Telegraph Avenue cafe Mokka set to close in June

Michael Wan/Staff

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The owners of coffee shop Mokka have decided to close their cafe’s doors after struggling to bring in substantial revenue, ending a 10-year run as a business familiar among locals of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue district.

Sitting on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Dowling Place, Mokka opened in 2006 after its owners, Michael and Susan Iida, realized that the area did not have many food options. Their coffee shop features a menu of grilled paninis, sub sandwiches and a selection of organic Equator coffees, and it is a popular spot for residents who work nearby or pass through the district on their way to work or school.

After the owners decided not to renew their lease that ends in June, the shop’s landlord placed a “For Lease” sign in front of the store.

The Iidas, who in June will have operated the cafe for 10 years, cited the recent increase in Berkeley’s minimum wage as the main factor in their decision to cease operations of their shop.

“Each time the minimum wage has gone up, our profit has gone down,” Michael Iida said.

Berkeley’s minimum wage has endured a steady increase in past years, the most recent hike being approved by City Council on Oct. 1, 2014, increasing the wage from $10 to $11 an hour by 2015 and to $12.53 by 2016.

In September, the city’s Commission on Labor argued for a wage of $19 an hour by 2020 to provide Berkeley employees with a sustainable standard of living. At a Nov. 10 meeting, City Council reached a compromise with the commission, voting to draft a wage-increase schedule for small businesses, eventually winding up at $15 by 2020.

“At the end of the day, the City Council found the middle-equilibrium spot,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore at the November meeting. “I think it’s a good policy.”

In response to the council’s plans to further increase the minimum wage, several Berkeley business owners — such as Alex Popov of Pappy’s and Jess McCarter of Easy Creole — expressed concern that revenue would falter as they attempted to keep up with the city’s rising minimum wage, while many residents were supportive of the city’s push for a living wage.

Among the Iidas’ attempts to adjust to the increased wage was an addition of new menu items, including a beer and wine list intended to raise customer traffic during late-afternoon hours. The coffee shop also raised its prices within the last year, resulting in decreased customer volume and revenue, according to Michael Iida.

Emily Thurston — a co-owner of the bike shop Lulu’s Cyclery, located right by Mokka — said they will miss having a convenient place nearby to get coffee. According to Thurston, the area has seen real estate prices rising concurrently with the increase in minimum wage.

“At the rent they’re paying, they can’t afford to pay minimum wage,” Thurston said.

Although a Starbucks opened two blocks from Mokka on Telegraph Avenue in 2014, Iida said the addition of the coffee chain resulted in dwindling drink sales but was not a deciding factor in Mokka’s closure.

Many customers were surprised to learn of Mokka’s closure. Zemeira Singer, a therapist who works in proximity to the coffee shop, said she has frequented Mokka, stopping by about twice a week for the past year and a half.

“The staff is really nice — you see the same people, it’s friendly, they remember my name when I come in,” Singer said. “I will definitely miss having a place nearby my work to get lunch and coffee or meet friends.  I’m not a fan of Starbucks, so I’ll probably have to drive to somewhere else.”

The Iidas plan to close the shop in June when their current lease ends. They have no plans to relocate or open another business.

Contact Cassandra Vogel at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cass_vogxz.