Alternative business models offering new opportunities to Berkeley food sellers

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Simon Greenhill/Staff

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Nearly a month after the end of a 14-year run for Crepes A-Go-Go’s Telegraph Avenue location, the owner’s family has found new life for their company by transitioning into Berkeley’s catering market.

Former owner and founder Linda Gilman retired and closed the restaurant March 31, but her son Elias saw an opportunity to capitalize on the company’s longstanding reputation by changing their business model. Catering, he said, is in huge demand in the Bay Area.

“When I had a storefront, I got a ton of requests for catering … (and) the requests got so big that we just couldn’t handle it,” Linda Gilman said. “There’s a real demand for it.”

Without storefronts, some catering businesses rent commercial kitchen spaces. Ayu Chanialew, who has been renting out her food packaging company’s kitchen for five years, said caterers use her space in Oakland on an hourly or monthly basis.

Chanialew said each business is responsible for its own health permits. In Berkeley, the city does not differentiate between storefront food businesses and catering businesses — each is required to submit an application for a food facility permit, said Manuel Ramirez, the city’s manager of environmental health.

Crepes A-Go-Go is not the only Berkeley restaurant exploring alternatives to the typical storefront model.

While local business Monsieur Croissant, which specializes in vegan pastries, has used a wholesale model by selling exclusively to commercial businesses, its owners are moving toward opening a storefront.

After a few months of using a wholesale and catering model, Monsieur Croissant co-owners Julien Coiffier and Noe Tissot are preparing to open a pop-up stand in May within the vegan deli the Butcher’s Son on University Avenue. Someday, Coiffier said, they plan to open a storefront location selling their vegan pastries.

“We are still a young startup and we have to try different techniques, and
wholesale is a nice strategy for a startup in the Bay (Area),” said Coiffier, who began the business with Tissot after the two met as exchange students at UC Berkeley last fall.

Coiffier emphasized how catering and wholesale models could serve as a means to test their product on the market. There are fewer costs and more flexibility with increasing the size of the business, according to Elias Gilman.

“The nice thing about catering is it’s much easier to go from serving 100 clients a month to 200,” Elias Gilman said. “I can very much easily control the degree to which we scale up.”

But catering does not work out for every business. Slimane Djili, the owner of Crepes Ooh La La on University Avenue — which has not been affiliated with the Telegraph Avenue location for years — said his experience with catering became too difficult to manage, and he decided three years ago to devote his time only to his storefront.

Djili said the pace of managing a catering business, as well as heavy lifting and organizing of transportation, became too difficult with age. He said prefers the slower pace of a restaurant, where he sees foot traffic and student customers.

“Here is fun,” Djili said. “I’m an entertainer … and I get to make people happy.”

Senior staff writer Patricia Serpa contributed to this report.

Contact Lucas Lochner-Bravo at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @llochner_dc.