Amblin' Alameda: Growing Businesses

Amblin' Alameda: Growing Businesses

Morton Chalfy

When I first arrived in Alameda a couple of years ago I was introduced to a descriptive phrase applied to the local restaurant food as “Alamediocre.” The phrase drew laughter whenever it was trotted out though it seemed a little harsh to me. Alameda food was compared to San Francisco’s world-class offerings and found wanting. Over the ensuing months and years I’ve eaten in many restaurants on both sides of the Bay and would have to admit that the food on the San Francisco side is, on the whole, better.

Until recently. In the past year and a half we Alamedans have been treated to a rare and wonderful sight, of two restaurants opening to general acclaim and gaining adherents through word of mouth. What is interesting to me is that in the restaurant business everything is literally out in the open. People will always try a new offering and if it’s good they tell their friends. If they didn’t like it they will tell everyone. This means that the fate of the business is usually settled in the first month or so of existence.

When a restaurant (and its chefs) gain a good reputation and begin to serve more and more meals at every sitting the owners are faced with a predictable set of problems. In the two cases in Alameda both restaurants were opened more or less on a shoestring and in small spaces. When the seats fill up and the line is out the door, the owners/chefs begin to look around wildly for more room. Can the storage area be turned to seating? When does the upward curve of cash meet the level of cost of moving? How can I keep the waiting patrons happy while they wait? Can the quality be kept high under the pressure of rising demand?

These are the vital questions of the restaurateur and will be solved (or not) right in front of our eyes. It’s like a real-life reality show without the cameras. These are the questions in microcosm being faced by the global economy right now as well. How do we encourage enough new businesses to keep our economies humming? How do we grow the good ones without saddling them with too much debt? How do we improve the car while driving it down the road?

The two restaurants I’m speaking of are Yojimbo’s on Park Street and Café Soleil in the Frog and Fiddle on Webster Street. Two different cuisines, two hearty and happy receptions from the diners and two mini-dramas in motion. We diners now get to watch the two establishments as they navigate the rapids of growth and seek to evolve from current hits to eating establishments and local legends.

Much more interesting than anything that happens farther away and much tastier as well.