at which state and local departments work, an opening at month’s end seems more likely.
But then again, maybe they will open sooner — after all, Abrams managed to get seven folks to come together, built out a new ownership plan, and got ready to open in just a few weeks. Did that mean he thinks he got his minor miracle, after all?
In response, Abrams just laughed. “No, I just got to work,” he said. “Nobody wanted to see it go, so everybody — and I mean everybody — just lined up to find a solution. And we got one.”