Homemade Café
2454 Sacramento St. (at Dwight Way), Berkeley

Every generation, the gap between the Bay Area’s haves and have nots seems to increase. It’s an inequality illustrated in the regions’ restaurants, where in every boom time, exclusionary and gentrifying dining takes center stage. The East Bay, however, is home to a number of chefs and restauranteurs who look at things differently. Take, for example, Collin Doran, chef-owner of comfort food favorite Homemade Café. Over the last few years, Doran has engaged in the nearly unheard of act offering free meals to anyone hungry. He recently made that kindness an official effort, branding it “Everybody Eats” and soliciting support from his restaurants most loyal diners. It’s been a hit.

“For anyone who asks, we gladly serve a free meal of eggs, potatoes and toast,” Doran said. Tickets for the meals are available on a bulletin board in the restaurant, and are handed to the server by anyone who needs tasty sustenance, a place to sit down and the company of fellow diners.

“With the elimination of the emergency food benefits for families ending and the rising cost of food, this program may be needed by more and more people,” Doran said. 

Collin Doran (right) hands an order to a waiting customer by the front entrance of the Homemade Cafe on August 3, 2020. Workers at Homemade took a 20% pay cut during the takeout-only days of the pandemic, one of the reasons Doran is hoping to move to a collective model of business. Photo: Pete Rosos

Paying customers help shoulder the cost by contributing $5 to the “Everyone Eats” program on their bill. Or not. No pressure.

“I find it upsetting that in a country as wealthy as ours, there are many people that go hungry — whether they’re homeless or not homeless, jobless or even working — it’s a widespread problem,” Doran said. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 34 million people (including 9 million children) across the U.S. are food insecure. This includes not only our increasing unhoused population, but also housed people who don’t make enough money to feed themselves, yet make too much to qualify for the CalFresh program (known colloquially as “food stamps”).

It’s a problem for more people than some realize: Minimum wage in Berkeley comes in at $16.99 per hour, but the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in town is a very conservative estimate of $2,395 as of this month. At a typical 40-hour work week, it’s a struggle for a minimum wage worker to afford shelter, let alone a modest meal out.

Doran, who was born and raised in Berkeley, says he sees people suffering from food insecurity right outside his Sacramento Street restaurant’s doors. “Originally, we would have the occasional person come in and panhandle but my strategy, instead of worry about whether or not they’re bothering customers and shoo them away, was to tell them, ‘hey, if you ever need a meal just ask me and I’ll feed you,’” he said.

Doran credits his upbringing for infusing him with a sense of duty to help others. His father was a left-wing activist who was once arrested at People’s Park during the free-speech demonstration in the 1960s, while his grandmother spent a stint in jail during McCarthyism’s anti-Communist era in the 1950s (she refused to sign a loyalty oath, landing her in the clink). But his biggest inspiration for feeding hungry folks stems from the Black Panther Party. In addition to fighting white supremacy and police brutality, the famed group focused on helping the Black community by providing free meals to kids with its Free Breakfast for Children Program. (The effort, which started 1969, was so successful that the Panthers set up similar kitchens in 19 cities across the country to serve full-breakfasts to school-aged children.)

Doran, who is white, tips his hat to the group’s efforts with a black panther logo on the “Everybody Eats” bulletin board. “I even have a black panther tattoo on my arm!” he revealed

The main sign for the Homamade Cafe has been hanging in place since the Cafe’s opening in 1979. Photo: Pete Rosos

Doran got his start at Homemade Café during his college years where, in between semesters at NYU in the 1980s, he worked washing dishes at the restaurant’s now-shuttered Emeryville location.

After developing a close relationship with the former owners over the years, he purchased the place in 2011. After closing briefly last year due to a plumbing problem, he reopened in July with a no-tipping model in place. The tipless business model, which Doran said was a way to “ensure that our employees are adequately and fairly paid,” has evolved since but remains in place, with an eye to equity across the business.

“We have one fee titled ‘Homemade’ fees which are 20% and include all gratuities and help insure living wages are paid to the employees,” Doran said.  The restaurant’s policy “is that the lowest paid employees will be paid at least 25% over the current minimum wage.” Meanwhile, the highest paid, including the owner, “will not be paid more than 2.5 times the lowest paid employee,” he said. These days, that means the starting wage at Homemade is $25/hour.

Like most restaurants around the globe, inflation and expenses incurred during the pandemic threatened to shutter the place. Launched last fall, a Go Fund Me effort helped keep the business afloat and his employees paid. That fundraiser might also pay the way for Homemade to join the ranks Berkeley’s other worker co-ops.

The idea to turn the business into a co-op came at the height of the pandemic-era lockdowns, when Homemade’s staff voluntarily took a 20% pay cut.

“I told them, well, since you guys are [taking a pay cut], I’m going to consider that as you buying into the restaurant,” Doran said. The goal, he said, is to turn Homemade into a collective within the next five years. 

Beneficence for the Berkeley community and workers aside, it’s also important to note that Homemade has a passionate fan base that views the restaurant as an institution. Patrons regularly email this publication, for example, simply to rave about Homemade’s blood orange caramel bread pudding, three cheese and fresh herb frittata, fried chicken and waffle or its monte cristo sandwich. In Doran’s mind, good food, good works and good relationships all go hand-in-hand.

“Food is love,” he said. “It’s where people come together, and that’s the part of the restaurant industry I love the most.”