2701 College Ave. (near Derby Street), Berkeley
Tentatively opening in April 2022
Since 2020, the once bustling cafe at 2701 College Ave. has been silent — Sack’s, an Elmwood coffee shop popular with students, locals and thespians from the nearby Berkeley Playhouse closed its doors in December 2020, capping off 11 years of laptop workers leaning on coffee-sack pillows. But there’s big news brewing for the spot: Souvenir Coffee Co. hopes to open its sixth location in the space next month, with all the coffee drinks its known for, breakfast and lunch sandwiches and (eventually) weekend brunch.
It’s been a busy couple years for Souvenir, which started with a Claremont Avenue cafe in 2017. Another cafe in Albany followed, and during the pandemic it grew even more, opening two more shops in San Francisco. A fifth location in Oakland’s Swan’s Market opened almost exactly a year ago.
That’s about the same time that Souvenir founder Jeremy Bled signed a lease on the old Sack’s space, he told Nosh. They’d hoped to open just a few months later, after a simple swap of the counter to make a roomier coffee bar.
Interdepartmental permitting problems delayed that process for much longer than he’d expected, Bled said. “When even the city’s own departments have a hard time talking to each other or understanding what they’re asking each other, how are businesses supposed to be more knowledgeable?” Bled asked, saying that Berkeley officials repeatedly insisted that they expand their construction scope into something far more ambitious than what they’d planned. If all goes well, and its final inspections pass, the business will now open in April.
“I’m a longtime Sack’s customer,” Bled (a Berkeley native) said, but “we’re not going to try to duplicate what they did.” Instead, Bled said, he’s planning what sounds a lot like the fourth wave coffee version of the 1990s-era corner java spot, with a panoply of coffee drinks, hot food prepared in-house, and beer and wine for the date night crowd. Think a date spot in the post-Starbucks era of Reality Bites, Singles or You’ve Got Mail, but this time, the coffee beans are house-roasted and brewed with care, and the food is made with quality ingredients, thoughtfully prepared.
It’s a far cry from the cleanly tiled, in-and-out third wave shops we’ve grown to expect in the Bay Area, but Bled says that that turn of the millennium style shop is due for a comeback. “This business constantly evolves,” Bled said, “and everything comes back around.” It’s a vibe he hopes to bring to Souvenir’s other locations, tailoring it to fit each neighborhood and space.
One way to build a more cohesive brand is by preparing more and more of your own ingredients and products. That hasn’t been an option in Souvenir’s other spots, though the company does roast its own beans at West Berkeley’s Bay Area Co-Roasters. The roomy kitchen at the Sack’s location can act as a commissary for the rest of the company. “We’re going to start with baked goods,” Bled said, “and we’ll be able to slice our own meats, make our own juice, and even make our own ice cream.” The College Avenue space will be ground zero for it all.
The College location will also be the spot Bled hopes Souvenir’s “work from the cafe” customers will migrate to. Right now, Bled said, the Claremont cafe is again packed with folks on laptops who linger at tables for long hours every day. “We’re not anti-laptop,” Bled said, “not at all. But we need people to be able to share that space.” With the large dining area at the Sack’s spot, that’s less of an issue, “so we’re hoping to move our laptop customers there, and make Claremont more of a place for people to hang out, eat food and rest.”
Though Bled has moved fast when it comes to expanding his business, he’s ready to be patient as they open this new spot. “We’re going to start slow,” he said, with the same breakfast and lunch sandwiches that some of its other locations recently started serving, “plus salads.” Then they’ll bring in a grab-and-go menu of things like parfaits and chia puddings, and after that they’ll start to roll out their own juices. “In a year,” Bled said, “we’ll have an extensive menu across all our shops.”
By then, he hopes the College location will also offer a full brunch menu on the weekends, and that its application for a beer and wine license will have been approved. “We’d like to have beer and wine at our other locations, too,” Bled said.
With so many businesses struggling with shortened hours and limited menus as the pandemic lingers on, it’s unusual to hear about a locally-owned business that’s growing as rapidly as Souvenir. When asked about that, Bled echoed the remarks he made to Nosh last year, when he said he wanted to “get as many people employed as possible.”
His plan now is to build the business into enough of a success that “we can keep people in area, and in the business” and “the only way to do that is to pay people more.” As the pandemic continued, Bled said he lost slews of employees “not to other cafes, but they’re moving out of the state, out of the country. They’re leaving the profession completely.” Ultimately, Bled said, he’d like to evolve Souvenir into a worker/owner model, “but the only way to do that is if our employees make enough that they can afford to own the business.”
It’s a complicated process, part math and margins, part riding customer trends, and part luck. But Bled seems confident that if he keeps pushing forward, he can make it happen. “This is a really hard time,” he acknowledged, “but the best decision we ever made was to focus on people. The only way to do a high-quality, upgraded version of what coffee shops did in the 1990s is with the right people. And once that hits, we can relax maybe a little, and everybody can finally have a life again.”