‘Places like this have a soul’: Caffe Strada celebrates 30th anniversary

Marching band plays outside of a cafe on a sunny day.
Leonie Leonida /Staff

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Berkeley community members lined up on the corner of College Avenue and Bancroft Way starting as early as 5:45 a.m. Wednesday for free coffee drinks, T-shirts and prizes to celebrate Caffe Strada’s 30th anniversary.

UC Berkeley alumnus Daryl Ross opened the café with his father in 1989, four years after his graduation. Thirty years later, Ross continues to run Caffe Strada, in addition to Free Speech Movement Cafe, Cafe Think and Cafe Zeb on the UC Berkeley campus.

To celebrate 30 years in the business, Caffe Strada welcomed Cal Band for a midday performance and gifted its customers with free drinks, among other prizes.

“It’s a way of thanking the customers,” Ross said. “There’s always that fear that people will stop showing up, and they never have. … That’s why we exist — for the students and the faculty at Cal.”

Ross said it was “neat” to open the café across the street from where he and his two siblings went to school. Since opening, he has witnessed the addition of several other independent coffee shops and the environmental movement’s effect on them. In the last 30 years, Ross said Caffe Strada has switched from serving drinks in plastic foam to compostables and encourages reusable cups.

“Berkeley definitely has changed, but it’s also stayed the same in a lot of ways,” Ross said. “There’s something eternally youthful about being here because we have the turnover of students every four years, and that just keeps my energy up, and it keeps the dynamic of the place up.”

Some of these students include campus sophomores Claire Liu and Christine Nguyen, who waited in the café’s line Wednesday for their favorite drinks. Nguyen, a Strada regular, ordered an iced Americano, as she said she does nearly every morning on her way to the gym.

Liu and Nguyen said they enjoy the cafe’s reasonable prices and its employees’ kindness. Liu said because she lives in Downtown Berkeley, she doesn’t frequent the shop as much as Nguyen. She added, however, that she manages to get her taste of Strada’s coffee when she visits Cafe Think in the Haas School of Business.

Despite changes within the shop and the city in the past three decades, Ross said his and the shops’ core mission of customer service has largely stayed the same.

“I know a few alumni who still come here and have a lot of memories here just because they studied here a lot,” Nguyen said.

Ross added that over the last three decades, he has enjoyed hearing stories of first dates and proposals in his shops. In 1986, campus mathematics professor Ken Ribet and Harvard professor Barry Mazur proved what is now known as “Ribet’s theorem,” a statement associated with number theory while drinking cappuccinos on the patio of what is now Caffe Strada.

“This is the third place for people, between home and work, and that I think is a big motivation for me in all of my places,” Ross said. “It’s selling muffins and coffee, so it’s this very simple kind of thing, but I think places like this have a soul to them to some extent.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.