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Open Fourth Street

Pass the chardonnay! High-end hot tub business returns to where it all started — in Berkeley

Benny Ghelerter on opening day at Roberts Hot Tubs new headquarters. Credit: Joanne Furio

In 1976, Robert Ghelerter happened to be in the proverbial right place at the right time. California was in the middle of a hot tub craze and Ghelerter was a Berkeley hippie cabinetmaker with long hair, a motorcycle and a house in the Gilman District. Soon after agreeing to make someone a hot tub from a redwood barrel, he founded Roberts Hot Tubs, opening a store and adjacent manufacturing facility in Richmond. 

The company has since outgrown that store and facility, and on Monday, Robert’s Hot Tubs opened a new 1,650-square-foot store on Fourth Street.

A second-generation family business, Robert’s is proud of its start-to-finish business model that doesn’t end once the hot tub is sold. The company does maintenance and repairs, too.

“We manufacture, retail, install, service, everything, from the ground up,” said Robert’s son, Benny, who joined the company as general manager six years ago. “We sell our own models exclusively.”

Roberts Hot Tubs opened on Fourth Street on Aug. 1. Credit: Joanne Furio

Such a process allows the company to make each hot tub custom (its factory is now in Mexico), dictating quality control and sourcing of both equipment and materials. For example, the company only uses only 100% sustainable lumber it buys directly from mills, eliminating the middleman and saving on shipping costs. 

The new store displays seven out of its 15 models, which can be made from Western red or Alaskan yellow cedar, as well as the pricier teak. Prices start at around $12,000, with most customers spending around $20,000. 

“Everything for every customer is customized, at least a little bit,” Ghelerter said. “No two are ever identical.”

Though Ghelerter grew up in the family’s Gilman District home with a hot tub in the backyard, he’s now in a San Leandro apartment and doesn’t have space for one. As first-time father to a newborn son, Luca, he’s often sleep deprived and wishes he could relax in a tub of his own. “That would be nice,” he said.

Roberts Hot Tubs, 2050 Fourth St., Berkeley. Phone: 510-234-7920. Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest

In the Spotlight The Berkeley Hills 

Bedroom startup Swurv Ink prints on used T-shirts to reduce clothing waste

Torben Umeda in his former childhood bedroom, which now serves as Swurv Ink’s headquarters and workshop. Credit: Joanne Furio

Last year, Torben Umeda, a mechanical engineer in Berkeley, started talking to his artist-friend MytheBe in Barre, Vermont, about putting some of their art on used T-shirts and selling them.

“That seemed like a good-person thing to do,” said Umeda. 

The partners’ plans hit a snag, however, when they couldn’t find a company that would print on used T-shirts. That led them to the topic of fast fashion and clothing waste. The World Bank estimates that the average person today buys 60% more clothing than in 2000 and discards more as a result. Less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments and what isn’t ends up donated, recycled or in a landfill.

“How horrendous it was to discover how few truly sustainable options there are,” Umeda said.

Some of Swurv Ink’s repurposed t-shirts. Credit: Joanne Furio

A few months later, the co-founders bought a used clothing printer for $2,000, making use of Umeda’s mechanical abilities, and brought in as a co-owner Jaquelyn Rieke of Montpelier, Vermont, who has a background in entrepreneurial business.

Swurv Ink, an online, worker-owned printed T-shirt company, was born. The company operates out of Umeda’s former childhood bedroom in his family’s Berkeley Hills home, where he still lives, but uses a Richmond UPS mailbox address. Swurv Ink’s website became fully operational on July 21, so customers can now buy one of its 12 designs for $40 apiece. 

Swurv Ink’s mission, a press release states, is to “offer new original clothing without using virgin textiles, thereby enabling consumers the option to buy clothing without contributing to pollution, global warming, unethical work conditions, and the consolidation of wealth.”

Both Umeda and MytheBe create the designs, using type with sometimes provocative expressions (F*%K CLOTHING WASTE) that reflect its mission, along with some original images of skeletons and skulls by MytheBe. Finding appropriate used T-shirts is the hardest part of the process, Umeda said. 

To that end, the trio is setting up what Umeda calls “a gig economy” in which Swurv Ink pays $5 for each accepted T-shirt, which is washed twice before being sold. Umeda envisions a whole army of “thrifters” from around the country to source the tees. So far, they’ve gotten a lot of shirts from a thrift shop in Santa Rosa. Umeda pre-screens and then works closely with thrifters to find shirts that meet the company’s strict requirements. “We’re trying to expand that nationwide to make our supply chain robust and keep up with demand,” he said. 

In keeping with its socially motivated philosophy, Swurv Ink is putting out a “bid for proposals” in search of T-shirt artwork created by marginalized artists. Two designs from five artists will be chosen, with each artist receiving an $800 award.

“We’re looking for a compelling and meaningful expression of their experience,” Umeda said.

Swurv Ink, 2163 Meeker Ave., #134, Richmond, CA 94804. Phone: 510-500-5129. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

Coming soon Downtown Berkeley

One Medical, soon to be owned by Amazon, will open second Berkeley clinic this fall

Berkeley’s second One Medical location will open in Acheson Commons this fall. Credit: Tracey Taylor

On July 21 the internet buzzed with the news that retail behemoth Amazon had agreed to purchase the San Francisco-based One Medical, a national chain of primary care clinics, for $3.9 billion. One of those clinics is coming to Acheson Commons this fall, joining an existing One Medical clinic at 1801 Shattuck Ave.

The Acheson location at 2151 University Ave., a block from the UC Berkeley campus, seems poised to attract college students. The site most recently housed an Ace Hardware and is part of the historic Sills Building that has been rehabilitated and topped with 35 apartments on five stories. 

