Elmwood Cafe closes suddenly amid racial bias controversy

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Popular Berkeley brunch spot Elmwood Cafe closed suddenly Friday morning amid rising controversy regarding racial bias, as first reported by Berkeleyside.

Elmwood Cafe’s doors were locked and its windows were covered with brown paper as of about 2 a.m. Friday, according to Berkeleyside. The restaurant’s social media pages have also been taken down. The coffee shop was open for business Thursday, Berkeleyside stated.

A sign posted on the restaurant’s door reads: “Elmwood Cafe has closed. Our sincere gratitude to all in the community. Thank you for your support through the years.”

The closure comes amid renewed controversy regarding an incident of alleged racial profiling that occurred at the café. In January 2015, CNN host and comedian W. Kamau Bell was allegedly ordered to leave Elmwood Cafe in an incident Bell called “textbook racism” that involved an employee incorrectly accusing him of harassing a group of white women, which included Bell’s wife, outside the restaurant.

“I don’t think it was a race thing,” the employee allegedly told Bell’s wife.

About two months after the incident, Bell hosted a community forum, at which Elmwood Cafe owner Michael Pearce promised to work on a workplace implicit bias training program for retail and restaurant workers. According to Bell, however, the website on which the training was supposed to be posted no longer exists.

“Is there a better metaphor for white people being afraid to address racism than this?” Bell said in a tweet.

Bell told the San Francisco Chronicle that a recent incident of racial bias at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, in which two Black men were arrested after not ordering anything, reminded him of his own experience at Elmwood Cafe.

During the incident in Philadelphia, two Black men allegedly entered the store and sat down without ordering anything. One man asked an employee to use the restroom but was denied his request. The employee later called the police after the two men declined to leave the store.

“I was thinking, they can’t be here for us,” Donte Robinson, one of the two men who was arrested, said to CNN. “It didn’t really hit me what was going on, that it was real, till I was being double-locked with my hands behind my back.”

In an interview with CNN, the Robinson and Rashon Nelson, the other man who was arrested, said they declined to leave the store because they were waiting for a third person.

The incident has sparked national outrage, with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson calling it “reprehensible.”

A Starbucks spokeswoman confirmed Monday with the New York Times that the employee who called the police no longer works at the store. Starbucks also announced Tuesday that it would close more than 8,000 stores May 29 to conduct anti-bias training with about 175,000 employees.

The incident in Philadelphia spurred a wave of negative Yelp reviews calling Elmwood Cafe “racist” and “hypocritical,” which may have played a role in the cafe’s closing.

“You definitely don’t deserve my silence,” Bell said in a blog post. “And as much as it would be ‘easier’ to let it go, if I did that I wouldn’t be fulfilling my duties.”

Elmwood Cafe could not be reached for comment as of press time

Amber Tang is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.