Back and Forth: A conversation with the founder of Smart Alec’s Intelligent Food

WeekenderJasmine
Maya Shen/Staff

 

When Smart Alec’s Intelligent Food announced that it was closing its doors at the end of October with a sign that read “Thank you Berkeley for the many good years. Regretfully, we are out of business,” the news came as a shock to many Berkeley students and residents. Smart Alec’s legacy of providing healthy food options on Telegraph Avenue is now over 20 years strong. The restaurant has seen countless cycles of university students, significant changes in retail culture and several new housing and businesses developments, yet managed to stay true to its mission through the years. Its goal was to serve “healthier alternatives to regular fast food” and to inform guests about making smarter decisions about the food they choose to consume. The restaurant was an integral part of the UC Berkeley area. Its reassuring presence on Telegraph and Durant avenues, as well as its avocado burgers and giant corn bread squares, will be missed. I sat down with Alex Popov, founder and former owner of Smart Alec’s and founder and current owner of Pappy’s Sports Bar & Grill, to talk about his experience running Smart Alec’s on Telegraph Avenue and what its recent closure meant to him.

DC: Can you talk a bit about why you decided to open Smart Alec’s and what vision you had for the restaurant?

Popov: I wanted to start a business. I got tired of the corporate world, I left the corporate world. I actually had small exporting business but I wanted to start a real business, and one that would make a difference in people’s lives. The other big industry that was ripe for opportunity for social activism was food and eating and nutrition, because vegetarianism was becoming very popular then. I was college educated then. I didn’t know anything about food and nutrition. I thought I was well-educated but you just aren’t taught about food and nutrition. You just assume the government is going to give you the right guidelines for whatever dietary things they advise, but a lot of times their motives might be skewed. It might be to promote the sale of agricultural products. It’s not necessarily about what’s good for your body personally, it’s just what’s good for the government. So we opened up Smart Alec’s, and we did a lot of information about health and nutrition. We opened up as a vegetarian restaurant. It was nice because felt like we became a part of the Berkeley uniqueness and eclectic make-up. You got your Rasputin Records, and your Amoeba Records and your Annapurna and we were very unique and very original. It was kind of a crazy thing. So in order to get that location, we had to do an amazing thing. At the time there was a moratorium on restaurants. You couldn’t open a new restaurant on Telegraph Avenue anywhere because there was a limit. And it used to be an old shoe store. We literally took over an old shoe store, but before we did that we convinced the city that they should give us a permit because we were such a good business. We were going to promote education and health and all of this other stuff and it was one of those things that took a long time to do, but at the end of the day it worked. And I think what was great is that the city of Berkeley saw that we were good for the community and unique for the community. So they accepted the idea.

DC: How has the restaurant changed over the past 20 years?

Popov: We used to have a full juice bar there and some other stuff. We basically adopted what a lot of the consumers were looking for. We did end up putting our chicken and lean beef on the menu, but that’s just because people were demanding it. But we always had information about nutritional trends on the tradeliners. But the tradeliners back then were about, you know, the “joy of soy,” and it would talk about the health benefits of soy food and stuff like that. And we had a lot of really good recipes that were very unique. We had a vegan corn chowder, vegan potato leek soup, tofu and avocado, and we have many of those items today at Pappy’s. We actually brought them over.

DC: How has the surrounding city and the surrounding businesses changed over time, and has that affected your business?

Popov: I think I’ve seen a dramatic change in retail from the standpoint of online sales. You can see it impact the record and books. That was the big draw on Telegraph Avenue. You had three or four record stores. You had Leopold’s, Tower Records, Rasputin’s, and Amoeba. So there were a lot of record stores back then. And then you had Cody’s, Moe’s and Shakespeare books. What people used to love to do is come to Telegraph Avenue, walk around the used book stores, walk around the used record stores, do all of these wonderful things and have a good time and stop and get something to eat and now that’s gone. There’s not many people that come to the avenue for books or records because everyone buys online. And so it’s been a little bit of a bummer that the avenue has been affected by such a big change in the way people buy things. Also recently, I think there’s been a more corporatization of the avenue, which is unfortunate. I used to do commercial real estate. So in San Francisco, they would have trends called the “formula retail” concept. So avenues would limit what they called “formula retail.” Starbucks is here — Starbucks has the same look and feel, it’s a formula, it’s the same thing. So they wouldn’t allow that. You couldn’t even open on some avenues if you had more than six locations. So the fact that on Telegraph Avenue, we have Subway, we have Chipotle, SF Soup Company is pretty corporate right now, Jamba Juice, Taco Bell is coming in. It’s kind of crazy how many big corporate names are coming in and it kind of sterilizes it a little bit and loses some uniqueness.

DC: So it wasn’t like that, say 20 years ago? No big corporations?

Popov: No. I think Noah’s on the Avenue was one of their first four or five stores. There was no Pete’s, not Starbucks. They were all mom and pop-owned, it seemed. And that’s even true for the landlords now. So the landlord that owned our building before was a family. Now it’s a San Francisco corporation.