One Medical provides primary care services for an annual membership of $199. It opened its first office in San Francisco in 2007 and now operates 188 medical offices, mostly in large cities. Almost 40 of its medical offices are in the Bay Area, the largest region it serves. 

Not long after Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical was announced, activists and politicians spoke out with worries it would add to the tech giant’s monopoly power, along with concerns about patient privacy, especially in states where abortion is now illegal.  

“The function of a rational healthcare system is to provide quality care to all in a cost-effective way, not make billionaires like Jeff Bezos even richer,” Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter. “At a time of growing concentration of ownership, the Justice Department must deny Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical.”

“I am less than pleased to learn that Amazon is acquiring my doctor. Time to figure out how to delete my medical records,” Corey Quinn, the chief cloud economist at The Duckbill Group, which helps customers reduce their Amazon Web Services bills, wrote on Twitter.

In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon said that both it and One Medical “have stringent policies protecting customer privacy” under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.

Amazon has long been interested in health care. The company bought the online pharmacy PillPack for $750 million in 2018 and began offering the Amazon Care telemedicine program to employers last year. Last year it acquired Iora Health, which provides care for seniors enrolled in Medicare, for $2.1 billion. 

One Medical, 2145 University Ave., Berkeley. Connect via Facebook , Instagram and Twitter

In the Spotlight South Berkeley

More than 1,000 babies have been born at Pacifica Maternity, founded in 2012

Cindy Lara Haag in one of two birthing rooms at Pacifica Family Maternity Center. Courtesy: Pacifica Family Maternity Center

Cindy Lara Haag’s originally scheduled interview with Berkeleyside had to be rescheduled because her patient started to push. As a midwife, Haag’s used to being pulled away from just about everything. She has left parties, been woken in the middle of the night, run down from the top of Claremont Canyon and left the Thanksgiving dinner table to attend births.

“You always have to be ready for them,” she said. “Babies come when they want to come and people need support when they need support.”

Haag is director and co-founder of Pacifica Family Maternity Center, which celebrated its 1,000th birth last fall. This year the center marks its 10th anniversary. 

A midwife since 1990, Haag had been living in Berkeley and assisting in home births when she and another midwife, Sonja Cahoon, decided to open a birthing center. (Cahoon moved away after two years.) Having a physical home for the practice provided benefits for all.  

“I wanted to be able to serve a more diverse segment of the East Bay population,” Haag said. “Many people don’t choose home births due to finances or not finding a midwife who is similar to them. We wanted to accept all clients and clients who had Medi-Cal.” 

To address that need, in 2017, the center created the Pacifica Family Fund to increase access for women otherwise unable to give birth at the center. 

Having a physical home also helped create community. The center offers pre-natal and post-partum groups, as well as queer and trans partner groups. The building also acts as a space where the midwives themselves, and midwifery students, can gather and share experiences. 

In 10 years, the center has grown from having two midwives to five. Each month a dozen babies are born there in one of two birthing suites that resemble a comfy bedroom in a home, complete with colored linens. 

Midwives are licensed to handle many types of birthing emergencies, but in the case of the most serious complications, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center is a mere four blocks away. 

Midwifery is “a really nice blend between some of the technology mechanisms that are available in a hospital with more natural and alternative treatments that aren’t available in a hospital,” Haag said. 

Looking forward, Haag would like to train more midwives of color to serve their own communities. The babies of African American women in Berkeley are 2.5 times more likely to be low birth rate than white women’s babies and twice as likely to be born prematurely as babies born to white, Latino or Asian mothers, according to the city’s 2018 Health Status Report.

“One of the things I love about midwifery is we care for our clients on a medical, physical, mental and emotional level,” she said. “I hope that expands into other parts of medical care for everybody.” 

Pacifica Family Maternity Center , 3101 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday, 2-6 p.m. Phone: 510-280-5443. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

In Brief

Biz Buzz: Fragrance guru Mandy Aftel, Inlyte Energy, Bank of America, VinFast

  • Natural fragrance guru Mandy Aftel has updated her book Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. The new edition includes a revised composition chapter, more instructions on making perfume and updated recipes. The book comes in both paperback and Kindle versions and can be purchased on her website or Amazon. 
  • Inlyte Energy of Berkeley received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, one of 20 small businesses nationwide to receive monetary awards for “forward-thinking energy technology that would significantly reduce U.S. energy consumption,” according to a press release. Inlyte was chosen for its work on a battery for the electric grid that can be made from iron and salt, two extremely low-cost and abundant materials. Typically such batteries are made from Li-ion (lithium ion), also used in electric cars, that is not as environmentally friendly due to the high amounts of water needed to mine lithium.  
  • Bank of America patrons have again reached out to Berkeleyside over concerns about branch closings, this time at the bank’s 2347 Telegraph Ave. (at Durant Ave.) and 2546 San Pablo Ave. (at Parker St.) locations. Bank spokeswoman Betty Riess said such closures are temporary and due to staffing shortages. “When this happens, we work to reopen the center as soon as possible,” she said. She apologized for the inconvenience and referred customers to the bank’s locator link for the nearest open financial center and hours. 
  • At VinFast, the U.S. rollout is progressing, well, not so fast. The Vietnamese electric carmaker’s 3,200-square-foot showroom at 1733 Fourth St., one of three debut locations in California, was originally set to open on May 25. It ended up opening July 14. Customers can check out the two to five vehicles on display there, but won’t be able to test drive them (at another location) until this fall. The automaker plans more than 30 stores in the U.S., but not all of them will have models to test drive.  

This article has been corrected to note that Amazon has agreed to purchase One Medical but has not yet completed the deal to acquire the primary care clinic chain.

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...