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Berkeley Cafe Accused of Racism in 2015 Suddenly Closes [Updated]

Elmwood Cafe asked comedian W. Kamau Bell to leave in an incident of “textbook racism”

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Corine C./Yelp

A popular Berkeley brunch restaurant, Elmwood Cafe, has suddenly closed after a renewed wave of criticism regarding a 2015 incident of alleged racism against comedian and CNN contributor W. Kamau Bell. A note posted to the restaurant’s door and sent to Berkelyside declared the cafe closed this morning. “Our sincere gratitude to all the community,” the note read. “Thank you for your support through the years.” The restaurant also made its social media accounts private.

The 2900 College Avenue business was at the epicenter of public outcry three years ago when Bell wrote that he was asked to leave the business in an incident of “textbook racism” after he arrived join his wife, who is white, for breakfast. Responding to a recent incident of racial bias at Starbucks in Philadelphia, Bell told the SF Chronicle that he was reminded of his own experience at Elmwood Cafe. And as Starbucks prepares to close its stores for a day of education on racial bias, the comedian expressed his skepticism.

“In the middle of the heat you say, ‘No, we’re going to change everything.’ When the pressure goes down, you go back to business as usual,” Bell told the paper.

TCA Turner Winter Press Tour 2017 Presentation Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Turner

In 2015, for example, Bell says Elmwood Cafe owner Michael Pearce promised a public conversation to discuss the incident — but never made good on that offer. “The Elmwood Cafe definitely went back to business as usual,” Bell said.

Elmwood Cafe first opened in 1921 as the Elmwood Soda Fountain, and it’s long been a favored destination for waffles and pancake breakfasts. But recalling the 2015 incident, Yelpers and social media users have thrust the cafe back into the harsh spotlight, flooding it with criticism.

“Not gonna go there,” one reviewer wrote on Yelp. “I don’t care how … hip, cozy, whatever it seems to be. They didn’t do the diversity training that they said they would after they threw W. Kamau Bell out for talking to a white woman (his wife), thinking he was trying to sell her something.”

Eater SF has reached out to Elmwood Cafe and W. Kamau Bell for comments on the sudden closure.

Update, 3:30 p.m.: In an op-ed for Berkeleyside, Bell responded to the closure by observing that, regardless of its motive, it represented a “missed opportunity.”

“Anybody who knows Berkeley’s Elmwood District, where the Elmwood Café is located, knows that businesses open and close on that stretch of College Avenue all the time,” he wrote.

“But even if it did close because of what happened over the last few days — and again, I do not believe that’s the case — so be it. The Elmwood Café had more than three years — since Jan. 26, 2015 to be exact — to productively respond after they told me to “Scram!” for the crime of “harassing” my wife, our baby, and my wife’s friends.”

Read all of Bell’s commentary here.

Update, 4:30 p.m.: An Elmwood Café manager tells Eater SF that the business is the process of being sold, and a new restaurant will replace it. Stay tuned for details. For now, neighbors sad to see their gathering place suddenly closed have posted farewell notes on the door.

Update, 7:30 p.m.: Elmwood Cafe’s owner has sent the below message:

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