 We literally took over an old shoe store, but before we did that we convinced the city that they should give us a permit because we were such a good business. We were going to promote education and health and all of this other stuff and it was one of those things that took a long time to do, but at the end of the day it worked.

DC: What struggles did you have running the business in this area and how did you overcome them?

Popov: One of the things that was kind of funny and unique about Telegraph Avenue was that you would try some new things and they might not be exactly how you wanted them, but the students kept on graduating so you’d always have fresh students. So you had many opportunities to create new customers because of the rotation of the graduating classes.

DC: What’s the best thing about running a restaurant business in Berkeley?

Popov: Well, I’m not sure about Berkeley in general, but on Telegraph Avenue I can tell you the best thing about running a restaurant next to the campus is that you have such a dynamic and interesting clientele that come from all over. Whether they’re foreign exchange students or people that are there for faculty reasons or whatever, you feel like you’re a part of something exciting. It’s not just like being on Pier 39 and seeing a tourist who’s on vacation. These are people who might be big movers and shakers in the future. And taking that to Pappy’s, Pappy’s is a Cal-themed sports bar, so we see a lot of amazing athletes at Cal. Olympians, people who are doing wonderful things now. So it’s really exciting to be a part of the Cal community more so than Berkeley. I associate more with Cal than Berkeley.

DC: What were the biggest reasons behind the closure?

Popov: I believe it was a combination of things. It was the increase in number of restaurants. And that’s another thing that I think was sort of a negative for the avenue, is that they now will allow restaurants to open up wherever they want whereas before there was a moratorium. Here’s an example: Center Street. From Shattuck (Avenue) to Oxford (Street), there are 22 retail stores. I know because I counted. There are 19 restaurants. It’s like a food court. That’s kind of ridiculous if you think about it, it’s one big food court. So I didn’t want Telegraph Avenue to open up into a food court. And it looks like that could happen now. You know where Berkeley Public House is? Next to Seniore’s pizza? That all used to be retail. Used to be a record store. And you know where The Melt is? That used to be Joy’s Clothing. I even wrote a letter to the city describing it. You know where Artichoke’s is? So you have Artichoke (Basille) Pizza, you have a dumpling place and you have a bakery. There used to be a stationary store, a bike rental shop and a cell phone store. And now it’s all restaurants. It’s that kind of thing that I think is a very big downer for the avenue. Is that it’s all going to turn into that. What it does, you’ll end up hurting. Like the Taco Bell that’s coming in? I think that’s going to hurt everyone on the avenue. Because they come in with their big corporate formula and they can underprice everybody. It’s fast food. I’m very surprised by that actually. So it was an increase in competition and an increase in rent. It’s kind of simple. It’s a very good location and some other people out there with a different approach will probably pay a lot more rent.

DC: What’s your opinion about all of the new developments around Berkeley?

Popov: I think the residential developments are great because Berkeley is a very unique town and one of the things I hate seeing every fall semester is students struggling to find housing. It shouldn’t be that hard. There should be a lot more housing in the area. And the density factor can go up. It seems like a lot of projects on Shattuck (Avenue) are leaning that way.

DC: Since the closing, what has been the overall response? Has it surprised you?

Popov: I think a lot of people are sad because it was an original Berkeley restaurant. As a matter of fact, yesterday, I was walking past Smart Alec’s as I left Pappy’s and there was this woman and she was with two younger kids. She said “Oh no, they’re out of business!” And she didn’t know who I was and I said, “Yeah they closed at the end of October. I actually started the business, but we actually have a lot of the food next door.” Which we do, we actually brought all the soups that they had, we have favorites like eggplant melt and things like that on the menu over there.  And so in many ways, Smart Alec’s lives on but just next door.

DC: What’s one thing about Smart Alec’s that you’re the proudest of?

Popov: That it was able to employ probably over 500 people over the course of its existence. And It was a successful business that paid its bills and paid its taxes and paid its employees good wages. And that it educated the community.

DC: What will you miss most about it?

Popov: It’s not that I’d miss it, it’s more like it’s bittersweet in that it was the first real business where I raised money and started from scratch. Just like as you graduate from college and you remember your collegiate days, there’s a time to move on and remember it fondly but you don’t ever want to stay for the rest of your life in your collegiate days. I loved my college days, but I’m really glad of where I am now. And that project got me to Pappy’s, which got me to here (we’re sitting in his new restaurant on Shattuck Avenue, set to open January 2017). And you can see how much bigger this is, and more complex. So it allowed me to go onto bigger and and more complex projects

DC: Lastly, what are your plans for the future in terms of new business ventures?

Popov: Well, here we are. This is called Cornerstone. it’s a beer garden restaurant and live music venue. And one of the great things about Pappy’s and this place is that we do a lot of events for Cal organizations. It’s really fun to be able to provide an environment for the Cal community to host events and things like that.

Contact Jasmine Tatah at [email protected]